The fractured diplomacy of countering terrorism - Hindustan Times

The fractured diplomacy of countering terrorism

Feb 01, 2022 03:21 PM IST

What are the gains that diplomacy on counter-terrorism, resolutions of the UN Security Council and other such multilateral instruments bring to the table?

August 2021 changed many a narrative when it comes to the entire ideation behind the United States (US)’s “war on terror” — a counterterrorism blueprint devised by Washington DC that the world rallied behind in the aftermath of 9/11. Fast-forward 20 years later, and the Taliban walked back into Kabul, and today, one way or another, the world is divided on how to deal with the militant group regaining control over Afghanistan. 

Today, one way or another, the world is divided on how to deal with the Taliban regaining control over Afghanistan.(AFP)
Today, one way or another, the world is divided on how to deal with the Taliban regaining control over Afghanistan.(AFP)

In January, India assumed the chair of the Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee of the United Nations (UN). The seat gives India a great podium to highlight the cross-border terrorism it has faced over the decades, much of which has been highlighted repeatedly as a state policy act of Pakistan. However, these views have mostly fallen on deaf years as Islamabad itself became a critical “ally” for the US in its war against al-Qaeda. This, even though al-Qaeda chief and architect of 9/11, Osama Bin Laden, was found and killed by the US in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a stone’s throw away from the country’s military establishment. 

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Many geopolitical flashpoints, where terror and militant groups have found their feet ultimately struggle from one common denominator, contrarian political and geopolitical policies, whether from a regional or international point of view. All these crisis points have found debate in multilateral forums such as the UN, however, instances of diplomatic breakthroughs to either end or come to a viable solution to such conflicts have been far and few. For example, the UN itself has been unable to settle upon a definition of “terrorism” that is agreed upon by all member states. That famous saying that often echoes around UN headquarters, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, remains a stumbling block when it comes to any encompassing “global” pushback against the very fundamentals of terrorism. In fact, UN officials themselves have said that what constitutes a terror group remains an undeciphered aspect of diplomacy against these threats. 

However, it is not just the UN where diplomacy of terrorism has often been used as a tool to stifle or support geopolitical rivalries, instead of rallying a common global narrative. For example, the recent attack by Houthi militants against the United Arab Emirates brought back the long-running conflict in Yemen to centre-stage, where two power blocks of West Asia, a Saudi-led Gulf alliance on one side and Iran-backed Houthi militants on the other have wreaked havoc on the people of Yemen. In February 2021, the US removed the Houthis from their terror designation list. The reason behind the delisting was given as a “recognition of the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen”. Another, perhaps unmentioned reason, was also to show intent to Iran that some concessions were on offer if Tehran was to return to the nuclear deal that the US unceremoniously exited in 2018 under the presidency of Donald Trump. Fast-forward to today, and the US is once again threatening to return the Houthis back to their terror listing as the group expands its attacks. 

Another example of geopolitics meeting the realpolitik of counterterror diplomacy was the removal of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) by the US in November 2020, as tensions between Beijing and Washington DC escalated over the former’s human rights record, particularly on the issue of its Uyghur Muslim minorities and their suppression in the Xinjiang province.

China criticised the decision, adding that the US “has an ugly two-faced approach toward terrorist organizations”. ETIM itself, known to be largely defunct today, has been known to have links to al-Qaeda. However, it was almost never a homogenous group, and emitted from a small number of Uyghur’s who came to Afghanistan during the Taliban’s rule in 1998 with the intent to launch a religious war against the Chinese state. Even today, China’s dealings with the Taliban revolve around the latter’s commitments to stamp out the ETIM threat. As Professor Sean R Roberts, author of The War on the Uyghurs has said, the listing and de-listing of ETIM were “complicated and political” to begin with. 

Finally, the question that arises here is: What are the gains that diplomacy on counter-terrorism, resolutions of the UN Security Council and other such multilateral instruments bring to the table? Kinetic actions against terror groups have shown mixed results. Does the diplomacy of listing, delisting, definitions and so on help curb terrorism, terror groups and violence launched by them? Geographically, regional diplomacy between warring political ideas and actors may be a more suited strategy. This begs the question: Where does it leave international, multilateral diplomacy when it comes to countering terrorism? Gains made by the “international community” on this front remain largely philosophical, strategically, and tactically, regional diplomacy is where successes in counterterrorism may ultimately reside. 

Kabir Taneja is a fellow, Strategic Studies Programme, Observer Research Foundation, and the author of The ISIS Peril: The World’s Most Feared Terror Group and its Shadow on South Asia

The views expressed are personal



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