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A decade of an expanding terror footprint

A decade after the catastrophic terrorist attacks in the US, the transformative power of terrorism has been abundantly demonstrated. Ajai Sahni writes.

world Updated: Sep 11, 2011 20:49 IST
Ajai Sahni

A decade after the catastrophic terrorist attacks in the US, the transformative power of terrorism has been abundantly demonstrated. This single act has impacted, in continuous waves, on almost every aspect of global affairs – certainly undermining the USA’s status as the unchallenged ‘sole superpower’, spurring wars, demonstrating the limits of conventional military force, weakening and sometimes devastating the most stable economies of the world, and unleashing unforeseen and unpredictable changes across the world.

Much is currently being made of the killing of Osama bin Laden and others, and the US has used these successes as an excuse to declare victory and run, and what has been described as the “long retreat” from Afghanistan has already commenced.

The reality in the AfPak region, however, is far from comforting. After the success of Operation Enduring Freedom, there were isolated pools of resistance from the Taliban in a handful of Afghan Districts bordering Pakistan. Today, 31 of the country’s 34 districts are afflicted by the insurgency, and the Hamid Karzai government exercises, at best, tenuous control anywhere outside the confines of Kabul.

Indeed, the US strategy in Afghanistan has seen a decade of near continuous failure, and the Obama regime is looking even more hapless and disoriented than its predecessor.

During the seven years of the intervention in Afghanistan under Bush, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) lost a total of 630 personnel; less than two years and eight months under Obama have seen 1,634 ISAF fatalities, even as strategic incoherence has robbed the Coalition Force of any enduring gains.

Against this backdrop of a loss of control, the US leadership has sought to project a process of ordered flight as a ‘fulfilment of goals’, with Obama declaring, “We have put Al-Qaeda on a path to defeat.” US military commanders have, however, repeatedly warned that any precipitate diminution of ISAF Forces will jeopardise even the limited gains of the past years, including the significant attrition of al Qaeda and Taliban leadership cadres.

As the Western will to ‘stay the course’ in Afghanistan visibly disintegrates, the forces of disorder in Afghanistan and Pakistan have scented blood and escalated their disruptive violence. Terrorist groups on both sides of the AfPak border have long benefited from Western ambivalence and strategic incoherence, even as the West continues to gamble on the compromised, complicit Pakistan Army and its Inter Services Intelligence. ISAF strategists now seek to engage with an oxymoronic ‘moderate Taliban’.

The inherent contradictions of this approach have led to a progressive spread of violence across the AfPak region. Of course, Pakistan is also experiencing a rising backlash of terrorists who have escaped the control of their state handlers and increasingly direct their attention inwards.

In the interim, the Pakistani ‘footprint of terror’ continues to expand across the world. The South Asia Terrorism Portal has documented linkages of Islamist terrorist incidents, conspiracies and arrests across the world for more than a decade, and has found a Pakistani ‘footprint’ in at least 31 countries outside South Asia. Pakistan remains a major exporter of terrorism to India as well, though its preoccupation with Afghanistan, domestic terrorism and international pressure, have resulted in an overall diminution of Islamist terrorist activities here, since their peak in 2001.

A Western withdrawal from Afghanistan will be seen as a triumph of radical Islam not only by its adherents, but also by thousands of fence sitters, among whom a significant proportion will certainly be inspired by this ‘victory’ to join the terrorist jihad.

The only consequence of this will be that the West itself – and Europe most particularly – will become the principal battlefield of Islamist terrorism, even as terrorism escalates to unprecedented levels in India. As for Afghanistan, the moderates will be wiped out, and an alliance of extremists in Pakistan and Afghanistan (including elements in the state structure in both) will come to dominate the global jihad, conferred with a new impunity, since it will then be clear no power in the world has the capacity or the will to intervene effectively in the region.

The author is Executive Director of the Institute for Conflict Management and runs the South Asian Terrorism Portal

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First Published: Sep 10, 2011 23:54 IST