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In the Masood Azhar fiasco, a lesson for India: Time to get real

New Delhi needs to be clear-eyed about just how little the international sanctions regime is actually worth before deciding how to respond.

Written by Praveen Swami | New Delhi | Updated: April 19, 2016 8:06:41 pm
Protesters shout slogans against Masood Azhar and other JeM leaders. (File/Reuters) Protesters shout slogans against Masood Azhar and other JeM leaders. (File/Reuters)

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will have been applauded in middle-class drawing rooms across India for her impassioned speech, on Monday, denouncing China’s obstruction of efforts to have Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Maulana Masood Azhar designed a terrorist by the United Nations Security Council’s 1267 committee.

“If we continue to adopt double standards in dealing with terrorism”, Swaraj told the China-India-Russia trilateral meeting in Moscow, “it will have serious consequences not just for our own countries, but the international community as a whole”

The speech was a straightforward, from-the-heart appeal to a universal moral principle, the kind Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru would have been proud of. For that precise reason, no-one in India should be in any doubt her efforts are fated to fail.

Faced with a growing tide of fighters from the troubled Xinjiang to jihadist groups, China sees itself as increasingly vulnerable to Islamist violence — a perception rendered credible by last year’s slaughter at the Aksu coal mines, the 2014 killings in Kunming, and the 2013 bombing at Beijing’s iconic Tiananmen square.

The Chinese state has reacted with remarkable brutality, cracking down on visible signs of religious expression in Xinjiang, like long beards and veils. It’s also trying to flood the region with cash, to spur economic development.

Evidence, however, suggests the two-pronged strategy isn’t wholly successfully. Newly-publicised records show that, until the end of 2014, Chinese-origin volunteers made up the second-largest group of non-West Asian fighters in the Islamic State, after Russians — far ahead of the Europeans the world has been hearing so much about.

In addition, China faces substantial threats from Xinjiang-origin jihadists operating from Afghanistan and Pakistan’s North-West—groups who could become increasingly powerful, enriched by revenues from the narcotics trade, if Afghanistan and its Central Asian neighbours descend into anarchy.

Ensuring Pakistan’s intelligence services remain on its side is essential, as Beijing sees it, to containing the threat from across the Karokaram. As long as Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate can contain Xinjiang jihadists like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement inside its own territory, the threat of a full-scale insurgency erupting in China will be minimal.

From China’s point of view, therefore, blocking India’s effort to have one terrorist sanctioned — a terrorist who, moreover, has the great virtue of never having spoken against Beijing, despite its violence against Muslims in Xinjiang — is a small price to pay.

There can be no doubt that China’s position is entirely unprincipled, lacking even the smallest fig-leaf of rational justification. There can be no doubt, either, that China isn’t about to change its mind.

New Delhi, though, needs to be clear-eyed about just how little the international sanctions regime is actually worth before deciding how to respond. The sanctioning of the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s parent organisation, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, by the United Nations after 26/11 hasn’t forced Pakistan to shut down down either its military infrastructure or charitable operations.

Even though the United States’ Treasury Department has had stringent sanctions in place against Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar for years, similarly, they’ve done nothing to stop him from living in all but plain sight in Karachi — with the knowledge of the world’s powers.

The Jaish-e-Muhammad itself, it’s often forgotten, has been technically sanctioned since 2001—but that hasn’t stopped it from building a giant new seminary in Bahawalpur, running training camps, or staging attacks.

Indeed, the United Nations 1267 committee’s annual monitoring reports have recorded, each year, that the Taliban has actually expanded their narcotics operations and revenues, despite international proscription—because there simply isn’t the military capacity to enforce the sanctions on ground.

The utter bankruptcy of the global sanctions regime put in place after 9/11 is no more graphically illustrated by the fact that its principal target, al-Qaeda, today controls exponentially greater territory than it did then.

India ought to be drawing from this unhappy saga. First up, New Delhi policy-makers need to abandon the happy myth that Beijing will reverse course on Pakistan because of the burgeoning India-China trade relationship, or fear of an India-United States strategic partnership.

Like all other major powers, China fears the instability that could come with an India-Pakistan war, and will quietly pressure Islamabad to avoid precipitating one, as it has done in the past. This does not, however, mean its goals will align with those of India.

There more important lesson is this: United Nations resolutions, or fancy diplomatic moves aren’t going to make India more secure. New Delhi needs to focus on growing the country’s counter-terrorism capacity and building smart alliances with countries facing the same enemies. India could, for example, significantly enhance its counter-terrorism cooperation with Afghanistan, now besieged with by the Taliban — providing Kabul with the guns and cash it needs to hit back.

Leverage and capacity win wars—not words. The post-9/11 world is a lot like the world before it, unprincipled and unscrupulous one. India, though, has to learn to work in the world that exists, not the world we all hope will one day exist.


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