Covering an area of almost 2 million square miles and home to over a quarter of the world’s population, current regional and global developments necessitate greater security cooperation between the West and South Asia in order to guarantee mutual strategic interests and address global security challenges.
Expansion of ISIL in the region
ISIL developed large ‘market penetration’ in South Asia by overcoming language barriers, exploiting sympathies amongst authorities and locals and building underground cells that have allowed ISIL to successfully recruit many jihadists to join the battlefield in Syria and Iraq.
At the beginning of this year, a local commander of ISIL was arrested from Lahore. The recruitment and rise of Asians in the ISIL hierarchy has enabled the group to carry out extremely successful linguistic market penetration. Recruitmentvideos and propaganda materials are released in the Indian-subcontinent in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and Tamil besides other regional languages and dialects.
Moreover, ISIL has also been gaining considerable ground in Afghanistan as a migration has been witnessed among extremists from Taliban to ISIL. This has inspired many members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to alter their allegiance as well. Some give monetary benefits as the main reason, whereas it is proven that it has more to do with the romanticism ISIL has been able to create through its rapid expansion, the announcement of a Caliphate and their anti-Shia ideology.
This could have a snowball effect if radicals ofother Pakistani groups such as Lashkar-e-Taibaand the anti-Shia group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi flip sides as well, thinking that their organizations have compromised too much on their radical ideology with the Pakistani military in order to maintain their protection.
Bangladesh has also witnessed the rise of Pro-ISIL outfits which have pledged allegiance and carry out a sophisticated recruitment policy online and on the ground. A newly created front called Jund al-TawheedwalKhilafah (JTK) has been the main and most vocal platform for recruits from Bangladesh and fundraisings. It aims to establish a new ‘caliphate’ encompassing Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Jihadist Competition in the Region
The remarkable expansion of ISIL has not only sent shockwaves throughout the Western world, but has also instigated other extremist forces like Al-Qaeda to strengthen their reach in South Asia and adopt new strategies.
Although Pakistan is a large market for ISIL, it is also heavily congested. Worried by ISIL’s international ambitions, AL-Qaeda and its leadership have decided to bring at least a dozen independently operating extremists groups (mostly from Pakistan and Afghanistan) together in one branch. All these groups have a longstanding and an extremely extensive network in the region supplemented by the formidable infrastructure of tens of thousands of Madrassas. In the absence of regulation and mainstream education, these Madrassas mostly promote religious education based on the doctrine of extremism, which serves as ideological foundation to these groups.
Whether the establishment of this new dedicated branch is an announcement to counter ISIL’s expansion or an invitation to work together with them is debatable. By all means, both scenarios are extremely dangerous.
This new branch in South Asia, called Al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent (AQIS) has proposed several locations for potential operations including: Kashmir, Gujarat, Assam, Burma and Bangladesh are part of this ambitious and dangerous coalition.
NATO´s global partners
Since 9/11 , NATO has focused more on addressing global threats,which would likely stem from areas beyond the North Atlanticarea. Against this background, NATO´s global partnership program was created in 2011, which to date, includes Pakistan and Afghanistan.
There is an urgent need to work more closely and diligently to take away the global security concerns emanating from South Asia.Bilateral conflicts of interest between Pakistan and Afghanistan should urge NATO to formulate well-defined mutual goals as has been done in the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. The Self-differentiation and Diversity components of this initiative have been good improvements as compared to previous agreements. The objectives as stated in the current Tailored Cooperation Programmes are too vague and thereby vulnerable.
The government of Afghanistan needs to be strengthened financially and militarily to tackle the various extremist forces in the country. Economic development and mainstream education should become the tenets of progress and de-radicalization. The current NATO Mission ‘Resolute Support’ focuses on training and advising the Afghan forces which is a strong foundation, but should remain flexible by giving due attention to the ANA Trust. Recent increase in violence, casualties and the overall expansion of Taliban and ISIL warrant for an extended mission. The Afghan Army has not been successful in countering the resurgence of Taliban forces in the south and east of Afghanistan. In the interest of peace in Afghanistan and maintaining the strategic gains made by NATO forces, the current changed scenario would justify a longer mandate for the Resolute Support Mission.
The Pakistani civil government and its military establishment need to be on the same page regarding the country´s stand vis-á-vis terrorism. The Pakistani Army is the seventh largest army in the world and should be put to use to ensure the objectives of NATO's partnership with the country, which is crucial in providing an effective international security structure. NATO must ensure that the political and security perspectives of the military establishment in the country are comparable, compatible and that an equal commitment and dedication is exhibited from all players involved.
NATO´s role for potential cooperation
Economic interdependency among the countries in South Asia is key to stabilization of the region. South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established to pursue this very objective of integrationin South Asia but needs to be strengthened through diplomatic facilitation from NATO Allies and Partners.
Opportunities to formalize policies regarding intelligence sharing among the countries in the region ought to be availed. The spread of extremists forces in the region and their interrelated networks and infrastructure should compel the nations in South Asia to overcome mistrust and embark upon a path of institutionalized cooperation regarding timely and accurate intelligence sharing.
Besides assisting these countries with expertise and experience on this matter, NATO should avail opportunities of engaging in bilateral agreements of intelligence sharing, Counter-terrorism policies and maritime security with the respective countries in South Asia. The Wales Summit Declaration emphasizes that there is a need for a coordinated international approach to counter ISIL. Considering the true spirit of this Declaration, the recruitment wave of ISIL in South Asia should act as a trigger to widen the formal coalition against ISIL and enhance it by bringing South Asian countries onboard.
Sharing best practices from NATO’s Training Mission-Iraq (NTM-I) into its recent Capacity Building Initiatives (CBI)in Jordan, Moldova and Georgia have had an enormous beneficial impact in these countries. They have succeeded in strengthening their respective national security apparatus against external threats as the main focused areas of training, mentoring, equipment donation and coordination from the NTM-I were continued and incorporated into these CBI’s. NATO’s contribution to international stability, security and conflict prevention could also prove to be a robust base for cooperation in South Asia as there is an urgent need to expand NATO’s expertise in advising and assisting nations with security and defense reforms while aiming to encourage the establishment of self-sufficient security institutions in these countries.
The training and education components of these initiatives include providing for the infrastructure and transforming these engagements into long term bilateral security cooperation relationships could prove to be extraordinary fruitful in countries like Afghanistan - struggling with high illiteracy rates among their armed forces and security establishment – and Bangladesh – struggling with a highly politicized military.
From the expansion of ISIL and its worldwide recruitment policies, it has become evident that the threat of terrorism is not restricted to the region of origin anymore. The mass use of internet and social media have obscured the borders of extremism in South Asia as well and pose an undeniable menace to global peace. NATO’s Enhanced Cyber Defence Policy needs to be broadened in the backdrop of these developments. South Asian allies and partners should be formally incorporated and take a lead in implementing the goals of this policy.
The situation demands a collective approach from the West and the East as equal partners and stakeholders.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com.
This article was simultaneously published in Atlantic Treaty Association’s Commentaries on the 15th of December 2015. Atlantic Treaty Association is the advisory organization of NATO and has been furnishing the alliance with analyses, training, education and information activities on foreign affairs and relevant security issues since 1954. Junaid Qureshi, permanent columnist for ‘Kashmir Images’, is also a regular research writer for this organization and is considered an expert on South Asia and terrorism in the region. This is his second write-up for this prestigious magazine. We congratulate him for this feat and wish him best of luck in his future endeavors.