One of the more predictable turns during any US presidential election year is the sheer speed with which issues of longer-term strategic importance are quietly subsumed by a global media fed a steady diet of soap-operatic drama on the candidates, their spouses, born and unborn children and so on. By no means am I throwing stones while sitting in a glass house though; this is more of an introspective comment on the realities of the supply and demand for newsworthy discussions.
In 2000, it was all about the drama about the election battle between George W. Bush and Al Gore, not to mention the post-election vote-capturing behavior of the US Supreme Court. Never mind that the US economy had slipped into a recession following the bursting of the dot.com bubble or that al-Qaeda was quietly expanding its control of the Taliban even as the latter itself was engaged in a final push against the Northern Alliance and its charismatic commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud. The costs of ignoring those developments are still being felt around the world.
The 2004 election perhaps went against that trend – and readers can disabuse that notion by pointing out the big emerging stories that were not given serious importance in that election, such as the debacle in the conduct of the Iraq occupation – but this time around certainly looks like a replay of 2000. This observation is based on my read of major global online newspapers for the past few weeks; and pertains especially to the apparent indifference with which three major trends in Asia are being treated.
Even as the media feverishly debates the paternity of the Republican vice-presidential candidate’s granddaughter and the difficulties associated with sitting through an Obama speech without either dancing or dozing off, these important Asian stories are being relegated to the back pages. The first of these stories gets some coverage, but perhaps without any comprehensive analysis of its longer-term ramifications; the second and third are virtually missing from all media.
These stories are: firstly, the encirclement of Pakistan; secondly the resurgence of Han nationalism and thirdly the trend towards Hindu fanaticism.
Readers will argue that the Pakistan story has been given sufficient importance in global media, and especially in American newspapers. A cursory examination of the coverage though shows a morbid fascination with character analysis (or assassination) of the major players, namely ex-president Musharraf, putative president-elect Zardari and PM-in-waiting Nawaz Sharif.
As the reasonably quick exit of Musharraf showed, none of these players actually matter in the current situation. Increased lawlessness on the border with Afghanistan, which prompted a US cross-border raid this week, is the story with greater significance over the near term.
Some analysts have speculated that al-Qaeda is now firmly on the path of securing nuclear weapons in Pakistan. The trifurcation of Pakistani politics on the lines of the above three players still leaves out two important interest groups, namely the army and Islamic fundamentalists. While the last two parties tended to be part of the same continuum – as shown in the war against India in 1999 and even the terrorist attacks that followed – events since 2001 have sundered the alliance. With parts of the army turning on its own al-Qaeda sympathizers, there is no more trust between the two groups.
The abortive attempt on the life of the current Pakistani prime minister this week was an indication of how close to the corridors of power the Islamic fundamentalists are. It is even possible that this attempt was a warning shot intended to present a fait accompli to Pakistani politicians: deal with us or die.
Pakistan debt this week climbed to become the most risky credit across all global sovereigns, a motley crowd of risky governments around the world that includes Argentina (which seeks to refuse payment to external creditors) among others. This dubious distinction signals the complete shutdown of external funding for Pakistan, at a critical juncture when a slowing economy and foreign portfolio outflows combine to make matters hard enough.
The Pakistani rupee has continued to fall dramatically even as the stock market remains in limbo. The mounting problems on the market front highlight the firm belief among external investors that be it the US or Saudi Arabia, there is no likelihood of imminent assistance for Pakistan to address its mountain of maturing debt obligations. Now more than ever, the temptation for rogue government and military officials to threaten a violation of safeguards on the country’s nuclear weapons must rank very high.
Meanwhile in Afghanistan, areas outside Kabul that are under the control of the Taliban will likely expand in winter months. The paucity of any new armed commitment to that country by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which now needs to make contingency plans to contain the Russian bear in its own neighborhood, and the US (which thinks it has bigger problems in Iraq or Iran depending on who you ask) means that by the time a new US president takes office, the Taliban conceivably will be back in control of Afghanistan.
Bleeding on its western flanks and ever-watchful of its eastern border with India, the Pakistani military has limited options. Cooperating with the US or NATO is unlikely in the current political climate, which ensures that increasing resources are misspent on the lost war pursuing al-Qaeda. Quelling an internal rebellion – no military man actually wants to die in combat, contrary to their popular image – would take an assumption of political power once again in the country, with all the baggage this brings.
Taken to a logical extreme, the slippage of the Pakistani establishment to a quasi-vassal relationship with al-Qaeda ideologues appears all the more likely. Politicians will strike deals with extremist Islamic groups and seek to appease their grievances; these range from the heavy handedness of Pakistani police against the militant groups to the regrouping of madrassas across the country.
Meanwhile, the army is also likely to secure its own peace with the terrorist groups by calling off intensive operations and allowing for a return of an expanded Taliban state within Pakistani borders that calls the shots in Afghanistan. I don’t believe it will take more than year for the current Afghan government to fall and make way for the Taliban when this happens.
The resulting theocratic state will be run essentially by today’s al-Qaeda reservists, with the added advantage of possessing nuclear weapons. As epitaphs go, George W. Bush could not wish for anything worse, but sadly this does seem to his most likely legacy.
The increased attention that the world will give Pakistan from the beginning of next year though brings a new host of challenges. The most reasonable expectation would be for increased military intervention in the region to push back the Taliban and along with it, the al-Qaeda sympathizers in the Afghan and Pakistani establishments.
Geographically this would present serious obstacles, not the least because Iran is likely to remain fiercely antagonistic to any strikes against military targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Western powers. That leaves the northern approach, where a resurgent Russia will complicate matters to no trivial degree.
Simplistically put, the West will have to depend on the munificence of China and India to control the pest that will be unleashed on their borders over the near term. While China has less to fear initially as compared with India about the expansionist aims of Islamic fundamentalists, it does have a sensitive border problem in Xinjiang, which could present the Achilles’ heel of its non-interventionist policy with respect to Muslim issues.
Simply put, a Taliban government with nuclear capabilities is unlikely to treat China any differently – better or worse – than it treats India over the longer term.
The emerging economic slowdown – sparking talk of a government stimulus package in short order – presents a casus belli for the majority Han. Frowning on the subsidies and handouts to minority groups will become more prevalent when millions lose their jobs in the manufacturing belts of southern China. The majority group believes that the minorities are already spoiled in terms of their ability to have more than one child as well as benefiting from a plethora of handouts. That resentment will become palpable in the face of any protests about human rights and the like in China – which is exactly what has happened over the recent past.
The Beijing Olympics highlighted a sensitive weakness for Han Chinese, namely how to reconcile to their existence when issues of trust are clearly paramount. Taking the paranoia to its extreme, the government assigned Han children to play the part of ethnic children in the opening ceremony in order to preclude even the remote chance of someone whisking out and waving a Muslim or Tibetan flag from under their costumes.
In turn, this resurgence of Han nationalism – that only the majority group can be trusted to represent China and its interests – causes its own set of complications. Getting along with minority groups requires vastly greater amounts of trust than the current wave of Han nationalism seems capable of showing. That will cause alienation of minority groups, with an automatic feedback loop to perpetuating Han dominance. Needless to say, that puts Han China in a direct path of conflict with any new Islamic power in South Asia.
Echoing the behavior of the Chinese during the Tibetan riots earlier this year, India’s Hindus have gone on the warpath in the eastern state of Orissa, against Christian missionaries who they claim are illegally converting their members. Even as the Han are pushing for greater dominance over their own affairs in China, India’s Hindus appear to be rebelling under a similar impulse in their country.
Having already outlawed untouchability, India’s approach to the problem needs to be socio-economic. I have consistently argued that the key issue for India is to pursue economic development and to destroy poverty in all its guises – rural and urban – rather than the simplistic questions of handouts and welfare payments that politicians seem to be prefer. That path, which necessitates infrastructure building, better schooling and access to healthcare, is more or less an afterthought in the current climate of short-term goal-setting by the government.
It is these handouts that democratic India is up in arms about. With an economic slowdown underway, various sections of Indian society are in greater need of government attention, whether it is in the form of infrastructure building or simple handouts. Conversions within geographically concentrated groups create lobbying power, which has in turn led to policy intervention in funding and budget allocations by politicians eager to capture votes. With an election due by next year, political behavior has shifted up a gear in India, with the almost inevitable result of sparking violent confrontations among interest groups.
In the past, these confrontations used to be within the construct of Hinduism but have now seeped out to encompass other religious groups. That is no surprise given that Indians of all religions – including Christianity – still observe caste segregation in one fashion or another.
The current wave of Hindu fanaticism isn’t about putting the right-wing political parties into power, seeing as they seem to have had little impact in the matter. Rather, it seems like an incident in one part of the country that has lit the fuse of Hindu nationalism elsewhere. This is where the echoes to Han Chinese resurgence since the Tibetan events become more relevant.
Thus, the indomitable force of Islamic fundamentalism that emerges from Pakistan will have to confront the immovable objects of Han and Hindu resurgence. It is well likely that the first course of action will be against the well-known enemy of India rather than the scarier opponent in China, but that is a relatively minor detail in that it only applies over the relative near term.
The last one?
As a postscript to the above, one thought that does strike a chord is the likelihood that future US elections will matter a whole lot less to the rest of the world. The decline of the sole superpower, along with a concurrent emergence of alternative powers on the military, ideological and economic fronts, means that parts of the global media could well be disengaged from US election reviews – that is, regurgitating the latest specials from US media outlets – to doing something a lot more productive in their own backyards.
The opposite side of that loop is that the column inches devoted to candidate discussions could well decline in the US media itself, as the relative importance of the rest of the world becomes increasingly apparent.
At least, I hope so.