“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
– Edmund Burke 18th-century British statesman and philosopher.

One’s man terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. That at least was the comforting logic employed by a multitude of nations to justify their support for insurgents indulging in violence against civilian populations. In the past few months though, enough has happened to justify a more civilized course of action by all countries.

Three of Asia’s most wanted terrorists have been killed over the course of the past few months alone: Velupillai Prabhakaran of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka in May, Baitullah Mehsud of the Pakistani Taliban in August and Noordin Mohammad Top of the Jemaah Islamiah in September in Indonesia. The apparent trigger for the successes was a change in heart of the terrorists’ key sponsors.

Many other terrorists have been either captured or killed, but the stories of these three terrorists point to the use of “irregulars” to do the dirty job of various countries; and particularly in their own neighborhoods.

Take the example of Prabhakaran. It is widely acknowledged that the LTTE leader was initially abhorred by the Indian establishment when his campaign of violence took hold in the late 1970s. That situation changed with the bloody anti-Tamil riots in 1983 across Sri Lanka which killed around 3,000 people, destroyed tens of thousands of houses and displaced a million people. Tamils left Sri Lanka in droves, becoming refugees in India mainly, as well as smaller refugee communities that took root in Europe, Canada and the United States.

Facing a backlash at home – India is home to 60 million Tamils against the 3 million in Sri Lanka – the Indian government signaled a policy shift, and took a stance of “morally” supporting Tamil militant groups.

While India has always denied the notion that it directly provided arms or training to the Tamil separatists, the idea of not actively pursuing or doing something such as the prevention of arms-smuggling, given the topography, was really all that was required. India’s large coastline, combined with its vast hinterland that borders many countries, including those with indigenous conflicts (example – the Shan conflict in Myanmar) suggested a number of easy routes for bringing arms to the terrorists in Sri Lanka, without ever requiring the actual involvement of any government officials.

Going back to the opening quote, the most benevolent explanation for India’s actions is that it didn’t act, and therefore allowed a large terrorist organization to grow in its backyard.

If all actions have an equal and opposite reaction, then for India, the cost of its action (ie actively doing nothing) was the “moral hazard” of being seen as the key supporter of a terrorist organization. A few years of mounting international criticism is all it took for the country to try to make amends, helping to push through a peace accord in Sri Lanka that would be implemented by Indian armed forces, in 1987. This is where things got really tricky.

Years of actively ignoring the LTTE’s arms-smuggling meant that India actually had no idea what its army was walking into. The result was unsatisfying and very messy. The Indian army was basically unable to implement its brief, namely, to demilitarize Tamil areas and allow a resumption of civilian rule that would have paved the way to increased autonomy.

Instead, the army found itself up against a terrorist organization that was armed to the teeth with sophisticated weaponry that the world’s then fourth-largest standing army could only dream about. On the side of keeping the peace, it found dealing with the Sri Lankan establishment thoroughly painful and basically pointless.

After the inevitable withdrawal from Sri Lanka in 1990, the Indian government had learned its lessons, but only partially: the country had vastly underestimated the negative feedback loop that comes from terrorism. It arrived soon enough, and was much bloodier than the Indians had expected – a female suicide bomber from the LTTE assassinated the leading contender to the post of prime minister during the 1991 election campaign: Rajiv Gandhi.

If the experience of the Indian army hadn’t been enough, the assassination may have certainly ushered in a shift on India’s behavior in the years thereafter. A crackdown on arms-smuggling in the country, increased patrolling of the seas and pushback on shadowy fundraising efforts within India meant that the LTTE very quickly had its back to the wall.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan army requested direct assistance on training and weaponry from the Indian army. After this was refused, other countries, including China, stepped into the breach. A policy of genuine non-interference from India soon tipped the scales in favor of the Sri Lankan army, leading to the result in May when Prabhakaran was killed and the LTTE finished off as a military force of any consequence.

All this came through a policy that was quite close to ethnic cleansing, eerily harking back to the “unfinished agenda” from Nazi Germany. The behavior of the Sri Lankan state is a problem for a different discussion, but for this article, it is clear that the war against terrorism in the country could only have been won when the previous sponsor had dropped out.

Then to the Taliban

In the death of Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, a similar patchwork of erstwhile sponsors who made ill-advised strategic calls comes to bear. Mehsud was a creation, first and foremost, of the Pakistan state agencies which had encouraged a number of their Pashtun citizens to take up arms supporting the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan in the second half of the 1990s.

In the years after the 2001 ouster of the Taliban, when the Pakistani establishment was caught between a vengeance-seeking America and a diffuse army of irregular Taliban units, its progressive need to control the leadership of the Taliban meant taking some unsavory steps. In 2004, a good two years after the US-led occupation of Afghanistan had begun and rendered the situation unsustainable, Pakistan moved to take greater control of Taliban units. As Wikipedia reports:

After Nek Muhammad’s death (2004), Abdullah Mehsud and Baitullah Mehsud both vied for dominance of the Pakistani Taliban. When Abdullah died in a raid by Pakistani security forces and later his successor perished in a bomb explosion, Qari Zain and other members of Abdullah’s faction suspected that Baitullah played a role in the attacks. The rivalry continued after Zainuddin obtained leadership of Abdullah’s group … Mehsud entered into a ceasefire with Pakistani authorities on 8 February 2005. During the meeting at Sara Rogha, the Pakistani military agreed to withdraw its troops from areas under Baitullah’s control. The removal did not include the paramilitary Frontier Corps, consisting mostly of fellow Pashtuns. In exchange, Baitullah’s followers would not attack government officials, impede development projects or allow foreign militants to operate within their territory. Mehsud was offered US$20 million for his cooperation in the ceasefire. He declined the money and told Pakistani authorities that they should use the pay-out to “compensate families who had suffered during the military operation”. The ceasefire agreement ended in July 2005 when after accusing the government of reneging on the deal, Baitullah resumed attacks on security forces.

Essentially, Mehsud was corralled by the Pakistani authorities to bring some order into a situation where the state simply couldn’t get adequate leverage directly. The inevitable soon happened, as they report on Wikipedia:

By 2006, Baitullah Mehsud’s growing influence in South Waziristan led terrorism analysts to label him as “South Waziristan’s Unofficial Amir”. An official in the Northwest Frontier Constabulary described his army: “Baitullah’s lashkar (army) is very organized. He has divided it into various units and assigned particular tasks to each unit. One of the units has been tasked to kill people who are pro-government and pro-US or who support the US occupation of Afghanistan.” In June 2006 Taliban-aligned Waziri tribes began negotiating another ceasefire with Pakistani forces. In a January 2007 interview with the BBC Urdu Service, Baitullah extolled the virtues of jihad against foreigners and advocated taking the fight to the US and to Britain. After the siege of Lal Masjid in July, Baitullah turned his forces against the Pakistani state. In December 2007, Mehsud was declared the first leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.

Then came the single event that made him the primary target of the current government in Pakistan, namely the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, on December 27, 2007:

On 18 January 2008, The Washington Post reported that the Central Intelligence Agency has concluded that Mehsud was behind the Bhutto assassination. “Offering the most definitive public assessment by a US intelligence official, Michael V. Hayden said Bhutto was killed by fighters allied with Mehsud, a tribal leader in northwestern Pakistan, with support from al-Qaeda’s terrorist network.” US President George W. Bush then placed Mr. Mehsud on “a classified list of militant leaders whom the CIA and American commandos were authorized to capture or kill”.

This being Asia, coincidences abound. The LTTE chief, egged on by the Indian establishment at one point, was instrumental in killing a scion of India’s most famous political dynasty; similarly, Mehsud, who was created by the Pakistani establishment, was apparently instrumental in killing the scion of that country’s most famous political dynasty.

As the new Pakistani government brought about the required changes to its operational readiness to face the resurgent Taliban threat, it ran up against Mehsud and his irregulars more than once. Humiliating surrenders aside, the army was also deeply divided in what had rapidly become a civil war within Pakistan. In the end, it was the feared US Predator drone attacks of the US that took out Mehsud, perhaps tipped off by a jealous family member (the Taliban duly executed two of his family members).

Non-state actors

In both cases of infamous terrorists killed this year, the roles and responsibilities of the concerned states were obscured by factors that do not meet basic standards of civilized behavior. In their own ways, the various countries of South Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan) created bands of terrorists to do things that were otherwise impossible for those in power to be seen to be doing directly.

Essentially, the standards applied for creating the backbone and infrastructure used by the region’s terrorists depended much on the notion that “moral” support for terrorism could be justified on the grounds of highlighting the troubles of repressed people. Tamils being repressed by the majority Sinhalese, and the Afghans by invading Soviet troops in the 1980s; made the notion of helping “freedom fighters” morally defensible.

Pakistan also “needed” an army of irregulars to impose its agenda on its larger neighbor because of the fear that conventional warfare would lead to unacceptable military defeats. Instead of achieving that objective, Pakistan is now on the edge of being a failed state: this columnist thinks it already is, but many others believe the situation can be retrieved. A combination of real social problems combined with growing disrespect for laws and institutions means a country that resembles the “Wild West” of yore, albeit with nuclear weapons lurking seductively behind the barn doors.

In a parallel universe, more sensible politicians and leaders may see such circumstances (that lead countries to support terrorism outside their borders) as unsustainable and immoral. In that universe, state actors will engage with each other in an attempt to improve standards across the board, rather than indulge in zero-sum strategies that eventually backfire and cause deaths in the local populations.

If this were done in South Asia today, we could well end up in a world in which the opening phrase of this article could be turned to a simpler and more logical percept: “One man’s terrorist is everyone’s.”