India is the central and most diversely populated entity of the South Asian region, and as such, incidents and events in the region have a direct or indirect bearing on India’s security environment. The security risks in South Asia are often dictated by its complex ethnic construct, its religious diversity, its colonial legacy, and increasingly by external influences like religious terrorism.
The term South Asia traditionally denotes countries located in the sub- Himalayan region. In the classical geopolitical context, South Asia has become synonymous with SAARC, and includes the countries of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Maldives. However for this report, Myanmar is also included as part of the region as it has strong linkages to the region, serves as the gateway to South-East Asia, and incidentally has applied for full membership of SAARC.
South Asia is home to over one fifth of the world’s population (the largest market), immensely diverse on all counts (geography, religion, ethnicity, and economy), rich in resources (human and natural), and dominates the Indian Ocean through which moves more than 80 per cent of the world’s seaborne trade in oil. It is also the most ‘consistently’ turbulent region in the world, containing the Af-Pak region (the epicentre of terrorism), two hostile nuclear powers, multiple insurgencies, vast population of illiterate and unemployed youth, and potential for catastrophic natural disasters (earthquakes, floods and epidemic). Also significant in this context is internal political instability of most of the countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Maldives and Myanmar) for its uncertain impact on the security environment. The withdrawal of US troops from the region presents many uncertainties as regards security, economy, and domestic politics.However, it is Islamic terrorism that dominates the security concerns in the region. Taliban and al Qaeda continue to have their bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The upsurge of Islamic State (IS) has ambitiously led the group to proclaim its sub-Caliphate in the South Asian Region as ‘Wilayat Khurasan’. In Afghanistan, it has gained limited control of territory and is engaged in a turf war with the Taliban. In Pakistan, the group has established links with already established terrorist groups in the country and is coordinating attacks with them. In Bangladesh too, the group has taken responsibility for some attacks including one on a foreign national. There is also the everincreasing trend of South Asians travelling to Syria and Iraq to take part in the fighting. Although the number of foreign fighters from South Asia remains low as compared to those from other parts of the world, the possibility remains high, of South Asian fighters joining the IS’s fight, not just in Syria and Iraq, but also back home in South Asia. There has been either unwillingness or incapability on part of the governments and security forces in these countries to undertake decisive actions against the terrorist groups operating on their soil.
Afghanistan, a landlocked country that shares its borders with six countries, has witnessed large-scale political instability and conflicts since the Soviet invasion of 1979. The government in Afghanistan has struggled to extend its authority beyond the capital, and the security situation in the country continues to remain volatile.Of late, adding to complexity, is the emergence of Islamic State (IS) on the country’s domestic terror scene. The growing influence of the IS in Nangarhar province of Afghanistan has turned this region into the battleground of a “turf war” between Islamic State and Taliban. The two groups are likely to continue to fight for territorial gains, which are also linked to economic gains of controlling the lucrative opium and mining trade in the region. The most critical challenge for the present Afghanistan government is to stop the Taliban from gaining more ground, maintain law and order in the regions that are under its authority and control, while forging and sustaining national unity among the various ethnic groups (Pashtuns being the largest, followed by Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks).
Terrorism in Pakistan is an immensely complex multi-dimensional phenomenon with many sub-texts to include the impact of what goes on in the Af-Pak region, the internal Sunni-Shia fault line and the rise of IS. Incidents of sectarian attacks on the minority Shia community continue to dominate headlines. The Pakistani Taliban or TTP
(the faction led by Mullah Fazlullah which is not loyal to IS) continues to launch attacks on the Pakistani state, and retains the capability to mount devastating attacks despite the military offensive, Zarb-e-Azb. IS’s growing influence increases the possibility of sectarian attacks on the Shia and Christian communities, particularly in Karachi, with direct consequences for the business climate. 2016 thus appears to be another year of challenges for the government in general and the military and intelligence establishment in particular.
India, after a period of stemmed growth, is steadily on a faster growth path. However major challenges relating to terrorism, both transnational and domestic, sporadic instances of violence on religious and ethnic grounds, widespread poverty, unemployment and illiteracy need to be addressed in order to sustain the momentum as also to make the growth inclusive to encompass a wider cross section of the population.
Nepal’s transition to a parliamentary democracy has been far from being smooth. The opposition to the Constitution from various ethnic minorities that live in the Terai (plains) region bordering India, and its adverse impact on Indo-Nepal relations, is a visible trend for 2016. China’s attempts to capitalise on this instability will further add to the power play and tensions within the country.
The outcome the elections in Myanmar will be the main determinant for the future of the nascent democracy in the country, as the military junta reluctantly hands over control to a democratically elected government. Another defining factor for the stability of the country is the future of the peace deal (signed in October 2015) between the government and various ethnic insurgent groups that have been fighting the government for long. The persecution of the Muslim Rohingya’s may lead to a creation of another potential hotspot for recruitment by Islamic terrorist groups.
In Maldives, the current President Yameen has been constantly attempting to undermine the popularity of former President Nasheed; this conflict led to the declaration of an emergency. This political conflict has given rise to increased instability in the political space, creating potential for intervention by the religious extremist elements of the society.
Bhutan remains an ‘oasis’ of peace in the volatile South Asian region, owing to political stability, general peace and slow but study transition to a democratic form of governance. However, the country is dealing with some level of ethnic divide, issues of drug trade and presence of insurgent groups from neighbouring countries, which seek safe havens there
A distinctive trend for South Asia is the rise of Buddhist extremism. In Sri Lanka and Myanmar, both majority Buddhist countries, Buddhist extremist groups have entered the political field. Such groups have come to dominate the religious as well as political debates in these countries, and this has created a sense of insecurity amongst the minority communities. In Myanmar, it has intensified the crisis of Rohingya refugees, who are fleeing the country to escape persecution, whereas in Sri Lanka this phenomenon is further alienating the Tamils and the other minority communities.
The region is also acutely susceptible to natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, landslides, cyclones, tsunamis and epidemics. The reality that the governments of the South Asian countries remain ill-equipped to handle such disasters, both in terms of policy direction and resource allocation, the potential for catastrophic consequences to life and property remains high
In 2015, the security climate remained a cause for concern, and this instability and uncertainty is likely to persist in the ensuing year. The security environment in the region has to deal with traditional security threats (inter-state conflicts) as well as multiple non-traditional security threats (terrorism, floods, climate change, ethnic conflicts and separatist movements). The potential for external influence and intervention remains, if the South Asian countries do not manage these challenges internally.
Lt Col Sushil Pradhan (retd) is the Director for Consultancy and Services at MitKat Advisory Services, a premium risk management consultancy which operates in South Asia and is based in India. He has extensive expertise in risk assessment and evolving risk management strategies in difficult geographies specific to India, South Asia, Africa and distressed regions of West Asia.