On December 30, China’s decision to veto India’s proposal to ban Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar at the UN capped a terrible year in bilateral ties. China’s economic corridor through Pakistan, India’s invitations to Uighur, Falun Gong and Tibetan activists, the expulsion of Chinese journalists from Mumbai, the Chinese block on Nuclear Suppliers Group membership for India, and the rumblings over the South China Sea all added to tensions between the two countries; the Chinese decision to put a permanent block on the Azhar proposal aggravated them further.
An open-and-shut case
China’s decision, to put it bluntly, was outrageous and ill-advised. In the past, Beijing blocked India’s proposals at the UN to designate Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin and Abdul Rehman Makki and Azam Cheema of the Lashkar-e-Taiba as terrorists, and blocked questions on how designated terrorists Hafiz Saeed and Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi accessed funds in Pakistan despite UN sanctions. But Azhar’s case is different from all of these, for reasons that should be obvious.
Which other terrorist, for example, has actually been seen live across televisions worldwide, as Azhar was on December 31, 1999, being exchanged for hostages on the Kandahar tarmac after the hijack of IC-814? Which other terrorist has recorded in his own book (From Imprisonment to Freedom) details of the terror plot to hijack the plane, and of links to the Taliban officials who pushed Indian negotiators on the ground (including current National Security Adviser Ajit Doval) into effecting his release? And which other terrorist openly spoke of meeting Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, travelling to Somalia to help recruit for al-Qaeda, and his loyalty to Taliban chief Mullah Omar, whom he described as his “beloved Amir-ul-Momineen”?
Despite all that evidence, it took two years and the 9/11 attacks for the JeM to be designated as a terror group by UNSC 1267 sanctions committee in 2001. It seems unbelievable that 15 years later, despite his complicity in everything from the Parliament attack to the Pathankot attack and everything in between, Azhar hasn’t yet been added to that list, largely due to China’s ignominious role.
It would be a mistake, however, if New Delhi sees China’s move purely in bilateral terms, and ignores the larger trend it represents: of a fragmenting global consensus on terrorism. The impact of this fragmentation can be seen at several levels now: at the UN, in the tussle between the U.S. and Russia, and for India, in regional ties. Changing narrative
After the 9/11 attacks, the global consensus to fight the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and all allied groups was formed by the UNSC resolution on terrorism (UNSCR 1373) in 2001. Already, in 1999, the UN had set up an al-Qaeda/Taliban sanctions committee (UNSCR 1267) to impose strictures on anyone dealing with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. While the implementation of these resolutions has been questionable, there was little doubt that all member states essentially believed that the Taliban, al-Qaeda and their allies formed a common global enemy.
That narrative has since changed. In January 2010, at an international conference hosted by the U.K., the UN and the U.S. openly backed efforts to talk peace with the Taliban. In 2011, the UNSC made it simply the al-Qaeda sanctions committee, separating the Taliban committee so as to facilitate talks by delisting Taliban leaders being engaged. In December 2015, the UNSC made a further shift by renaming it “ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee” (UNSCR/2253). This renaming prompted Pakistan to ask recently, albeit mistakenly, how the banning of Azhar was even connected to the committee’s work.
Impact of U.S.-Russia ties
Apart from the UN, shifting U.S.-Russia ties have also made a great impact on the global terror consensus. In 2001, Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the first foreign leaders to speak to President George W. Bush, expressing full support for the U.S. fight against al-Qaeda, which would in turn help Russia with its Islamist threat as well. Not only that, Mr. Putin reversed Russian policy of decades, allowing the U.S. to set up bases across Central Asia and virtually take over Afghanistan’s security command.
That relationship no longer exists, and Russia is questioning the U.S. presence in its backyard again. “Russia won’t tolerate this,” Mr. Putin’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov said in an interview this week, referring to the U.S.’s bases in Afghanistan as akin to having Russian bases in Mexico. Russia’s other moves – a new closeness with China, and growing ties with Pakistan – are a third factor impacting global consensus. A trilateral meeting of the three countries last month in Moscow called for a “flexible approach” to remove some Taliban figures from the UN sanctions list as part of efforts to “foster a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban movement”. No doubt, the recent Taliban statement that it won’t target infrastructure projects in Afghanistan is significant, given China’s high-stakes ‘One Belt, One Road’ plan that runs through the region.
On the other side, the U.S. has been pushing for the removal of other groups in Afghanistan from sanctions, like the Hizb-e-Islami’s Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (a former Central Intelligence Agency-funded fighter), a move that Russia blocked at the UN.
Clearly, the global leaders are picking their teams. Ironically, neither side has yet pushed for the banning of the new Taliban chief, Haibatullah Akhundzada, a reminder of how far away we have come on that global consensus. Also lying in the dust is India’s decades-old proposal for a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism.
Russia’s Pakistan engagement cannot be disconnected from India’s concerns either. It is significant that among the P5, the U.S., U.K. and France co-sponsored India’s resolution against Azhar, China vetoed it, but Russia, India’s traditional backer, did nothing at all. At the BRICS summit in October and the Heart of Asia conference in December, it was the Russia-China combine that kept India’s desire for tough statements on “cross-border terrorism” from Pakistan at bay, and it was the Russian envoy who told India not to use “multilateral forums for bilateral issues”.
Azhar’s ban is only a piece in a much larger jigsaw puzzle. The world is increasingly divided and the consensus on terror, that once helped India apply pressure on Pakistan, is now dividing along these fault lines. If India is to stick to its course, of securing its citizens and borders, the answer may lie in bridging ties with all nations involved, including some that now lie across this divide.