Radicalization and the Rohingya: How Terrorism Works On The Edges of the State System

Image result for map bangladesh myanmar rohingya

Is Myanmar SE Asia or is it the Subcontinent? Or are these arbitrary and meaningless?

First off, I’m not going to pretend to an expert, or even particularly knowledgeable about Myanmar and the Rohingya. Before the crisis of the last couple of weeks, I could have told you exactly three things about that group: they were Muslim, they were frequently the victims of persecution by the Burmese government, and they were essentially stateless. But if pressed, I don’t think I could have given you the details.

That said, it is a humanitarian crisis that has now come to the world’s attention, partly because the sainted Ayn Sung Suu Kyi seems to be, at the very least, complicit in the ongoing ethnic cleansing (if not outright genocide) of a long-persecuted people.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing state-sanction violence, the latest in the ongoing Burmese campaign against the Rohingya. Who are they? I’ll leave that work to this easy al-Jazeera explainer.

The Rohingya speak Rohingya or Ruaingga, a dialect that is distinct to others spoken in Rakhine State and throughout Myanmar. They are not considered one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups and have been denied citizenship in Myanmar since 1982, which has effectively rendered them stateless.

OK, but…why? Well, even though many historians agree that Muslims have been living in that area since the 12th-century, the Buddhist-majority post-independence government of Burma/Myanmar disagreed. They considered them recent interlopers, because a lot more Muslims had come to the area from Bangladesh. To the government, they are officially Bengali.

OK, so then…why aren’t they refugees? A delightful quirk of history!

During the more than 100 years of British rule (1824-1948), there was a significant amount of migration of labourers to what is now known as Myanmar from today’s India and Bangladesh. Because the British administered Myanmar as a province of India, such migration was considered internal, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Because the British colonized both “India” (which also became Pakistan after independence, and then Bangladesh after the 1971 war which killed at least a million), as well as Burma, where Orwell shot an elephant, these are not refugees. But they also aren’t recognized. So they have no rights, and are denied basic services. That’s a neat trick!

Not everyone thinks so. When you have displaced and persecuted Muslims, that becomes a breeding ground for radicalization. Not necessarily of the Rohingya (I haven’t seen much about radical tendencies in that population), but for al-Qaeda, ISIS, and regional offshoots/independent groups.

This is quickly becoming a major cause for transnational Islamist groups. As The Soufan Group points out, “An example of how the situation can easily get worse and morph into a larger issue came in a September 12 statement by al-Qaeda  The terrorist group called for all Muslims to come to the defense of the Rohingya; a call to jihad similar to that of the Afghan War with the then-Soviet Union that set al-Qaeda’s foundation. Now three decades later, al-Qaeda is calling for more of the same in Burma. The statement derides the ‘fight against terrorism’ and calls for ‘all mujahid brothers from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines to set out for Burma…to secure their [the Rohingya] rights, which will only be returned to them by force.’”

This is like Bosnia, Chechnya, Yemen, Algeria: a place for jihadis around the world to flock to, to train, and to use for recruitment purposes. It is also a boon for regional groups, as Eurasia Review points out, with the charismatic Masood Azhar, leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, calling for much the same.

JeM is a Deobandi Sunni group, which is similar to Salafism, but has its roots in South Asia and the Subcontinent. It has largely been active in Kashmir, and its primary goal is to bring Kashmir back to Pakistan. Its relationship with the Pakistani government is officially complicated.

Actually, this is all really complicated. What, one might reasonably ask, does JeM really have to do with this? Is it just opportunism? And same with al-Qaeda. They’ve never shown a deep interest in Burma before (little need for aftershave)(sorry). So what is this all about?

For one thing, it is partially opportunism. Groups like Qaeda see a void in the state that leaves Muslims vulnerable and in danger, and they step up to be the protector. We’ll see of course if this translates into any action, but that’s almost beside the point. They are positioning themselves as champions of any Muslims, when the state can’t, and won’t protect them.

This is where this gets very dangerous. As we saw with the brief history above, the Rohingya are victims of history and geography; like Iran, their legacy rests on the perversions of colonialism and nationalism. The problem is that their land is in one of the soft spots of the state system, where maps were fluid and borders were permeable until, suddenly and horribly, they weren’t.

Whenever I had thought of the Rohingya before, skimmed a headline that talked about tens of thousands in misery or whatever, my mental map had people feeling in an Asian jungle, akin to Laos or Cambodia. That’s where I saw them going.

But that’s not really the case, as everyone now knows. They are inextricably linked to the bitter and violent history of the sub-Continent and the legacy of colonialism. Take a look at this map.

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Look at the way India pushes through the top of Bangladesh, encircling it save for the tiniest border with Myanmar. And think how irrelevant these borders really are to the historic lived experience of these people. You don’t have “Indians” on the east of Bangladesh as something ethnically dissimilar. There is mixing and blending, right through to Myanmar.

This is where the ridiculousness of the state system makes itself known. This is where the bitter fruits of “partition and parturition”, in Christopher Hitchen’s memorable phrase, fall to the ground, overripe and rotting. And this is what groups like al-Qaeda (and especially al-Qaeda) are so skilled at manipulating.

Al-Qaeda is both pre-and-post state. They reject borders and want to move the world to how they felt it was before: huge rolling Eurasian landscapes united by Islam. It was never that neat, of course, but the vision is nearer to the truth. These borders, which divide groups, and render the same people stateless or stated depending on the accident of migration and the whims of Westminster, are ridiculous, and al-Qaeda knows that.

They exist to exploit the crumbling and ahistorical state system that exists on the Eurasian heartland (and that isn’t doing too terribly well in Europe, either). They are wrong to think that a continental centralized caliphate is in line with history; things were always more subtle and local and free-wheeling and interesting than that.

But they know that the modern system, a legacy of the West trying to impose itself over the long-held order of the East, a paternalism imposed upon highly-developed cultures, couldn’t last. The contradictions and conquests of the 20th century are breaking up the order of the world, and groups like al-Qaeda know how to exploit that. Until we understand what is actually happening here, we’re powerless against groups that actually do.

 

 

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New Afghanistan Strategy Essentially the Max Power Theory Of Counter-Terrorism

(I’m going to try, but probably unsuccessfully, to ignore the grotesque spectacle of a deeply unpopular President, aided in his minority-of-voters election win by both the remnants of slave power and of a foreign power, sending more soldiers off to die. That’s America, baby. I’ll even try to leave personal animosity out, with a discussion of his unique pathologies only as relevant to the strategy. Which are very relevant. Basically, I’ll leave out his talking about unity a day before he pardons Joe Arapio, using soldiers as a way to stifle dissent, and how you can’t talk about Arlington the same week you praise Lee. Christ, this guy.)

In case you can’t see the above clip, or for some reason don’t have the context for it, it’s a Simpsons episode where Homer wants more respect, and so changes his name to “Max Power”.  If memory serves, he got it from a hair dryer. That leads to this exchange, where he’s talking about the new Max Power experience.

Homer: There’s three ways of doing things: there’s the right way, the wrong way, and the Max Power way.

Bart: Isn’t that the wrong way?

Homer: Yeah, but faster.

To me, this has always been as perfect a summation of US foreign policy as there can be. The need to “do something” in order to “show leadership” and “set a clear standard” is always a disaster, with the idea of reputation being more important than success. In other words, it is somehow better for our reputation as a superpower to invade somewhere and fail than to not intervene at all. It’s the Max Power way.

But never, I think, have I seen a more clear example of this than in President Trump’s Afghanistan speech last night. The strategy is to focus entirely on counter-terrorism, sending in more troops (though it is unclear how many more) in order to fight ISIL, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and sundry other baddies on both sides of the Durand Line, it seems. We’ll also be training the Afghan army to fight on its own.

This could be an interesting strategy, except that a) that’s essentially what we’ve been doing since most of the soldiers now fighting and dying were toddling around in short pants, and b) it is, by design, divorced from political and diplomatic realities on the ground.

Trump said time and time again that we aren’t there to nation build, and we aren’t there to play nice. He gave lip service to making sure the government was viable, but considering we don’t yet have an ambassador, it seems like lip service is all we’re going to get. That basically means that we’re going to be bombing Afghanistan and will be there as a force dedicated to killing, and not, say, helping young girls get to school.

And I get that! It’s tough. No more pussyfooting around, snowflake. Let’s let our boys do what they do best. Kill people and break shit. Right?

Right. Except that in no way has that ever helped stop militancy, and certainly never stopped terrorism. The history of the last 16 years has taught us that. There’s no doubt a lot of people will die, many of them “bad guys”. There will also be a lot of civilians that die, many more with a looser combat conduct code. (US-led attacks on ISIS in Raqqa have killed 100 civilians this week.)

This acceleration of less-discriminate violence will be playing out without a strong political component, which to me makes it madness. It is our Yemen strategy on PCP. It’s doing the wrong thing, but faster, and with the volume turned up on Ride of the Valkyries. I’d say it is doomed to failure, but our Afghanistan policies probably have been from the start, through multiple administrations. This will just make the failure bloodier and costlier.

That isn’t to say there is no political component. Trump spent plenty of time threatening Pakistan and cajoling India to pay more. Neither of these are bad on their face, of course. The problem is that he is treating India like a responsible grown-up partner, Pakistan like a vassal state, and Afghanistan like a colonial battleground. This is part of the weird retrograde foreign policy that has formed within the Adminstration, a combination of the British East India Company and a cult of personality.

Image result for british east india company

The world here is essentially America’s to do with what she wants, and what she wants is for Donald Trump to make deals. Unilateral if possible, but the deal is this: you do what we say. It’s colonial and personal, and ultimately absurd. It’s clear that Trump is not a good negotiator, and this is compounded (and predicated by) his ignorance of everything in the world. So he likes to say big things, act tough, and then hope that no one notices when things fall apart. It’s how he’s always done things, but now there is nowhere to hide. Even the smart people around him can’t avoid getting sucked into the black hole or his detached malevolence.

That’s why this “policy” is what it is. It is a reality show, Let’s be Forceful, but without any substance behind it. That it is real, and real human being, American and Afghan, will die with piteous cries or in a blinding instant of non-being, makes it even more loathsome. There is no chance at success, but there is a chance at holding up some head or another for cameras and preening about how toughness leads to victory.

You can tell it is nonsense because Trump spent a long time saying how he wasn’t going to tell our enemies when we’re going to attack, a reference to how he thinks Obama did so. This is a reference, I think, to Mosul, a battle for which Trump took credit, even though he spent all fall complaining that the war for the city wasn’t a sneak attack.

To me, this shows that he still knows nothing. He really thinks it is possible to take a city without first massing troops. He’s so cable-news addicted he thinks that we actually announce attacks, and that he’s the first guy to say we shouldn’t. He’s so self-absorbed that he bases his statements on being tougher-sounding than Obama. He wants to project toughness without actually backing it up. He wants cheap and easy victories without caring about the long-term problems. He wants to do the wrong thing as quickly as possible. It’s the Max Power way.