Positive fallout likely from Guantanamo
Bay closure and ‘civilian surge’ concept

US President Barack Obama’s order that the highly controversial Guantanamo Bay prison be closed within a year is likely to help in defusing tensions between the US and some sections of Arab and Islamic opinion. Considering that the ‘Gitmo’ prison had earned for itself the notoriety of a torture camp, the closure move could soften the hostile stance adopted against the US by these groups which are often described as ‘hardline’.

A goodwill measure such as this by the US President could not only help in salvaging the tarnished image of the US among these groups, as a violator of human rights, but also assist in indicating that the Obama administration intends making some significant departures from the foreign policy framework established in the Bush years. More democratic empowerment on the home front could translate into a relatively human rights-sensitive policy thrust on the foreign scene and these are the new policy dimensions of significance which are currently unfolding in Washington to the satisfaction of many.

Particularly encouraging were President Obama’s words on making the relevant orders: ‘The message that we are sending around the world is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism…. We are going to do so vigilantly; we are going to do so effectively; and we are going to do so in a manner that is consistent with our values and ideals….I think the American people understand that we are not, as I said in the inauguration, going to continue with a false choice between our safety and our ideals’.

Essentially, what Obama intends to convey is that there could be no trade-off between democratic values and national security in the so-called war on terror. The effort to eliminate ‘terror’ would continue but it would not be carried out to the detriment of the core values of democracy, such as , fundamental human rights. This is a very timely corrective to the world coming from Washington. Because more often than not it is perceived, in particularly the Third World, that the trade-off in question is perfectly permissible. The most horrendous of human rights violations could be perpetrated by states ‘in the name of’ national security. What we are now told, however, is that this belief could no longer be bandied around. Human rights and national security are NOT mutually exclusive. In fact states would be only aggravating their national security concerns by increasingly encouraging or turning a blind eye on human rights violations. For, human rights violations only increasingly stoke public resentment against the state and help in spawning more and more law and order problems for governments. Accordingly, democratic development and the maintenance of public order could and should go hand-in-hand.

We need hardly stress the point that the democratic empowerment of persons and communities would assist greatly in ushering public contentment and this in turn would obviate the need for strong arm measures for strengthening national security, on the part of states. It would prove instructive to observe how the US reduces both domestic and international tensions through a matching of ‘safety’ and ‘ideals’.

It is a happy augury that these issues are now mooted and discussed frankly by some political leaders of South and South West Asia in their relations with the major powers. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, for instance, was quoted recently as telling Nato Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer that while he appreciated Nato’s role in maintaining law and order in parts of the world, he looked forward to a ‘civilian surge’ in Pakistan’s tribal areas. This is a not too oblique reference to Washington’s intention to open Afghanistan to a Nato-driven ‘troop surge’ in the near future to contain the insurgency there. While the adoption of law and order measures to contain law and order issues is perfectly understandable, it is also vital that the interested sections of the world community join hands in launching a massive development drive in Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s tribal belt region, which is currently in the throes of militant unrest. This is basically what the Pakistani President had to say and it goes without saying that development is mainly the responsibility of civilian administrations. Hence, the reference to a ‘civilian surge’.

The Pakistani President had occasion to elaborate on this concept while addressing a forum which discussed questions relating to Pakistan’s restive North West Frontier Province. He is reported as saying that ‘the government was pursuing the three "Ds" formula made up of dialogue, development and deterrence to root out the menace of extremism from the country’.

This amounts to a clear recognition that a development ‘surge’ coupled with dialogue is as important as law and order measures, in containing insurgencies, whatever the reasons given for the origins of the latter. No doubt, these insights would prove vital in handling ethnic insurgencies in our part of the world. It is important that the Pakistani authorities have clearly recognized that it is a lack of employment and livelihoods that compel many a youth in Pakistan’s restive regions to come under the sway of extremists of various kinds. Therefore, insurgencies call for the application of multi-pronged approaches for their resolution.

Ideally, these vital insights into conflict containment should be shared widely and vibrantly among political leaders and decision-makers of the SAARC region. While there is no denying that firm law and order measures need to be adopted to contain ‘terror’, the region could be accused of extreme simple-mindedness if too great a reliance is placed on a law and order approach to handle the problem. Defence budgets in this region are ballooning alarmingly with a resultant shrinking in welfare and social spending. The overall result could very well be more social discontent and unrest. Moreover, a disproportionate reliance on military means could mean the loss of more and more lives. It could prove more cost-effective to give the ‘civilian surge’ a chance for such an approach is highly sparing of lives and prevents states from being brutalized. And needless to say, brutalized states are a current South Asian blight.

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