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Book Review
Last Updated: 05/12/2003
Shifting Sands: Instability in Undefined Asia

Sundeep Waslekar, Shifting Sands: Instability in Undefined Asia, International Centre for Peace InitiativesPrice: Rs 1350 Reprinted from The Indian Express, May 04, 2003. Our Wild, Wild West by Jasjit Singh


After the two valuable studies on Pakistan and India, the Strategic Foresight Group led by Sundeep Waslekar has come out with another one. This one not only has a catchy title but also has tried to look at four countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia) along with the US role in the region. The calculus of assessment has been built on the concept of 5-Gs as developed by the group: Growth, Governance, God, Geopolitics, and Globalisation as the drivers of change. Except for Iran which is less affected by it, the looming shadow of Osama bin Ladin and the Mujahideen is perhaps the only defining commonality in the undefined Asia.

The "undefined Asia", as the study has called it, is a key area to our west and crucial for India's future security and prosperity. Peace and stability in Afghanistan nearly a year and half after the Taliban was driven away still remains a major uncertainty. Complex overlapping loyalties - and rivalries - are interspersed with fleeting alliances among the powerful, making it far more difficult to make a coherent judgement of the degree of stability in the unfortunate country that has been the centre of the global great game and attendant violence for nearly three decades. With external aid so crucial to reconstruction and rehabilitation, the risk of aid fatigue reducing foreign assistance by 2006 is high. If the domestic economy and external trade are not established by that time, the country could again regress into a poppy-kalashnikov economy and a return of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, even if under different nomenclature.

Pakistan remains a concern in terms of continuing instability as the previous study by the group had concluded. Low GDP growth in spite of foreign economic assistance would lead to further growth of poverty and unemployment in coming years, feeding the ranks of 200,000-strong jihadi armed forces. While Pakistan's importance to the US has increased, US-Pakistan relations are expected to remain unstable till 2010.

The study cautions about the risk of a war triggered by Pakistan through escalation of terrorism in the coming future, or because of the jihadi threat to the Pakistani army (75 per cent of which are recruited from five districts containing 9 per cent of the country's population) leading to the army leadership launching a war to achieve internal consolidation.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the oil rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia could rapidly decline into socio-economic instability. Per capita income, which had risen from $400 in the early 1960s to $18,000 by 1982, dropped rapidly in the 1980s and now stands at $8,500 after a slow recovery in the 1990s. Unemployment among the Saudi population is as much as 40 percent in the case of men and 90 percent for women. Unlike UAE and other oil-rich countries, Saudi Arabia has failed to diversify its economy and hence would remain vulnerable to the expected oil price volatility in the coming decade. Absence of suitable institutions to manage socio-economic change could aggravate the situation.

Waslekar is optimistic about Iran and its steady movement toward a liberalising future. However, the report was finalised before the Iraq war and it is still not certain how the politico-economic environment in the region will be shaped in future. Interestingly, Waslekar does not rule out the US and Iran coming close to each other in future. The study does not attempt a forecast or conclusions of its own, leaving that task to the reader with a tantalising set of possible scenarios ranging from reformed political-economic systems, US-driven change, to that of ascent of radical Islamic regimes accompanied by expansion of narcotics and jihadi terrorism.

The volume is a must read for the expert as well as the layman, especially among the policy-makers in business and government

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