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October 21, 2005

Q & A with Devin Hagerty, Expert on South Asia

In the past decade, UMBC Associate Professor of Political Science Devin T. Hagerty’s region of expertise, South Asia, has gone from being an understudied corner of the globe to one of the most closely watched. In 1998, India and Pakistan added nuclear weapon capability to what was already one of the tensest borders in the world. Then 9-11 focused U.S. public opinion and foreign policy on Afghanistan, the Taliban, stopping the spread of Al Qaeda and the continuing search for Osama Bin Laden.

Devin Hagerty

Hagerty recently completed two books: Fearful Symmetry: Indo-Pakistani Crises in the Shadow of Nuclear Weapons, co-authored with Sumit Ganguly (July 2005, Oxford University Press and the University of Washington Press), and South Asia in World Politics, of which he is editor(May 2005, Rowman and Littlefield). He is also the editor of Asian Security, a pioneering academic journal that takes a global, interdisciplinary look at security issues in the region.

After Oct. 7’s devastating earthquake--adding humanitarian disaster to the already volatile sociopolitical mix in this global flashpoint--UMBC Research News caught up with Hagerty and the region he studies.

Help us understand Pakistan better – compare it to Iran, India or Saudi Arabia.

Economically it’s still a very depressed country; it’s extremely poor. Literacy is very low, only about 20 to 30 percent for all the population, and for women it’s more like five to 10 percent. The society has cut off almost all opportunity for women. Health care is non-existent or shoddy. There’s also a big drug addiction problem due to all the opiate production in the region–an estimated 1 to 1.5 million heroin addicts. There are many ethnic divisions–Punjabis, Sindhis, Muhajirs, etc., along with the ongoing internal rifts amongst Islam today.

What is the role of Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf in the “global war on terror” and the stakes for him in the hunt for Bin Laden?

It’s hard to think of a leader in a more precarious position. He’s got his own domestic pressures, plus he’s survived at least three assassination attempts in recent years.

He gets a lot of criticism from the West for not being perceived as doing enough to fight terror or find Bin Laden. But it’s important to realize that he did something never done before since Pakistan was founded in 1947. He has sent regular Pakistan Army forces to the lawless border region in an effort to fight Al Qaeda and other violent fundamentalist groups there. I tend to have more sympathy for him than most Western observers.

How would Pakistan react if Abu Zarqawi is successful in his goal of sparking a Shiite-Sunni civil war in Iraq that could spread throughout the Middle East?

Pakistan has a heavily Sunni majority, but probably would try to avoid choosing sides in that scenario.

Actually, there is as much of an ideological civil war going on within Islam today. They are really working out what it means to be a Muslim in the 21st century. On one end of the spectrum are the Wahhabis who want to turn back the clock several centuries with a strict fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran, and on the other are progressive Sunnis who believe the Koran is open to interpretation. In the same sense, a very similar debate is going on within Christianity today.

What’s the current status of India-Pakistan relations?

Well, let’s just say relations are not warm (laughs). But they’re not particularly bad right now either. It’s sort of a stand off, but there is a “peace process” which is making progress.

Kashmir is the big elephant in the room. The region is not just a flashpoint, it’s part of each country’s self-identity. Pakistan views itself as the political homeland for Muslims of South Asia. India sees itself as a secular society that is tolerant of all faiths, although it’s predominantly Hindu. There is a really deep ideological dimension to the Kashmir conflict beyond simple lines on a map.

It’s hard to be optimistic about a Kashmir solution in the near future, it really is. It would take a huge act of joint political courage to resolve the situation.

Many people have a hard time squaring current U.S. administration “you’re either with us or with the terrorists” rhetoric vs. reality in Pakistan. Some would argue that from Bin Laden to A.Q. Khan, Pakistan leans more to sympathy with or support for terror. Why are we still allies with these folks?

We need them. I get this type of question in my classes.

It’s similar to the Cold War in that our allies were often very thuggish. National security calculations always look at the overriding thereat. We need the Pakistanis’ information and access--something only they can give us right now in the Muslim world.

If there were a rupture in our relationship with Pakistan, we would lose our ability to be effective on the ground in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban is reconstituting itself, for example.

From the end of the Cold War to 9-11, we pulled back from the South Asian region and forgot about it, obviously in hindsight a terrible foreign policy mistake. In my opinion, the Bush administration feels it has no choice right now but to ally with Pakistan.

It’s a tough question. I always tell my students that if you like your answers nice and neat and consistent, then maybe international relations isn’t the field for you.

What about the recent Afghanistan elections? What is the hope for that country and where does it fit in the global picture now?

The big thing to remember is that if you had Googled “elections” and “Afghanistan” in the year 2000, you wouldn’t have gotten a lot of hits. Afghanistan is one of the most politically regressive countries in the world; it’s seen literally constant warfare since 1978. Two million people killed, about six million refugees to Pakistan, Iran and elsewhere.

The Soviet occupation tried to depopulate the countryside and push everyone into the cities, then the Mujahideen power struggle obliterated the cities. It’s a country in really bad shape.

Now a lot of progress is being made. Elections are a very hopeful sign. There’s now a true, multilateral presence there of international peacekeeping troops and NGO’s. NATO is leading aid efforts and organization in the countryside. In some ways it’s a more hopeful situation than Pakistan right now.

As someone who lived and worked in Australia for many years, what are your thoughts on how it is increasingly becoming a target of South Asian based terror groups? It seems like US allies have been systematically targeted. What do Australians think of the “war on terror” and their role in it?

Australia is a vital U.S. ally. Globally, they are one of our two or three closest allies along with the UK. They have an extremely close security and international relationship with the U.S.

Australians are very proud of the fact that in every war the U.S. has fought, they have supported us with boots on the ground, not just sending a hospital ship or moral support. I have a lot of respect for the Australian people.

I’ve been a bit surprised that there has yet to be a successful terror attack on Australia. It’s as big as the lower 48 United States, with 20 million people. They have excellent coastal defenses; the Royal Australian Navy is damned good.

That said, the alliance with the U.S. isn’t always popular in Australian society. It’s a real generational difference – folks in their fifties and sixties recognize the role the U.S. played in the WWII Pacific theatre. When Japan overwhelmed Singapore in 1942, the UK was out of the game. The US got in and has stayed in ever since.

The US relationship hasn’t been cost-free for the Australian government--John Howard and George W. Bush are very close and it has cost Howard some domestic political support, especially among younger people.

Posted by elewis at October 21, 2005 2:42 PM