Why Is Counterterrorism Cooperation So Difficult?

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Why Is Counterterrorism Cooperation So Difficult?

Every country agrees terrorism is a threat. So why is it so hard to get states to work together?

Why Is Counterterrorism Cooperation So Difficult?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ DVIDSHUB

Representatives from China, Germany, India, and the United States agreed this week that terrorism is one of the most pressing threats for their respective nations – so why is it proving so difficult to forge multilateral cooperation?

The comments came at the Berlin Foreign Policy Forum on November 29, in a panel of foreign policy heavyweights: Niels Annen, German MP and spokesman on Foreign Affairs for the SPD Parliamentary Group; S. Jaishankar, India’s foreign secretary; Susan Thornton, principal deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the U.S. State Department; and Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu, director-emeritus of the Center on China-American Defense Relations at China’s Academy of Military Sciences. When asked to identify the global security issues considered as a top priority for their country, each speaker put terrorism at or near the top of the list (Yao was the only figure who didn’t list it first – she started with nuclear non-proliferation).

Although terrorism is a security priority for China, Germany, India, and the United States, fostering meaningful cooperation among these four countries on the issue would prove quite the headache. Jaishankar pointed out one major hurdle to overcome: perceptions of terrorism in Europe and the United States differ from those in India. Washington and European capitals tend to view terrorism through the lens of the Middle East, Jaishankar explained, where such violence is largely a product of state failure. Yet in South Asia, terrorism is a product of states – it is used by state governments to achieve certain ends. Jaishankar’s point was that as long as India and its potential partners in the West cannot agree on how to conceptualize terrorism, getting on the same page about how to fight it will be difficult.

Jaishankar didn’t mention any states by name, but Pakistan always looms large in discussions of state-sponsored terrorism in South Asia. New Delhi frequently accuses Islamabad of knowingly fostering and even helping to fund and train extremist groups that carry out attacks in India, including Jaish-e-Mohammed (accused of recent attacks on Indian military bases in Pathankot and Uri) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (responsible for the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai in 2008).

Here is where things get even more complicated: both China and the United States have, to varying degrees, been reluctant to alienate Pakistan over the issue, much to India’s dismay. The United States, eager to keep Islamabad’s support for the war in Afghanistan, walks a careful line between validating Indian concerns and not embarrassing Pakistan, its nominal ally in the war on terror. China goes even farther, thanks to its “all-weather friendship” with Pakistan. Beijing, for instance, continues to veto India’s attempts to place JeM chief Masood Azhar on the UN’s designated terrorist list.

Meanwhile, China has its own concerns over the global definition of terrorism. Yao argued that, though China is a victim of terrorism, this is “not well recognized” by the West. Western governments are often equally (if not more) concerned about alleged human rights violations against China’s ethnic Uyghurs than about Uyghur separatist and extremist groups. Beijing has often lamented “double standards” on terrorism, accusing the West of making excuses for attacks in China. Despite Beijing’s complaints, rights concerns have kept the U.S. and European countries from moving too quickly to pursue counterterrorism cooperation with China. Instead, Beijing has pursued cooperation elsewhere, such as its new quadrilateral intelligence-sharing agreement with Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Annen, the German MP, acknowledged that the problem of defining terrorism “has always existed.” As the saying goes, one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. However, he argued that all four countries do share a “common enemy” in Islamic extremism, which threatens Asia, Europe, and the United States.

Thornton, too, pointed out that more can be done. She said that, while efforts are ongoing to craft a “comprehensive security approach” that gets everyone involved, right now cooperation mostly comes in an “ad hoc format” – bilateral or multilateral groupings of like-minded states.

Given the difficulties in defining terrorism, not to mention the tendency to balance counterterrorism against other complex geopolitical issues – many of which pit potential partners against each other – those “ad hoc formats” might be the best we can hope for.