Foil the terror war
India has to act now to pre-empt further terror attacks
The Times of India, February 18, 2009
If, as the famous soldier and military historian Carl von Clausewitz theorized, war is the continuation of politics by other means, terrorism is the continuation of war by other means. Since the 1980s, Pakistan has waged such war unremittingly. Yet India has been unable to shed its blinkers, let alone initiate concrete counteraction. Even as the Pakistani asymmetric warfare has escalated qualitatively, leaving no part of India unscathed, the Indian republic continues to debate endlessly on how to respond to that war.
Islamabad’s grudging admission about the role of some Pakistani “non-state actors” in the Mumbai attacks notwithstanding, there is little hope that Pakistan will reform itself and kick its terrorism-fomenting addiction. President Asif Ali Zardari is right that the Taliban wants to take over Pakistan. Those who play with fire will be consumed by fire. By fathering the Taliban, Pakistan set in motion an inexorable political reconfiguration of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region (or Af-Pak in Washingtonese). Indeed, the political border between these two countries has already ceased to exist in practice.
But even as the writ of the Pakistani state no longer extends to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and much of Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) — that is, to nearly half the country — the alliance between its jihadist-infiltrated military and Islamists remains firm. Pakistan’s pattern of “prevarication, denial, diversionary tactics and misplaced sense of victimhood”, as the Indian foreign minister has called it, is best illustrated by a Pakistani think-tank’s widely circulated report which, reflecting the security establishment’s mindset, portrays the Mumbai attacks and the Indian dossier as a Hindu-Jewish-American plot to dismember Pakistan and divest it of its nuclear crown jewels by provoking a dual Indian and US invasion from opposite flanks.
Still, the evidence tracing the unparalleled Mumbai strikes to Pakistan became simply too overwhelming for Islamabad to continue to stonewall. But its epiphanic, partial admission is not designed to bring the real planners to justice but to shield them by making a few jihadists the fall guys and to drag out the investigations indefinitely, knowing that the Mumbai attacks would be eclipsed by newer terror strikes in India. In essence, it is a political ploy to deflect international pressure, contain Indian anger and lower bilateral tensions — the diplomatic equivalent of throwing a bone at a dog.
Let’s face it: Pakistan’s ability to wage a war of terror with impunity owes a lot to India’s own failings. While Pakistan is a quasi-failed state, India is a state that has yet to come of age — a young republic still learning statecraft. Pakistan is disingenuous about wanting to end its state-nurtured terrorism, but India has been no less insincere in pledging to defeat such warfare. “When will India start defending itself?” That was the blunt question someone asked this writer at a recent conference overseas. The state that suffers the most terrorist blows in the world has, oddly, no counterterrorism doctrine and no defined defence policy.
Failure to move from sound-bites to action has turned India into such a veritable target for daring, innovative attacks that American analyst Ashley Tellis told Congress that, “India has become the sponge that protects us all”. Take Mumbai. The synaptic gap between New Delhi’s shrill rhetoric and lack of meaningful response has been glaring. What’s more, it has continued to water down its demands. Gone is its insistence that the accused be tried in India. It has also fallen into the Pakistan trap by focusing on the inquiry into an act of terror than on the infrastructure of terror that permits such acts to be carried out. Amateurishly, topmost officials contradict each other in public and call attention to a litany of mistakes.
The first response to the Mumbai attacks was to ingenuously invite the ISI chief to come and “assist in the investigations” — akin to police inviting the mafia to join a criminal probe. Now the world has been told that in both the Mumbai and Kabul embassy attacks, “the organizers were and remain clients and creations of the ISI”. Take another example. Twitchily defensive on Kashmir, New Delhi argues that issue can be dealt with only at the bilateral level with Pakistan. Yet India seeks to respond to Pakistan’s terror war not bilaterally but internationally. It is as if New Delhi has irredeemably lost its diplomatic script.
It is a sorry spectacle when Indians appear better at quoting statistics than in dealing with realities. The defence minister affirms “more than 30 terrorist camps are still operating in Pakistan”, while the army chief specifies that most such camps are located “10 to 50 kilometres” from the Indian frontier. But, unembarrassed, they have nothing to report on what they have done in response. It is as if those tasked with defending India are supposed to merely collect data and record it in files for posterity while hapless Indians continue to fall victim to terrorist strikes.
Terror orchestrators across the border know that India’s present tough talk will last only up to national elections. Once India returns to business as usual, they will seek to stump its defences again through synchronized swarm attacks on novel targets. War by terror is seriously undermining India’s security and rising strength. If India is to avert nightmare scenarios and not remain a sponge that absorbs attacks so that other states are spared, it better defend itself through a concerted counterterrorist strategy with near- and far-term components.
The writer is professor, Centre for Policy Research.