26/11 can happen again
DNA newspaper, April 8, 2009
More than four months after the unparalleled Mumbai terrorist assaults, India has returned to business as usual. It has shied away from the hard decisions it needed to take, yet it set up a new organization of little utility — the National Investigative Agency — whose small staff is still struggling to find office space. Mumbai may have become a terrorist exemplar globally, but in India, there is little evidence it has changed thinking and policy fundamentally, even though it wreaked incalculable damage to the investment and tourism worth of “Brand India.”
India has confronted a continuous Pakistan-waged unconventional war since the 1980s, but to date, it is unable to shed its blinkers, let alone initiate any concrete counteraction to stem a rising existential threat. India is facing war, and yet it continues to debate interminably how it should respond, even as the level of Pakistani asymmetric warfare against it escalates qualitatively and quantitatively.
India has suffered more acts of major terror than any other nation in the 21st century. Still, the debate in India rages as if the last Pakistani act of war was the 1999 Kargil invasion. The blunt truth is that ever since the then Pakistani dictator Zial ul-Haq fashioned the instrument of proxy war against India in the 1980s by taking a page out of the CIA-sponsored covert war against the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, Pakistan has been at systematic war with the Indian republic.
Terrorism in general, and especially a foreign state-sponsored proxy war, cannot be fought as a law-and-order problem. What India needs is a comprehensive approach that blends different key elements to form a credible counter-terror strategy. Yet, to this day, India has not attempted to even formulate a counterterrorism doctrine.
An excess emphasis on defensive measures only plays into the designs of terrorists and their masters by instilling a siege mentality, underlined by the government’s refusal to take any risks in compelling the Indian Premier League to take its scheduled cricket series overseas. The siege mentality is also evident from the government’s focus on trying to prevent a repeat of the last attack rather than seeking to forestall the next innovative strike. The likelihood of terrorists arriving again on inflatable dinghies and striking luxury hotels is very low. Yet the response to Mumbai has been to set up security cordons around luxury hotels — cordons that any determined band of terrorists can bust.
Actually, on Mumbai, India lost twice over — the first time when 10 Pakistani terrorists held its commercial capital hostage for almost three days, and the second time when Pakistan outmaneuvered it diplomatically. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, strikingly, did not take a single step against Islamabad over the Mumbai attacks — however small or symbolic. Singh thus helped cap India’s response at the level of impotent fury. His focus was almost entirely on containing the domestic political fallout of the attacks.
In that light, it is no surprise that New Delhi has continually watered down its position. Gone is its insistence that Pakistan dismantle its terror infrastructure and allow the Mumbai suspects to be tried in India. With New Delhi having relaxed its pressure, it is pretty likely that the Mumbai masterminds, with their close ties to the Pakistani military leadership, will go scot-free. That in turn is likely to embolden the Pakistani military to sanction another terrorist attack on India that does as much damage as the Mumbai strikes.
Indeed, far from targeting Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as a terrorist organization, Singh naively sought to bolster its credibility by inviting its chief to India after the Mumbai attacks. But for second thoughts in Islamabad, the ISI chief would have landed up in India, to quote the credulous Singh, “to assist in the investigations.” How Singh could have believed that the ISI would lend a helping hand remains a puzzle. Just weeks later, the Indian foreign secretary declared that organizers of the Mumbai attacks and the earlier Indian embassy bombing in Kabul “remain clients and creations of the ISI.”
It is past time New Delhi addressed the glaring disconnect between its shrill rhetoric and inaction by framing a comprehensive counterterrorism doctrine and setting up a unified institution and command to wage war on terrorists and their sponsors. Besides building up its special-forces capabilities, it needs to employ better public relations as a counterterrorism instrument. Also, by quietly undertaking various actions, including at sub-threshold level, India can demonstrate that terrorism no longer is a cost-free option for Pakistan. Washington’s failure to help bring the Pakistan-based Mumbai masterminds to justice, and President Barack Obama’s new plan unveiling the largest-ever annual US aid flow to Islamabad, underscore that India will have to combat terrorism on its own strength.
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