With terrorist incidents tearing Pakistan apart city by city, India needs to realise that the continuing suspension of bilateral engagement is not making itself or the region any safer.

As a victim of terrorism, much of which has emanated from across the border in Pakistan, it is hardly surprising that India should confuse diplomatic strategy with counter-terrorism strategy and believe that “toughness” on the external front hardens the country internally and insulates us from terrorist attacks.

For the better part of a decade, India’s politicians and pundits have bought into the fallacy that diplomacy and security policy are one and the same thing, effectively handing the terrorists who would harm us a double bonus. Our complacency-induced vulnerability allows them to strike fairly easily; and our predictable tendency to suspend diplomatic engagement with Pakistan and rattle our sabres every time there is a major incident gives them an added incentive to target us.

When the Parliament complex in New Delhi was attacked by terrorists in December 2001, the erstwhile government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee responded by mobilising the army and downgrading diplomatic, commercial and people-to-people relations with Pakistan. This coercive diplomacy initially yielded results, as Pervez Musharraf banned the Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Lashkar-e-Taiba and placed their leaders under house arrest. But the longer India persisted with its hard line diplomatic tack, the more meagre were the returns. And eventually they became negative. The prospect of triggering an Indo-Pakistan war encouraged the terrorists to up the ante with an attack on the army cantonment at Kaluchak. Western chanceries began to issue travel advisories urging their citizens to steer clear of India because of the danger of conflict with Pakistan. Eventually, the international pressure that ought to have been applied on Islamabad ended up being redirected towards Delhi. The situation only began to change when Mr. Vajpayee recognised the limits of coercion and turned towards engagement. The Siachen and Line of Control ceasefires of 2003 were concrete achievements of this period that have stood the test of time. And then came the Vajpayee-Musharraf meeting of January 2004, which led to the resumption of the composite dialogue.

While there is no denying the political significance of General Musharraf’s commitment of not allowing terrorists to use the Pakistani territory to stage attacks against India, the Indian strategic community erred in believing that what was an obvious diplomatic achievement was also a gain on the counter-terrorism front. As far as homeland security was concerned, in fact, such an assurance was meaningless because the measures India needed to take to protect itself ought to have been based on the worst case scenario of Pakistan not delivering on its promises. In the event, no special measures were taken.

If the government’s hard line diplomacy allowed a sense of complacency to creep in on the counter-terrorism front from 2001 to 2004, our belief in Gen. Musharraf’s good intentions from 2004 to 2006 further strengthened that tendency. Most importantly, our policymakers did not foresee the consequences that the metastasis of terrorism in Pakistan from 2006 onwards would have as groups once nurtured by the Inter-Services Intelligence started targeting Pakistani cities and institutions, including the army. The fact that the territorial United States has not been attacked by terrorists since 9/11 has led some analysts to conclude that this is because America struck back militarily, taking the war to the terrorists, as it were, rather than allowing them to retain the initiative. Israel’s tendency to lash out at the Gaza strip or Lebanon also finds favour with some armchair Indian strategists who dream of “surgical strikes” against terrorists based in Pakistan. While U.S. military action has certainly disrupted the al-Qaeda’s ability to mount the kind of operation it did in 2001, American territory has remained protected because of geography and a professional, well-functioning police force and intelligence gathering system. India, unfortunately, has none of these advantages.

If the country continued to remain vulnerable to Pakistan-based terrorists even after the December 2001 attack on Parliament, it was because none of the systemic improvements needed to ensure better intelligence gathering, border and coastal security, investigative and forensic skills was even considered, let alone implemented. Armed with the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the traditional permissiveness towards third-degree methods, effective counter-terrorism came to mean rounding up the usual suspects, getting them to confess to crimes they may or may not have committed, planting stories in the media about how major incidents were averted in the nick of time by our clever intelligence “sleuths,” and organising the odd fake encounter for that added touch of authenticity. Needless to say, none of this actually strengthened our national capacity to deal with the threat of terrorism, native or foreign.

India’s vulnerability to terrorism was proved once again last November in Mumbai, when 10 terrorists arrived in rubber dinghies and staged a devastating series of attacks at a railway station, hospital, café, Jewish cultural centre and two five-star hotels. We now know this particular operation was at least two years in the making and involved numerous reconnaissance trips to the city and its harbour by Lashkar operatives. One of these alleged operatives, David Headley, is now in the custody of the American police and has been formally charged with being a part of the terrorist conspiracy.

There is nothing surprising or extraordinary about the fact that the Mumbai police and the Intelligence Bureau were unaware of Headley’s movements and agenda. What is shocking is the fact that no one bothered to examine the registers of not just the Taj Mahal and the Trident hotels going back a few years but also other hotels that might have been potential targets in order to try and discover whether the LeT had sent operatives on a recce mission. Prima facie, any guest who provided a false name or address ought to have been treated as an accomplice. But this kind of basic police work wasn’t done. Here, again our investigative efforts fell into a depressingly familiar pattern. With Ajmal ‘Kasab’ being apprehended and the Pakistani origins of the attackers and conspirators firmly established, the powers that be presumably saw little sense in using the police and the IB to see whether the Mumbai plot involved a wider set of conspirators. Our counter-terrorism strategy boiled down to a single-point agenda: demanding that Pakistan act against the LeT and its odious chief, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed.

That demand is a valid one and there is no harm in India pressing it. Similarly, no one can fault the Indian government for demanding that Pakistan swiftly prosecute and convict those LeT men whom it has already indicted for their involvement in the Mumbai attacks. Even if the big fish have not been caught there, the prosecution of small fry can also affect the ability of LeT and its backers to mount operations. Where the Indian strategy has gone wrong, tragically wrong, is in treating diplomacy as a sign of weakness and assuming that any form of engagement would be tantamount to making concessions to the Pakistani military establishment. Despite Prime Minister Manmohan Singh repeatedly emphasising the need for remaining engaged, there has been no visible progress on the bilateral front. Earlier, Indian officials let it be known that they were waiting for the trial in Pakistan to begin; now some are saying, on background, that India will wait for the LeT men to be convicted before considering the resumption of any form of dialogue. Next, we may insist that any appeals the convicted men are dismissed, or that they all be hanged before we are ready to talk.

At the time of the Sharm el-Shaikh summit in July, there was hardly any international sympathy for India’s position that dialogue had to await meaningful action by Pakistan on the terrorism front. Today, when some of the suspects are on trial and jihadi terrorists are massacring innocent people in Lahore, Peshawar, Rawalpindi and other cities and towns almost daily, the world and Pakistani civil society are asking themselves what kind of a callous place India is for not trying to help its neighbour deal with a common enemy. This diplomatic vacuum also provides excellent fodder for the deranged conspiracy theorists in Pakistan, who say India is behind the series of bomb blasts there.

As India examines its options, it must take as a given that the Pakistani military continues to harbour hostile intentions. And of course the ISI continues to have links with the LeT, the Afghan Taliban and other groups. The correct Indian response should be a better counter-terrorist strategy. Not talking to Pakistan’s civilian government is hardly effective counter-terrorism. Nor is it effective diplomacy.

With terrorist incidents tearing Pakistan apart city by city, India needs to realise that the continuing suspension of bilateral engagement is not making itself or the region any safer.