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India and the war on terror

By C. Raja Mohan

Rather than bank on international cooperation, India will have to develop its own means to vacate the threat of terrorism.

TWO YEARS after September 11, it is time for India to take stock of America's global war on terror and the impact on its own security. India had hoped that the declaration of a global war on terrorism at the end of 2001 would mobilise significant international support in defeating the forces of terrorism that bled the nation for more than a decade and a half. But the results two years later have been mixed and India is left with a simple lesson. While international cooperation is necessary to counter terrorism in the subcontinent, it is not sufficient. Rather than bank on international cooperation, India will have to develop its own means to vacate the threat of terrorism.

Undoubtedly, the global normative framework against terrorism has substantially expanded since September 11. While there are many, including our neighbour Pakistan, who continue to quibble over the definition of terrorism, never before has there been such a widespread international consensus that the employment of violence against a civilian population, irrespective of the nature of the political grievance, is absolutely unacceptable. Along with this consensus has come an expansion of international rules against terrorism and a strengthening of the mechanisms for cooperation among nation states. There is much greater empathy and support for India from the international community in its war against terrorism. India's efforts since the late 1990s to gain cooperation bilaterally and multilaterally has paid dividends since September 11. Cooperation between Indian law enforcement agencies and their counterparts abroad has improved. And there is mounting pressure on many states, which in the past had turned a blind eye to terrorists, their finances and support structures.

The central premise of the global war on terrorism since September 11 has been the importance of ending state support to terrorism. While extremist groups have dramatically improved their capabilities and reach, they remain susceptible to isolation and defeat if they are robbed of state support. While some states have supported or cooperated with terrorism as a matter of policy, there is a new international awareness of the threat posed by failed or failing states. These states become havens for terrorist groups, international criminal networks and extremist groups. State failure appears inevitable as a large number of nations, many of them unviable and artificial, had been created in the last part of the 20th century. Dealing with this remains a challenge for which consistent answers are yet to be found. September 11 also produced a number of other propositions.

Terrorism has become a preferred way of warfare in modern times for a large number of groups and political forces. Their ability to access and employ modern technology has significantly improved. Weapons of mass destruction are now within their reach. The scale of the attack on September 11 suggests that modern terrorist groups will not abide by the traditional rules of warfare and are unlikely to demonstrate the restraint states have traditionally exercised in relation to weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Combined with the core capacity of the terrorist groups to choose the place and timing of their attacks at random and without notice, urban societies have never been more vulnerable.

India's experience with terrorism since the late 1980s underlines the assessment that the combination of WMD, terrorism and extremist ideologies has emerged as the single biggest threat to the international system. Islamabad's ability to conduct a relentless campaign against India has been sustained by the fact that its nuclear deterrent prevents India from using its large conventional military power. India has struggled to break out of this box. Befriending Pakistan through peace initiatives and confronting it with the threat of war, as after the attack on Parliament on December 13, 2001, have not produced results.

India has no difficulty in agreeing with the argument that the world needs a new set of rules and military ideas in coping with the challenge of asymmetric war posed by terrorism. The change must necessarily involve a radical rethinking of the alliances, military doctrines, and international treaties and organisations. But the effort to fashion this change by the United States, as part of the global war on terror, has run into major difficulties and has polarised the world.

The unprecedented international unity fashioned in the wake of September 11 has quickly dissolved into recrimination and division among the major powers as the political focus of the war on terrorism shifted from completing the tasks in Afghanistan to ousting the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. There is fundamental disagreement among the major powers today on when, how and in what form force must be used to deal with the threats of international terrorism and the states that sponsor them. Nor is there an agreement on the priorities. The United Nations has become ineffective faced with the choice between meek compliance and ineffective defiance of the U.S. The American efforts to devise new rules for managing WMD threats too have proved to be controversial. While everyone agrees that the war on terrorism cannot be won merely by military means, there is no consensus on how to promote political conditions that will drain the swamps of terrorism.

India has sought to find a way out of the divide between the American emphasis on unilateralism and the focus of the other great powers on multilateralism by stressing on the creation of an alliance of democracies to deal with the challenges posed by terrorism. India has also argued that this alliance must come up with a new set of agreed rules that must fashion the response to terrorism. But India is a long way from creating the political basis for a new consensus on this question. While the debate on new methods to deal with terrorism will continue for a long time, the biggest disappointment for India has been the reluctance of the international community to confront the sources of terrorism in Pakistan.

To be sure, India has gained from a number of steps the international community took after September 11. The U.S. and its allies have banned a number of organisations based in Pakistan that have indulged in terrorist activities. Equally significant has been the moves by the international community to hold the state in Pakistan responsible for clearing its soil of activities that threaten the rest of the world. The U.S. has also forced Pakistan to give assurances that it will end cross-border infiltration on a permanent basis. Islamabad's verbal promises, however, have not been translated into concrete actions. The U.S. is not willing to confront Pakistan with a warning that its refusal to implement commitments will have costly consequences. Despite the recognition that the sources of terrorism today in Afghanistan and Kashmir are located in Pakistan, Washington is paralysed by the potential troubles from challenging the Army and its leadership in Islamabad. Pakistan is considered an important instrument in the American war on terrorism, so it must be exempt from the principles of that war.

As India comes to terms with this irony of the global war on terrorism, it must look inward. While continuing to participate in the global debate on terrorism and maintaining the pressure on the international community to retain coherence in its counter-terrorism strategy, India needs to alter other dimensions of its policy. The first is the approach to Pakistan, which must start with two premises — that there are limits to what the U.S. can do, and the impossibility of getting Islamabad to negotiate away its leverage on terrorism. That will lead a different set of options to the top of the Indian agenda vis--vis Pakistan.

One is to develop an activist engagement with the Pakistani polity and society that aims at containing the negative forces in that nation. India's constant temptation has been to avoid dealing with Pakistan as a way of punishing those responsible for terrorism. That approach has not worked. Instead, India must actively intervene in the political dynamic inside Pakistan. Tied to this bold policy toward Pakistan must be comprehensive security sector reforms at home. Without a root and branch overhaul of the security forces, intelligence agencies, border management and the higher political command of internal security, India's own war on terrorism will not succeed. There has been too much rhetoric on the threat from terrorism and too little thought on recasting India's internal security strategy.

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