The Bigger Picture: For victory, we need better knowledge and sharper tactics
Reading about war on a Diwali morning may not seem to be the most appropriate thing to do. But let’s not forget, the festival is about celebrating victory in an elemental war against evil. Last Saturday’s bomb blasts that killed more than three score innocents should remind us that even while we commemorate the end of that mythological war, there is a real one we confront and it shows no signs of an end. There have been spectacular victories in this war, but equally galling and tragic failure. It will be a rare analyst who will agree with George W. Bush that we are actually winning the war against terrorism.
Terrorism in its present form has been around since the Seventies, yet the so-called Global War Against Terror (GWOT) was touched off only after the 9/11 attack on the United States. Even a cursory accounting would show that there have been as many pluses as minuses on the score-card.
As for India, the Diwali bombings could be the beginning of a new and more vicious phase of the long war India has fought against terrorist violence — beginning with Khalistani terrorism, the combat with the LTTE, Kashmiri separatism and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence’s proxy war.
The experience of the United States provides salutary lessons as to what can go wrong in this campaign. The US was expected to provide strong leadership but, instead, seems to be lost in a limbo called Iraq. Having overturned the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the Bush administration misdirected the emotional anger of the US, as well as its considerable military and other capacities, into a needless war on Iraq. Using technology and concepts that are far in advance of what their contemporaries possess, the US pulverised the Iraqi armed forces. But looking back, all they won was a battle. Two years down the line, it is beginning to look as though they succeeded in egregiously creating a new front in the war against terrorism.
The Indian awareness of the terrorist adversary is much sharper than that of the US, but its ability to marshal its own forces is weak and at times almost appears incoherent. The Indian battle against terrorism has been a much more defensive one since it rules out a strike against the fountainhead — nuclear armed Pakistan. It involves continuous ferreting out of terrorist ‘modules’ and eliminating them as well as to arrive at political settlements that will deprive the terrorists of external support. As part of this, the government has intensified dialogue with domestic separatists in the North-east, as well as sought entente with Pakistan through a sustained effort to resolve the Kashmir issue. Yet, evidence suggests that there has been little let-up in the efforts of the terrorists to hurt India. The bomb blasts in Assam, the attack in Ayodhya, along with a score of foiled strikes this year, point to a continuing and sustained assault on India.
One major problem in this global war is the ambiguous role of Pakistan. It is currently America’s most valuable ally in the war, while it is also, by almost universal acknowledgement, one of the principal sources of terrorism. Pakistan offers special problems for India not just because of its location as a neighbour or possessor of nuclear weapons, but also because of the deep-rooted anti-India dogma — both religious and nationalistic — that afflicts its armed forces.
Some years back, an American scholar, Jessica Stern, went across the region looking at religious extremism. She met a number of key leaders of the jehad, such as Sami- ul-Haq, head of the Darul Uloom Haqqania at Akora Khattak, who insisted that the US was assessing the Pakistani army wrongly, “The army is now Islamic,” he said and was committed to the madrasas. “This is the first time,” Haq grandly added, “that I am revealing the truth to a foreigner.” Later, Stern cited a Pakistani military officer to say that although Indian forces were far more numerous as compared to the Pakistani, they suffered from a “siege mentality” that weakened their spirit.
A major cause of conceptual confusion in the war against terrorism is the idea that there are ‘root causes’ of terrorism. Terrorism is not about root causes, but perversion of beliefs — nationalism in the case of the LTTE, religion in the case of al-Qaeda, ideology in the case of Maoists or in the case of Pakistan a mix of nationalism and religion. Pakistani officials who back and organise terrorist acts believe that it is a weapon to keep a more powerful Hindu India at bay.
Given the present situation, it is clear that a lot more needs to be done, in comprehending the nature of the threat as well as in the conducting the war. Michael Walzer has laid out the problem pithily: “First oppression is made into an excuse for terrorism, and then terrorism is made into an excuse for oppression. The first is the excuse of the far Left; the second is the excuse of the neo-conservative Right.” One of the sadder aspects of the GWOT is how it has undermined the very institutions it seeks to preserve in the West — liberal democracy with its strong emphasis on judicial due process. Excesses in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as within America, have put a question mark before its ideological leadership. Even the British government seems to be acting out of short-sighted panic.
So how can we shape a comprehensive victory? Combating terrorism requires a carefully calibrated military response, accompanied by the wider set of ameliorative measures to undercut the perverse appeal of terrorism. In the Clausewitzian model, violence and counter-violence is an upward spiral towards total war. But our combat, conducted often within our own borders, requires the opposite. First, it must be fought as the classic just war, jus in bello-- separating combatants from non-combatants and ensuring that the violence inflicted on the adversary is proportionate. Actually, these principles are rarely observed in war since the worst emotions are unleashed and hatred for the enemy becomes the driving force. But all these rules will have to be rewritten in confronting the terrorist and the insurgent, whose own theory of just war argues that killing of non-combatants is a regretful necessity for the ultimate success of ‘the cause’ and that the disproportionate force employed by the authorities will actually provide more recruits for their cause.
The second key element, which actually subsumes the first, is the need to enhance ‘situational awareness’. The concept lies at the core of the revolution in military affairs (RMA). Its essence is the awareness, through technology like UAVs, satellites, radars and other sensors, of where the adversary is, and knowledge of where one’s own forces are.
On such a template, pulverising the enemy is like fighting a blindfolded opponent with one arm tied behind his back. Extrapolated onto the GWOT, where technology by itself has far lesser weightage, it brings up alarming gaps in knowledge of who or what is the adversary, and where they are located.More than five years after the 9/11 massacre, the UN may have agreed to block terrorist funding or prohibit terrorist acts, but it is yet to come up with a common definition of what terrorism is.
The key consequence of this failure encourages an old-style destructive war by attrition, instead one of a precise and surgical strikes at the enemy. And so the war remains unfinished, and as of now, unending.
(Appeared in The Hindustan Times Delhi edn on November 2 and Mumbai edn on Nov 4)