May 22, 2008

The Road from Jaipur

This article originally appeared in The Indian Express on May 22, 2008.

Following almost any significant terrorist attack on Indian soil, the media and political leadership instinctively embark on two refrains. First, they speculate, sometimes idly, on the party or parties responsible. And then they angrily demand that the government take some form of punitive action, although it is often unclear exactly what or against whom.

The prevention of individual attacks, like the Jaipur blasts, is always immensely difficult, even with a massive, highly professional intelligence-gathering apparatus, which India lacks. Explosive materials are increasingly easy to procure or manufacture. Individuals who have not committed a crime are unlikely to be on any list or database of suspect terrorists. The means of delivering the explosives are wide-ranging and often inconspicuous. The timing of the attacks is unlikely to be accurately forecast. The latest bombings also appeared to mark another case of what US intelligence used to call ‘ad hoc’ terrorism, or terrorist activity not carried out by an organised, or even necessarily a named, group. This phenomenon has become more widespread around the world in the last two decades, and is likely to pose as much, if not more, of a threat as activity by known terror networks.

But more restrictive in its effect on the Indian establishment, in some senses, is its overarching counterterrorism policy, one that must by necessity be fraught with contradictions. Terrorism is both a tactic and a strategy. To counter it, the Indian government has to strike a balance between short-term security guarantees to its public and long-term solutions targeting the political, economic and cultural roots of terrorist activity, all the while trying to maintain the freedoms expected of a liberal democracy. This problem, at the heart of counterterrorism, has been wrestled with by a number of countries. The US, Israel, and Western European nations provide good comparisons due to their democratic governments and the wide variety of terrorist threats that each has faced.

Israel’s measures with regard to secular and Sunni Palestinian terrorism are essentially based on quarantining the terrorist elements in order to confine and minimise attacks, while placing paramount importance on immediate security to its citizenry. Israel can afford to do this, because it does not expect to take the lead on a long-term solution to the political problem behind that terrorist activity. In addition, it should be noted that Israel’s policy towards Shia terrorist groups, most notably Hezbollah, has not been nearly as successful, based as it has been on a more aggressive engagement in Lebanon. Similarly, countries like Spain took a severe view towards terrorist threats, establishing the Anti-terrorist Liberation Groups (GAL) in 1983 to murder Basque separatists.

The US, by comparison, has been less absolutist in its terrorism policy than Israel today or Spain in the 1980s, but has seen its international standing reduced and its military overstretched after taking the fight to the terrorists in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

Countries like France and Britain have been much less reluctant to explicitly tackle terrorism with force, particularly outside their own borders. But they have also witnessed significant backlash to any counterterrorist actions they have attempted, while not always adequately achieving their short-term objectives. In 1995, for example, France mobilised 32,000 soldiers, police and customs officials to detain 70,000 people for questioning and check the identities of nearly three million people, following a series of bomb attacks. But in the same year, the French authorities were unable to stop several subsequent bombings, and faced mass rioting, which broke out following the killing of a terrorist by the police. The stern and expensive counter-terrorist measures taken by all these countries have hardly proved to be effective in the long term.

Another phenomenon resulting from a terrorist attack is the over-exaggeration of the threat of terrorism. This does not mean that it is inconsequential. Far from it. India had almost 3,700 deaths resulting from terrorist attacks between January 2004 and March 2007, the most in any country other than Iraq. To put this in perspective, HIV/AIDS killed about 300 times the number of people in India and traffic accidents over 150 times. Yet, unsurprisingly, these avoidable casualties receive much less attention than those resulting from terrorism. At the same time, the magnifying media spotlight helps play into the terrorists’ hands.

The seeming inaction of the Indian government, coupled with its decision to go ahead with talks with Pakistan despite the Jaipur blasts and several border firing incidents, may appear to some as signs of weakness. On the other hand, a calculated focus on reaping long-term successes using primarily political means, may in fact be prudent policy on the government’s part. This is especially true in light of attempts by other democratic states in dealing with terrorist threats. In India’s own experience, one need only go back six years, to Operation Parakram in 2002, to see the limits of military force in countering terrorism.