September 11 was a humbling day—not just for the US, but for the entire world. What was believed to be strictly the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters and best-selling novels unfolded before a horrified world. Reality was much more terrifying and unbelievable than fiction and it will probably take a few years before we know whether it was indeed the day the Nostradamic prediction of World War III began between the Christians and Muslims of the world. But had this "act of war" been the latest American film, we would have dismissed it as having an implausible plot—no way a group of terrorists could have mounted such a dramatic, coordinated strike against key targets of the most powerful country. But they did, proving that our worst fears can come true.
And what is the worst fear that haunts us in South Asia? A nuclear holocaust. We who express fears periodically about such an eventuality are always greeted by the all-knowing powers-that-be with supercilious disdain. We are dismissed as being immature, rash, ignorant, cursed with pulp-fiction imagination. But at least now will they be humble enough to admit that a nuclear war cannot be ruled out? All it takes is a few determined, misguided human missiles with a mission—and there are several in our region. In which case, the most crucial question is: what can we do to prevent it?
First, we graduate from denial to acceptance and start preparing ourselves. As part of the preventive action, we have to beef up security and strengthen intelligence-gathering both within the country and in the enemy territory. We have to cooperate aggressively and be equally aggressive in seeking international cooperation when it comes to addressing our threat perceptions. For instance, now that Pakistani magazine Newsline has endorsed L.K. Advani's allegation that Dawood Ibrahim lives in Karachi, we should be energetically seeking America and Europe's help to pressurise Pakistan to extradite Dawood.
The attacks on the US expose a massive intelligence failure. We Indians already know that the cia intelligence-gathering isn't all that it's cracked up to be, especially after the way they completely missed our nuclear explosions. But the intelligence failure is not something to gloat about. If anything, it is a cause for great worry. If the most powerful country in the world, with all the resources, technology and trained personnel at its command, can have an intelligence failure of such mammoth proportions and suffer its disastrous consequences, how effective can ours possibly be? That's a humbling thought. We don't have the US' strengths, but we share many of its weaknesses—as seen from a terrorist perspective. Like the US, we too are vulnerable because we're a free country with a diversity of population that allows foreigners to mingle easily in our midst. We have also shown again and again—be it in Kargil or with Bangladesh—that we are lax with security till tragedy strikes. In the aftermath of a nuclear strike, our fabled ability to get back on our feet may be severely and permanently crippled.
Our biggest sin is something that we again share with the US—complacence. The fact is that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Americans saw the Big Foe disintegrate. Of course, they kept talking about the new threat of Islamic fundamentalism, but they didn't treat it with the deserved seriousness. They were complacent. And so are we when it comes to appraising the lethal power of our enemies.We neither take our adversaries nor the threat from them seriously enough. We make the fundamental mistake of assuming our opponents will behave like us. As a nation, we lack the killer instinct and thank God for that. But it's stupid to think our adversaries won't have such instincts. And that's why we're repeatedly caught with our guard down.
And yet, despite the best preparations, we may still have a nuclear war on our hands. So, even as we try hard to prevent it from happening, we've to be prepared to face such an eventuality—we must therefore have a set of plans for a post-nuclear attack, starting from evacuation to medical treatment to rebuilding. The reason why even preparation is no cure for the looming threat is that there can never be foolproof security against suicide activists. When they are willing to die, they can inflict terrible damage. Elaborate security nets are laid out to catch infiltrators. But invariably, such nets are ineffective when infiltrators bomb their way through. In such case, the only solution is to have long-term perspectives and systematically eradicate the causes that encourage people to die for their mission. That sense of injustice and hatred—however misguided—must be sought to be removed.
In the context of our worst nightmare, the underlying cause that can trigger devastating terrorist strikes and a nuclear war is Kashmir in particular, and our hostile relations with Pakistan in general. That is why it is imperative we continue to engage Pakistan in talks. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has drawn criticism from many quarters—perhaps justifiably so. But it was his wisdom that forced him to backpedal and start talking to Pakistan. The Agra summit failed due to hype and false expectations. Pakistan may have scored brownie points. But none of this can justify any reluctance or cooling off on our part to talk to Pakistan. We simply have to keep talking—not from a position of weakness because we are afraid of being nuked; not from a position of strength because we have the power to nuke them; but from the position of hardheaded reality because both India and Pakistan will suffer incalculable damage in the event of a nuclear war. Neither will ever be the same again, when and if they emerge out of the ashes of a nuclear war. The smoke has gone, the debris has been cleared, the dead have been buried, the injured will heal and the bystanders will go on living. But the US will never be the same again—and it wasn't even a nuclear strike.
(The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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