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Us & Them No More

Indian policymakers see eradication of terrorism topping the global agenda

Us & Them No More
illustration by Jayachandran
Us & Them No More
Q: Mr Secretary, in this new initiative against terrorism, can you specifically say how US counter-terrorism policy has changed from last week? As you know, we have a number of multilateral agreements already on terrorism; how is it going to change?

A: We have quite a number of multilateral agreements. We are looking at some of them right away, for the purpose of upgrading them, for putting new energy and resources into them. And so I would say what has changed is everything.... We are going to use everything at our disposal...to respond, to counterattack, to destroy this blight on the world, to win this war. And we will come up with new policies, we will come up with new procedures, we will come up with new organisations, we will come up with whatever it takes to prevail on this conflict, as the President has said.

—Excerpt from Colin Powell's press conference after the September 11 attacks

Indian policymakers, though saddened at the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, see an unprecedented opportunity to work towards stamping out terrorism in all its forms and manifestations that has not so far been possible. Indian officials—diplomats and security planners—now expect the fight against terrorism to move right to the top of the global agenda. As a senior security official put it, "It is time to change the definition of terrorism. Earlier, anything that hit US interests was an incident of international terrorism, everything else was a local problem. That will now change." At the same time, there are expectations that the threshold of tolerance towards any act of terrorism will go down dramatically.

Says a diplomat, "Each country will now have to be more transparent and accountable to the world community if it engages in acts that are considered inimical to the stability of nations. You can't any longer say terrorism against one target is qualitatively and philosophically different from terrorism against another target." Asks another, "Can anyone say the attack on the Pentagon can be justified because it was a military target? No. A lot of soul-searching has to be done on what constitutes terrorism, especially when you declare a war against it."

Indeed, diplomats see the September 11 bombing as a defining moment in the shift away from the post-Cold War concerns the US has been preoccupied with. Faced with unconventional attacks, the world now has to think of unconventional methods to deal with the problems arising from this scourge, given the inherently irrational, unpredictable and anonymous nature of terrorism. Indian diplomats also hope a differentiated approach to terrorism will be the first casualty when the world goes back to the drawing board to plan anew to confront this phenomenon. In other words, it will become difficult to make different value judgements about Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's backing of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden and his support to separatists in Kashmir.

It isn't that the US wasn't aware of how Pakistan and Afghanistan's support to terrorism impacted on Indian and US interests. In June 2000, Michael Sheehan, then US coordinator for counter-terrorism, presenting the Patterns of Global Terrorism report for 1999, said the "locus of terrorism continued to shift from the Middle East to South Asia. The Taliban continued to provide safe haven for international terrorists, particularly Osama bin Laden and his network, in portions of Afghanistan they controlled. ... The US made repeated requests to Islamabad to end support for elements harbouring and training terrorists in Afghanistan and urged… Pakistan to close certain religious schools that serve as conduits for terrorism. Credible reports also…indicate official Pakistan support for Kashmiri militant groups engaged in terrorism, like the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen..... Kashmiri militant groups continue to operate in Pakistan, raising funds and recruiting new cadre. These groups were responsible for numerous terrorist attacks."

Yet, one American diplomat complained to Outlook during Sheehan's last visit that "when we talk about Afghanistan, Indians talk about Pakistan". This differentiated approach should change. Strategically, New Delhi sees no difference between Afghanistan and Pakistan in terms of malevolence towards India. No wonder external affairs minister Jaswant Singh's recent remarks show that New Delhi is adopting a public attitude of unstinted cooperation in any forthcoming action against the Taliban, and is willing to shed its traditional pusillanimous approach to Afghanistan.

With Washington wanting to get a better handle on Afghanistan, it is now talking with Musharraf to see if it can get satisfactory results on the issue of terrorism. Says a diplomat, "The US can no longer be sanguine about these things. Those who graduate from terrorism schools and colleges littering Pakistan and Afghanistan can find employment anywhere in the world. Today, he might be posted in Kashmir, tomorrow he could be redeployed anywhere. There has to be greater cognisance of this."

One senior security official told Outlook: "The crucial fallout of this should result in better, more focused, operational cooperation for containing terrorism." India and the US recently set up a Joint Working Group on Terrorism. Diplomats now expect that bag to be widened to include military-to-military cooperation as part of the counter-terrorism component.

Pakistan, too, will have to do a rethink. As Robert Hardgrave, professor at the University of Texas at Austin and member of the Kashmir Study Group, told Outlook, "Powell had specifically mentioned Pakistan as a nation that would be expected to cooperate—and Pakistan's response came, I suspect, under considerable (and long overdue) pressure from the US. What Pakistan's cooperation means is yet to be seen but by nurturing Taliban and tolerating, if not encouraging, various domestic terrorist organisations (example, Lashkar and Harkat), the Pakistan government has made itself hostage to Islamist extremists."

Adds Michael Krepon of the Stimson Center, Washington, "Pakistan will be under very great pressure from the US to help in efforts to locate the perpetrators of the September 11 terrorist attacks, in the first instance. Other forms of assistance will be sought, as well. If Pakistan does provide support, there will be domestic consequences; if Pakistan does not provide support, there will be very adverse international consequences. The government in Pakistan is most likely to adopt a nuanced approach that balances its domestic, regional and international interests. If this is the case, I do not expect radical shifts in policy, whether by Pakistan or by the US. But Pakistan will be sorely tested in the weeks to come. The choices Pakistan's military leaders take now, and the balances they strike, will accelerate their country's reorientation—for better or for worse."

There are also those who caution against strategic opportunism. Barbara Metcalf of the University of California, Davis, who is also a member of the Kashmir Study Group, told Outlook, "It simply cannot be business as usual in terms of our current military priorities or diplomatic strategies.... Above all, the US has to find new ways to deal with countries that harbour/support terrorists, among them an apparently long list from Afghanistan to North Korea, on which Iran and Pakistan often appear as well. Recent policies based on sanctions/isolation obviously do not work. Indeed, to the contrary, isolation only encourages the build-up of resentment and anger. India would make a mistake if, like Israel with the Palestinians, it saw in the current crisis an occasion for American support in a hardening of relations between itself and its traditional enemy to the northwest. Internal politics in countries like Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan are complicated but demonising them must be replaced by ways that lead to opening these countries up to more constructive interaction with the international community." Either way, the September 11 attacks will change Washington's response to terrorism.
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