How to Tackle Terrorism

In 1998, Islamic terrorists exploded bombs in US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. President Clinton of the US was outraged, declared war on terrorism, and sent American planes to bomb terrorist camps in Afghanistan and a factory in Sudan.

Did this tame or deter the terrorists? Not at all. It merely spurred them to plan for two full years to mount an unprecedented attack on the US. The attack fructified last week, with hijacked planes crashing into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. In a real sense, this was revenge for the bombing of terrorist camps in 1998.

Has Washington learned any lessons from this? President Bush has once again declared war against terrorism, in terms far more strident than Clinton used in 1998. Clinton’s error is now seen as not being tough enough. This time, says Bush, we will not rest content with a few bombing raids.

This time we will send in our ground troops if necessary to liquidate the enemy, we will risk heavy casualties and not just bomb targets from the safety of high-altitude planes, we will hit not only the terrorists, but any state that harbours or aids them, we will destroy the very roots of terrorism and make the world safe again for civilisation, for freedom and democracy. If this means curtailing civil liberties, so be it.

There is too much jingoism and machismo in this for my liking. It may go down well with a shell-shocked domestic audience, but it cannot be the basis of a successful war on terrorism.

If there is one thing that global experience shows—and this includes our own experience in India—it is that in trying to eradicate terrorism, you may create even more terrorists.

The more terrible your revenge, the greater is the chance of your creating fresh terrorists. Crushing terrorism needs more than brute force.

Now, I do not belong to that simplistic group which claims that the only way out of the cycle of violence is to view terrorists as victimised people, and rectify their legitimate grievances. That is not how India put down Sikh terrorists in Punjab or Naxalites in West Bengal.

Osama Bin Laden’s grievances, contrary to intellectual fantasising by some in India, are not about globalisation or capitalism. It may surprise Indian readers to learn that he does not even focus much on the evils of Israel.

His overwhelming grievance is that the Saudi royal family has defiled Islam by allowing American troops into Saudi Arabia.

For him, the main enemy is the Saudi royal family, and he cannot forgive the US for propping up the royals. Such grievances are not negotiable.

Terrorists are often small groups claiming to speak, without justification, for an entire set of people.

The Naxalites claimed to speak for all the Bengal peasantry, Sikh terrorists claimed to speak for all Sikhs.

Both movements were put down successfully, by sheer force, violating due process of law. No negotiations were held on grievances, real or imagined.

On the other hand, India’s attempt to put down the insurrection in Kashmir has failed. In trying to catch terrorists, Indian forces have beaten up and killed so many innocents that they constantly create more terrorists than they liquidate. Pakistan’s assistance is not the critical factor.

Such assistance did not succeed in Punjab. It is succeeding in Kashmir because conditions are much more favourable. Kashmiris regard India as a colonial ruler, whereas Punjabis do not.

What flows from this? Massive force will work in some situations and not in others: Context is all important.

The Sikhs have always been part of the Indian mainstream in a way that Kashmiris have never been. Sikh terrorism could not be put down by New Delhi, whose ham-handed attempts created more terrorists than it apprehended.

Terrorism was ultimately put down only when locals like Beant Singh and KPS Gill were given a free hand.

Alas, there is no local political or police force in Kashmir with the motivation or capability to put down the Kashmir insurrection, and so it continues.

What are the lessons for Bush? One is that a massive use of indiscriminate bombing and force may create more terrorists than it destroys. Blunt force that kills many innocents can boomerang.

Second, force is most likely to work if the US has local allies with a similar outlook, some local equivalent of Singh/Gill. A direct US invasion of Afghanistan, using ground troops, will become Vietnam II rather than Desert Storm II.

A more sensible strategy for the US is to pressure Pakistan to withdraw support for the Taliban, and simultaneously lend material support to the Northern Alliance of Rabbani. That could bring about a change of regime.

If local allies like Rabbani want to root out Islamic terrorism as part of their own agenda and not just America’s, that will greatly increase the chances of success.

If on the other hand the US is seen as a colonial power in Afghanistan—as India is in Kashmir—that will diminish the chances of success.

Hawks in the US are talking of overthrowing Saddam Hussein by force. But will this quell terrorism or stoke it? This strategy will work only if Saddam is replaced by a regime that is as keen on rooting out terrorism as the US is.

Beyond that, US intelligence agencies need to infiltrate terrorist groups, and scotch attacks before they occur. In the absence of good inside information, mass force is mostly wasted. Infiltration is essential for inside information, and yields far greater dividends than massive bomb raids.

Such a strategy will take years to bear fruit. Bush is under great pressure to do something dramatic immediately, maybe bomb or land troops in Afghanistan.

That may meet American demand to be seen as doing something purposeful, but cannot by itself solve the problem. Wars against terrorism cannot be won quickly.

What do you think?