26/11 and 9/11: dangers of Bushspeak

After the terrorist attack of 26/11, the mood and rhetoric in India are reminiscent of the US after 9/11. As in the US then, outraged Indians swear “never again.” The phrase “War on Terror,” invented in the US after 9/11, is now being used widely in India.

This is a dangerous, militaristic mood. It led the US into the disastrous invasion of Iraq. Let it not lead India into a similar misadventure.

Before 9/11, the US suffered terrorist attacks on embassies and other installations abroad. But 9/11 was the first terrorist attack on US soil, and exploded US illusions of impregnability. Americans called it another Pearl Harbour, and the analogy sparked a determination to respond militarily.

Many Indians, while sympathising with the US after 9/11, pointed out that 6,000 feared dead in the World Trade Centre wasn’t a big number compared with 50,000 killed over a decade in Kashmir. The US was getting a small dose of the Islamic terrorism that had long devastated Kashmir, and was over-reacting. The US never equated Kashmiri terrorism with war, and always told India to be calm and not bomb terrorist training camps in Pakistan. But when the US itself got a taste of this at home, it went ballistic, declared it was at war with terrorism, and vowed to bomb and kill all those bad guys.

Cooler heads pointed out that “War on Terror” was a meaningless phrase. Terror is simply a tactic used by certain groups, and you cannot wage war against a tactic. You can declare war on an enemy country, and but not on an NGO (terrorists are exactly that—non-government organizations). When terrorism arises from an ideology or set of grievances, imaginary or otherwise, killing one bunch of ideologues may simply deepen the grievances and create thousands of fresh terrorists.

This has been demonstrated graphically in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many Indians supported the US invasion of Afghanistan, since the Taliban government bred terrorists who targeted India no less than the US. But initial euphoria in Afghanistan has given way to the sober realization that the US position there today is rather like the Soviet position in the 1980s—it controls the main towns but not the countryside, or the hearts and minds of people. There was no Al Qaeda in Iraq before the US invasion, but the invasion created large Al Qaeda cadres, which have now been cut to size but remain a festering sore.

The greatest military superpower has been obliged to recognize the limits to hard power.
Its task has been made difficult in Afghanistan because Pakistan, while pretending to be an ally, has provided tacit support and safe havens to terrorists. Yet the US response cannot be an invasion of Pakistan to extinguish those safe havens. Even if this succeeds militarily, it will deepen the local sense of grievance and create more terrorists.

Indians who accused the US of over-reacting to 9/11 are over-reacting themselves to 26/11. Our media habitually use phrases like War on Mumbai, War on India, and War on Terror. Journalists and politicians who cautioned against jingoism in the US after 9/11 are fanning it in India today.

Normally cool-headed people are so agitated that they want to bomb training camps or other targets in Pakistan. After Iraq, surely we know that bombing cannot eradicate terrorism or the extremist mind-set. It will provoke a Pakistani military response, and strengthen the hands of all Pakistanis who support terrorism. It will constitute yet another grievance that extremists will exploit. Let us not repeat the errors of Bush.

Military analysts like K. Subrahmanyam believe that elements in Pakistan’s army and ISI may have staged the Mumbai raid to provoke a military response from India, providing an excuse for transferring Pakistani troops from the Afghan border to the Indian one. India must avoid such a trap.

Angry Indians say something must be done. True, but that something happens to be patient diplomacy and international pressure, which will take years to bear fruit. I suspect the Pakistani establishment will tackle terror seriously only after many more of its members suffer Benazir Bhutto’s fate. And even after that, serious Pakistani attempts may achieve no more than what serious Indian attempts have achieved in the Maoist belt of central India.

Ultimately we need to change the mind-set of terrorists, and that may take decades. Some people argue that if India and the US accept Islamic solutions for Kashmir and Palestine, that will end Islamic grievances and the terrorism this breeds. However, many grievances are not legitimate, and many terrorists are oblivious to the grievances of others.

Outraged citizens do not want to be told to take it easy, and to respond to terrorist attacks with just diplomacy. Alas, some problems have no quick or military solutions. Britain had to live with Irish terrorism for almost a century.

In such difficult times, let us avoid Bushspeak and recall an old prayer.

Lord, give me the courage to change what I can, the fortitude to bear what I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference.

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