India recently observed the eleventh anniversary of the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, a watershed event that changed the narratives around India’s national security planning and thinking. Since these attacks, new institutions were developed specifically for protection of cities against terror, and pressure on Pakistan increased significantly to act upon the terrorists who came into India from that country to conduct the strikes.
Such terror attacks, unsurprisingly, have long lasting effects on political thought and democracy itself. “For many countries, the biggest problem with terrorism is that it can erode faith in institutions,” Dan Byman, Professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service wrote recently. “If a government cannot protect its people, it is no government at all. When terrorism is directed at particular communities and the government response is weak or even complicit, the consequences can be enduring.”
This line of thinking has been the corner stone of the current NDA government’s approach to counter terrorism. It is reflected in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visits to multilateral forums around the world to push for a global response against terror, which in India’s case, means a unified response to Pakistan’s state policy of funding and fomenting terrorism. For an avowedly nationalist party such as the BJP, national security has been a top most priority since Modi took over as prime minister in 2014. But there is a disconnect in the approach to pushing terrorism as a major foreign policy metric internationally but not pushing for cooperative security architecture at the regional level.
The term ‘national security’ itself has evolved in somewhat of a political bogey, thanks to the journey it took from its previous avatar of ‘national defense’, dictated by wartime Western strategic thinking. In fact, Dexter Fergie, a doctorate student at Northwestern University explains how Edward Mead Earle, a historian at Princeton University, started to look at the popular term from that time, ‘national defense’, as a misnomer and almost an idealists or theorists way of dealing with potential threats of that era, such as Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. The movement from national ‘defence’ to ‘security’ was seen by Earle and others as strategic evolution. In 2019, the term national security is used in many more ways in realpolitik than just a wartime strategic reflection.
Modi’s visit this month to the BRICS summit in Brazil’s capital Brasilia kept counter-terror cooperation as one of the main pillars of discussion and mutual interest between its members. But there are clear challenges in bringing terrorism as a point of commonality between the member states. The statement released by BRICS members has interests of individual states peppered through when it comes to terrorism and counter-terrorism. For example, on Syria, the statement is largely favorable to Russia’s policies in that country, due to Moscow’s direct involvement while references to steadfast actions against terror financing are favorable to India’s push to get Islamabad blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for supporting terror. Much of BRICS’s wordings on terrorism are similar to those of other multilateral forums, where it is easy to sign a broad stroke counter-terror narrative that does not overlap with an individual’s state’s sovereign foreign policy and geopolitics. Under a microscope, however, BRICS members amongst themselves have very limited common interests, specifically when it comes to national and regional security architectures. To put it in perspective, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recognized the fact that the perpetrators of 26/11 have still not been convicted, but Pakistan, who US scholar Stephen P Cohen brilliantly described as a state that negotiates with the world with a gun to its own head, continues to avoid bringing the perpetrators to justice even 11 years after 26/11. Despite Pompeo’s remarks publicly calling out Pakistan, the US finds itself hamstrung to push Pakistan because it knows that Islamabad and Rawalpindi hold the key to the ultimate outcome of the Afghan war, the 19-year long quagmire the US finds itself stuck with.
The recent tabletop counter-terrorism exercise hosted by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) of India with the members of the ‘ Quad’ grouping, which includes the US, Japan and Australia, is also another example where counter-terror cooperation is at the forefront of multilateral diplomacy. Perhaps cunningly, it is a topic that all members, irrespective of the composition of a particular multilateral theatre, can agree to sit across the table and discuss. It is also perhaps telling that terrorism in development of multilateral forums could be seen more as a capacity building exercise than one that could provide consensus based actionable policies spanning state and regional interests of individual governments.
However, from an Indian perspective, even though these counter-terror debates are a no-loss approach, development of ecosystems for the same in Brasilia or as part of the semi-existence of the ‘Quad, it is regional debates within South Asia that need such kind of boost. SAARC, a forum where this could have been conducted fell victim to the India – Pakistan tussle. But South Asian security is not just about India and Pakistan and there is no reason why New Delhi should be held hostage to the kerfuffle of relations with Islamabad.
India’s threat perceptions of terrorism go beyond the Pakistan theatre, despite the fact that this issue would and should take up most of Indian bandwidth to fight terrorism. The 2016 Holy Artisan Bakery attack in Dhaka and the Easter bombings in April this year in Sri Lanka were stark reminders that there are multiple layers - local, regional, and transnational - to India’s counter terror thinking. Currently, our diplomacy and national security apparatus is jumping an important middle ground, which is building a constructive approach to regional security.
It is often a misguided opinion that a regional security apparatus is not possible, or should be held hostage against the Pakistan question. Other threats, such as that of the Islamic State, online radicalization, extremist messaging and counter-messaging, bind the likes of India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives. Despite not being directly affected, other neighbors such as Nepal and Bhutan should also be actively included to develop a system of best-practices on these issues and gain a better understanding on new threats such as use of communication platforms, open source systems to replicate self-sustained and self-governed online spaces, regulatory challenges, understanding frameworks of ‘counter’ and ‘preventive’, de-radicalization programs and so on to build stronger bridges against extremism in the region.
A strong regional infrastructure on countering terrorism is something India, the regional super power (or the regional middle power?) and the largest economy should strive to build before making it part of a global discourse. More than anything else, it is in India’s interest that its counter terror thinking finds convergence within its neighborhood, and it should be an imperative to form institutional bonds highlighting common threats while keeping in mind regional sensibilities, respect and mutual gain. Such institution building will have strong long-term benefits, not just for regional security but also a larger counter to the diplomacy Pakistan so effectively manages to deploy to sugarcoat its support for terrorism as state policy. Islamabad and Rawalpindi have been found to be fairly effective in that regard in Western capitals. In South Asia, however, it is India’s opportunity to seize, or lose, to capitalize itself in Dhaka, Colombo, Kathmandu, Male on countering terrorism.
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Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme.Read More +