India is a soft state”—is a common refrain that describes our country’s seeming reluctance to hit hard when provoked. Succumbing to hijackers, lack of Israeli-style reprisals, sabre-rattling (but stopping short of war) and not executing terrorists are some of the examples that the critics of “weak-kneed” India parade in support of their theory. “Look at the US, one 9/11 and no terrorist incident after that” is a statement that is supposed to awe us into acknowledging the merits of that strategy. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as that. To begin combating terrorism, it is important to understand it. Terrorism is an asymmetric tool of war, used by a numerically disadvantaged side which would otherwise be bludgeoned by a superior enemy in a conventional confrontation.
The US defence budget of $600 billion (around Rs29 trillion) is 40% of the world’s defence expenditure. To put this in context, the US spends more on defence than the next 14 countries put together! The problem with such overwhelming superiority in conventional arsenals is that the enemy moves the battle to unconventional or asymmetric warfare. Terrorist strikes, hit-and-run raids, suicide bombings, ambushes, abductions, improvised explosive devices and hijacking become the tactics of the “weaker” side. Because, they have very effective return on investment.
Terrorism is the pursuit of political ideology using different strategy and tactics. With that perspective, let’s relook the theory lauding the US response after 9/11, suggesting that there was no terrorist incident after that one. The statement may be technically correct, in that no incident has happened on the US mainland. But that is because the US moved the frontlines and carried the battle into Afghanistan, Iraq and now Pakistan. But, the tally of dead and wounded resulting from this extension of frontlines is unabated since the US began its campaigns. The location of these deaths is a technicality that is of scarce comfort to the bereaved families of the nation. The direct cost of war has been pegged at at least $3 trillion and the social collateral damage that will scar the country hasn’t even begun being counted. Add the anti-US sentiment, its long-term repercussions and the tab starts running astronomically high. By that logic, the US response to 9/11 has actually cost far more than even several repeats of that incident.
Secondly, the target of the anti-US groups is not the US population per se. It is the Western way of life. From that perspective, too, 9/11 was a great return on investment. From a nation that epitomized personal liberties, the US psyche has transformed into borderline paranoia. Trillions of dollars burned on homeland security, human rights violations, extraordinary renditions, infringements of basic jurisprudence and continual body count in three different war zones have irreversibly changed the US way of life. A feat which even the erstwhile Soviet Union could not achieve during the Cold War decades.
And lastly, use of excessive force has an annoying habit of further aggravating a bad situation. As George W. Bush’s famous delusion of “mission accomplished” clearly illustrates, the US fell into the trap of confusing “entry” with “victory”.
Now let’s come back to the Indian context. Even disregarding the impossibility of matching a fraction of US resources, it is important to appreciate that our security issues are dramatically different from the US, Israel or, for that matter, any other country. We deal with multiple threats that infiltrate into the Indian mainland through virtually all borders. And this is in addition to home-grown insurgency. Having said that, the Indian defence forces have the unique distinction of using a standing army to fight a rapid 13-day campaign on two different fronts, routing 90,000 enemy troops and helping create Bangladesh out of East Pakistan.
Our forces have battle experience of some of the toughest and diverse terrains on the planet. Despite severe limitations, our defence forces have delivered, each and every time. Siachen, Kargil, Mumbai attacks, natural disasters of national scales or even children falling into borewells—the forces have “accomplished mission” on every occasion.
Unfortunately, the country’s leadership has not lived up to its part. The lethality of an army needs direction and tools. The ambivalence or the utter lack of these two elements has hobbled our forces. Do we negotiate with terrorists or not? Do we engage in reprisals or not? Do we assist foreign “terrorists” or fight them? Will our forces be modernized or are they expected to fight with weapons of Cold War vintage? The absence of clear direction and requisite tools violate basic tenets of warfare that troops must have clarity of the commander’s intent and the wherewithal to deliver it. In the fog of uncertainty and deprivation, troops are left to fend for themselves on a situational basis with hands tied behind their backs.
The clear mandate that the current government has is an opportunity to take steps and rebuild an apparatus to equip this extraordinary fighting force and provide the stability and security which is vital for the economic opportunity that beckons India.
Raghu Raman is chief executive of corporate risk consulting firm Mahindra Special Services Group that advises companies and organizations on threat assessments and risk mitigation strategies. Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org