by Ajai Shukla
The Wall Street Journal, Asia: 19th July 2007
Last week a detachment of sophisticated Indian Air Force Sukhoi-30 MKI fighter planes, having flown halfway around the world, conducted joint exercises at a British airbase with the Royal Air Force — a multimillion-dollar, cutting-edge preparation for a battle that may never come. Meanwhile, every day half a million Indian soldiers and paramilitary troopers across the country face off against terrorists who are better armed and equipped than the soldiers are. This contrast —between the wars for which India is planning and the wars it is actually fighting — is a serious national security problem that will only get worse the longer it persists.
Like the pre-Iraq Pentagon and Whitehall, India’s establishment still believes that if the military has credible state-versus-state war-fighting capability, everything else will follow. Most weapons purchases in the pipeline are platforms needed for all-out war: an aircraft carrier, a submarine line, amphibious assault ships and heavy battleships for the navy; multi-role combat aircraft, mid-air refuellers and airborne cruise missiles for the air force; and tanks, air defense guns, medium artillery and intermediate range strategic missiles for the army. You’d think that India’s last two decades of counterterrorism operations have been a brief interregnum before the military gets on with its primary task of invading a medium-sized country.
Yet in bloody theatres like Jammu and Kashmir, you wouldn’t guess that India is the developing world’s largest buyer of weaponry. If its forces are prevailing in the struggle against separatist, left-wing and jihadist movements, this has less to do with equipment and training than with the sheer manpower that the Indian state can deploy: some 1.2 million soldiers and 750,000 paramilitary troops today.
This deluge has contained ethnic insurgencies in India’s northeast, Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in Punjab, the ongoing jihad in Jammu and Kashmir, a terrorist movement in Assam and now, potentially most worrying, a Maoist “people’s war” that is unfolding across vast swathes of India’s eastern and central states. Equally useful for New Delhi has been the Indian public’s tolerance for high casualties. The low-tech war on terror has killed 10,000 soldiers and policemen since Jammu and Kashmir flared up in 1989.
One might expect such an experience to orient a country’s security forces toward counterterrorism, as in the case of Israel. Not so in India, a rising power deeply uncomfortable with acknowledging disaffection and alienation among its own people. Instead, New Delhi deflects the blame and holds external forces responsible for internal violence. It has blamed China, Burma and Bangladesh for separatism in the northeast; Pakistan for terrorism in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir; and now, incredibly, Nepal for the Maoist “naxalite” movement.
Strategy has followed the “foreign-hand” rhetoric. India’s military has directed its energies towards the external rather than the internal threat. Of two million men in uniform, barely 5,000 are counterterrorism specialists. The rest, except for some counter-insurgency battalions, remain equipped and trained for full-scale war. Effectively, India uses makeshift means to deal with terrorism up to a point. If that doesn’t work, it threatens war with its neighbours. When Pakistan-sponsored terrorists attacked the parliament building in New Delhi in 2001, India’s enormous military moved into battle positions and readied to invade Pakistan. Then, as now, the only lever in India’s counterterrorism tool shed was full-scale war.
This attitude stems, ironically, from India’s success in defusing several ethno-religious separatist movements in its northeastern states by using regular military forces without specialized equipment. Success rested on the prolonged use of military force over years, offering negotiations when separatist stamina was running low and then buying their leaders over with the promise of power in a post-conflict polity.
New Delhi seems to think this old strategy is viable against the new globalized structures of ethnic and religious separatism. But it hasn’t worked in Jammu and Kashmir because terrorists can replenish, materially and ideologically, by plugging into the structures of global Islamist jihad. Kashmiri separatists today piggyback their struggle on linkages with Pakistani intelligence, radical groups from as far as Afghanistan and, through the internet, even with al Qaeda.
India’s counterterrorism strategy also suffers from misdirected intelligence gathering. India’s intelligence agencies have successfully infiltrated the decision-making elites of each one of its neighbours. When Pakistan denied sending its soldiers into India’s Kargil district in 1999, Indian intelligence proved otherwise by producing recordings of incriminating conversations between Gen. Pervez Musharraf in Beijing and his chief of staff in Islamabad. But there has been little infiltration, either through human sources or electronically, of today’s terrorist cells run by radicalized educated professionals.
India was taken completely by surprise when Kafeel Ahmed, a doctor from Bangalore, was alleged to have manufactured the bombs used in last month’s failed U.K. terror plot. Indian intelligence has failed to even identify those responsible for six major terrorist bombings that have taken the lives of hundreds of Indian citizens over the last two years. Instead of the “multi-agency intelligence centre” that was recommended five years ago by a Group of Ministers (the country’s highest version of a cabinet committee), India’s myriad intelligence agencies function at cross purposes.
There are indications of change. At the sixth Asia Security Conference in Singapore in June, Defense Minister A.K. Antony signalled an important shift in India’s security perceptions from external threats to the internal issues that breed terrorism: communal confrontation, sub-nationalism and lack of governance. In an unusually forthright admission, Mr. Antony stated that India’s greatest security threat is not Pakistan, China, or nuclear weapons, but the difficulties of meeting the aspirations of all of India’s citizens at a time of rapid modernization.
It remains to be seen how far India’s defense establishment will re-shape itself to respond to terrorism. One problem is that, despite the defense minister’s frank talk, the Ministry of Home Affairs remains primarily responsible for tackling terrorism. It has been too easy for the defense establishment to claim that terrorism is someone else’s problem, although historically MoHA’s ineffectiveness has quickly sucked the military into any crisis anyway.
The sheer scale of India’s terrorism problem means that the military itself will remain involved and needs to realign its structure and weaponry. The defense minister has identified the problem. Now he and the rest of the defense establishment must create a solution.