Thursday, July 14, 2011

On Terrorism and the Apathetic Mango Indian

A little background on this piece: I wrote a large portion of the post that follows a little more than three years ago, shortly after the blasts in Jaipur that claimed anywhere between sixty and eighty lives. Then, as you no doubt remember, India was being hit by terrorist bombings with alarming regularity, the attacks claiming civilian lives Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and other major cities. Naturally, this prompted scores of armchair experts (yours truly included) to unleash their outrage across blogs and social networking websites in India, and propose a whole range of solutions to solve the terrorist problem once and for all. I wrote this argument in response to some friends who, like many others, argued that the ‘common man’ simply didn’t care about terrorism unless it affected him directly, and this callous attitude only encouraged politicians to shy away from taking the ‘hard decisions’ (read defensive measures, targeted assassinations and reprisal raids) required to tackle terrorism. I didn’t quite agree with that sentiment, and contended that this callousness would actually work to our benefit in the long run. I still think that much of what I wrote then is still relevant today.

I was driven to dig it up post it here owing to the blasts that rocked Mumbai yesterday, and the kind of response they generated amongst Indians who post regularly on the web. I do not intend to offer a ‘silver bullet’ to solve the terrorist problem, or make the presumptuous claim that I understand the problem in its entirety. The most I expect to achieve is to spur another lively discussion on the issue. Indeed, I’m not even sure my analysis is entirely correct, and look forward to reading what others have to say about it.

India has been at the receiving end of jihadi terrorism for at least three decades, if not more. Yet many still tend to think of terrorist strikes in conventional military terms. Their ideas on fighting the problem, then, are a product of this thinking. Imagine the classic case of a general war between two countries. A military attack by ‘Country A’ to sabotage a communications centre, bomb a dam, or destroy a logistics hub will have palpable physical and material effects which will adversely affect the ability of ‘Country B’ to fight. If this continues, ‘Country B’ will stand a good change of facing strategic defeat. However, ‘Country B’ will respond in two ways: it will take measures to defend itself against such attacks, and launch similar attacks on targets inside ‘Country A’. This is a textbook case of fighting fire with fire.

On the other hand, a terrorist attack is intended to be an attack on the *mind* – on the very psyche of a large population. The Islamic terrorist expects the attacked country to retaliate by attacking training camps, going on a witch-hunt against all Muslims (including its own citizens), and spending ridiculous sums on defensive measures that seldom work, even if an attack they were supposed to defend against actually happens. If the terrorists fail to achieve that, the attack has little tactical or strategic value. What’s more, they generally don’t have a backup plan do deal any other reaction (or lack of one). Suddenly, their elaborately constructed schemes come crashing down.

When Israel was attacked by Hezbollah in 2006, it went to war in Lebanon and achieved precious little. Today, that country has borne the brunt of so many terrorist attacks, that the entire population lives on edge. Of course, there is no denying that the way the Israeli leadership displays serious pluck by taking the battle to the enemy and retaliating against attacks. And no doubt, if you are an Israeli citizen, this is a tremendous morale booster. Yet, it bears pointing out that these Israeli achievements were only tactical victories; their long-term impact on its security is probably negligible.

When the United States was attacked on September 11, it went into a minor recession. Because 3,000 people died! Don’t get me wrong, 3,000 dead in a single strike is a massive number, but is it big enough to physically affect the economy of a whole nation, leave alone one that is as big, powerful, and decentralised as the USA? The country lost thirty-five times more people due to “unintentional injuries” in the same year, and that had no effect on the economy and psyche of Americans. But 9/11 made America rush headlong into two wars it had little chance of winning. Not just that, but ridiculous amounts of money were spent fighting these wars. The cost of the Iraq war alone has exceeded $500 billion. Global oil prices have spiked from $20-ish a barrel to $135 as I write this. The cost of petrol is severely affecting Americans. On the horizon looms an economic crisis that has the potential to throw the entire global economic system out of whack, yet it gets scant attention. And for all this effort, it is not as if the terrorists have gotten any weaker! They’ve just lost a few mud huts and a few foot-soldiers to a $1,000,000 cruise missile. They haven’t lost much ground, they aren’t facing a shortage of fresh recruits, and the certainly aren’t low on morale. So who do you think is winning here?

Visit any American airport today and observe the security system there – it is absolutely top-notch stuff. But it is a drain on the economy, it is a nuisance to passengers, and will never be used as intended, because terrorists will refine their tactics faster than the TSA can react. What's more, these measures only tell the terrorist that he is succeeding. It tells him that the population, for all their defiance, is afraid of him.

Compare this to how good ol’ Bharat Mata reacted to the Mumbai train blasts. The government made some politically correct noises, a few yahoos on the internet (Moi being a prominent the rabble-rouser) huffed and puffed and demanded retaliation, and soon enough, everyone pretty much forgot about the whole thing. Mumbai’s economy was not affected one bit, leave alone the economy of the country. The average Indian did not become a paranoid wreck who teetered on the edge of a nervous breakdown and lost his marbles every time a motorcycle tyre blew up on the road. The Mumbai local trains were still full of people rushing to get to work, NOT worrying whether the next bomb would rip them apart. Now, we lost “only” 300 people in Mumbai, but do you think the reaction of the populace would have been different had 3,000 died? Each time we are attacked, we respond with the usual indifferent “ho-hum”. So what exactly did the jihadis gain? Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch.

I might sound like a horrible person when I say this, but it is this callous and insensitive chalta-hai attitude that is the best weapon we have against the jihadis. Pakistan doesn’t have unlimited resources to continue sponsoring terrorism against India forever. Every young man who wastes his life having wet dreams about destroying “those evil yindoos” is a drain on the economy (actually, he is twice a drain, given that he could have been productive, yet is a drain; the e-con-omists call this ‘opportunity cost’, if I’m not mistaken). We don’t have to fight them, we only have to outlast them. And given our superiority in population and resources, we WILL outlast them by simply ignoring them. (Aha! We are now playing to our strengths!) We aren’t losing money, we aren’t losing people at a rate that is even close to significant, and we aren’t losing territory - you need tanks, soldiers, and artillery and other such expensive thingamajigs to capture territory.
We can, of course, retaliate. But only if the attacks make us gain more than we lose. We needn’t go after the leadership – you kill one terrorist leader, there is another just itching to get into his boots. It isn’t a job that requires rare brilliance or intelligence. It requires a half-decent brain and loads of bloodthirstiness. These attributes, as you can imagine, are by no means rare. And if there are no leaders, the group splinters into cells that either join another group or act independently (which makes them tougher to eliminate). If we are to hit back, we will have to take a bottom-up approach. It is simpler, cleaner, and is good for our morale. Eliminate their supply chain, take out their foot soldiers, and slowly, you will see the results. If we have to hit the people at the top, target the real puppet-masters – general officers in the Pakistani military and their assets. If that doesn’t put lead in their boots, nothing else will! But this is just a stray thought. As I said, I’m not in the silver bullet business. Anymore.