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Let's Hope India Doesn't React Like We Did to 9/11

The choices India makes now about the threat of terrorism will help determine what kind of superpower it will be.

Many Indians have called the attacks in Mumbai "India's 9/11." As an American who lived in India, I can feel India's anguish over these horrific and indiscriminate acts of terror.

Most Indian observers, however, were critical in 2001 (and after) of how exactly the Bush administration (i.e. Dick Cheney) responded to September 11. They were right, and they would do well to remember their own critique at this fateful moment.

What where the major mistakes of the United States government, and how might India avoid repeating them?

Remember Asymmetry

The Bush administration was convinced that 9/11 could not have been the work of a small, independent terrorist organization. They insisted that Iraq must somehow have been behind it. States are used to dealing with other states, and military and intelligence agencies are fixated on state rivals. But Bush and Cheney were wrong. We have entered an era of asymmetrical terrorism threats, in which relatively small groups can inflict substantial damage.

The Bush administration clung to its conviction of an Iraq-al-Qaeda operational cooperation despite the excellent evidence, which the FBI and CIA quickly uncovered, that the money had all come via the UAE from Pakistan and Afghanistan. There was never any money trail back to the Iraqi government.

Many Indian officials and much of the Indian public is falling into the Cheney fallacy. Even if the attackers were from the Lashkar-e Taiba, we should not jump to the conclusion that this mission was planned or authorized by the Pakistani government, which has cracked down on the LeT since 2002. 

Keep Your Eye on the Ball

The Bush administration took its eye off al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and instead put most of its resources into confronting Iraq. But Iraq had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Eventually this American fickleness allowed both al-Qaeda and the Taliban to regroup.

Likewise, India should not allow itself to be distracted by implausible conspiracy theories about high Pakistani officials wanting to destroy the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai. (Does that even make any sense?) Focusing on a conventional state threat alone will leave the country unprepared to meet further asymmetrical, guerrilla-style attacks.

Avoid Easy Bigotry about National Character

Many Americans decided after 9/11 that since 13 of the hijackers were Saudi Wahhabis, there is something evil about Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia. But Saudi Arabia itself was attacked repeatedly by al-Qaeda in 2003-2006 and waged a major national struggle against it. You can't tar a whole people with the brush of a few nationals that turn to terrorism.

Worse, a whole industry of Islamphobia grew up, with dedicated television programs (0'Reilly, Glen Beck), specialized sermonizers, and political hatchetmen (Giuliani). Persons born in the Middle East or Pakistan were systematically harassed at airports. And the stigmatization of Muslim Americans and Arab Americans was used as a wedge to attack liberals and leftists, as well, however illogical the juxtaposition may seem.

U.S. law enforcement did ensure that despite some stray initial hate-crimes, Muslim Americans largely remained secure, and India might emulate that commitment.

The silver lining in these dark days in India is that, despite the danger of it, there has been no mob action against Muslims, which would have ineluctably dragged the country into communal violence. 

The terrorists that attacked Mumbai killed and wounded Muslims along with other Indians. So it was not an attack on non-Muslims alone.

There has also been a welcome tendency to view terrorists as terrorists alone, and not as Hindu or Muslim terrorists, particularly since the arrests for the earlier Malegaon blasts

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