News & Politics

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

Besides, from all indications, the terrorists were not Muslims in any meaningful sense of the word. They were cultists. Some of them brought stocks of alcohol for the siege they knew they would provoke. Even if they were trained by the LeT, they were clearly not pious Muslims. 

Address Security Flaws, but Keep Civil Liberties Strong

The 9/11 hijackings exploited three simple flaws in airline security of a procedural sort. Cockpit doors were not thought to need strengthening. It was assumed that hijackers could not fly planes. And no one expected hijackers to kill themselves. Once those assumptions are no longer made, security is already much better. Likewise, the Mumbai terrorists exploited flaws in coastal, urban and hotel security, which need to be addressed.

But Bush and Cheney hardly contented themselves with counter-terrorism measures. They dropped a thousand-page "p.a.t.r.i.o.t. act" on Congress one night and insisted they vote on it the next day. They created outlaw spaces like Guantanamo and engaged in torture (or encouraged allies to torture for them). They railroaded innocent people. They deeply damaged American democracy.

India's own democracy has all along been fragile. I actually travelled in India in summer of 1976 when Indira Gandhi had declared "Emergency," i.e., had suspended civil liberties and democracy (the only such period in Indian history since 1947). India's leadership must not allow a handful of terrorists to push the country into another Emergency. It is not always possible for lapsed democracies to recover their liberties once they are undermined.

Avoid War

The Bush administration fought two major wars in the aftermath of 9/11 but was never able to kill or capture the top al-Qaeda leadership. Conventional warfare did not actually destroy the Taliban, who later experienced a resurgence. The attack on Iraq destabilized the eastern stretches of the Middle East, which will be fragile and will face the threat of further wars for some time to come.

War with Pakistan over the Mumbai attacks would be a huge error. President Asaf Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani certainly would not have hadanything to do with those attacks. Indeed, the bombing of the Islamabad Marriott, which was intended to kill them, was done by exactly the same sort of people as attacked Mumbai. Nor was Chief of Staff Ashfaq Kiyani involved. Is it possible that a military cell under Gen. Pervez Musharraf trained Lashkar-e Tayiba terrorists for attacks in Kashmir, and then some of the LET went rogue and decided to hit Mumbai instead? Yes. But to interpret such a thing as a Pakistan government operation would be incorrect.

With a new civilian government, headed by politicians who have themselves suffered from Muslim extremism and terrorism, Pakistan could be an increasingly important security partner for India. Allowing past enmities to derail these potentialities for detente would be most unwise. India would do well to make common cause with and get the support of sympathetic elements in Pakistan who have the same enemy in these terrorists, no matter how limited their sphere of influence is.

Don't Swing to the Right

The American public, traumatized by 9/11 and misled by propaganda from corporate media, swung right. Instead of rebuking Bush and Cheney for their sins against the Republic, for their illegal war on Iraq, for their gutting of the Bill of Rights, for their Orwellian techniques of governance, the public gave them another 4 years in 2004. This Himalayan error of judgment allowed Bush and Cheney to go on, like giant termites, undermining the economic and legal foundations of American values and prosperity.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which has extensive links with Hindu extremist groups, is already attacking the Congress Party for allegedly being soft on Muslim terrorism. Let's not forget that the BJP almost dragged India into a nuclear war with Pakistan in 2002, and it seeded RSS extremists in the civil bureaucracy, and for the Indian public to return it to power now would risk further geopolitical and domestic tensions. More importantly, India lost its focus at that time in its fight against terrorism which should have been concentrated on strengthening security and intelligence resources and responses.

India may well become a global superpower during the coming century. The choices it makes now on how it will deal with this threat of terrorism will help determine what kind of country it will be, and what kind of global impact it will have. While it may be hypocritical of an American to hope that New Delhi deals with its crisis better than we did, it bespeaks my confidence in the country that I believe it can.

 

Juan Cole is a professor of history at the University of Michigan and maintains the popular blog Informed Comment.
Stay Ahead of the Rest
Sign Up for AlterNet's Daily Newsletter
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Rights & Liberties
Education
Drugs
Economy
Environment
Labor
Food
World
Politics
Investigation
Personal Health
Water
Media