Friday, October 12, 2012

Why the India–US counter-terrorism partnership is largely symbolic

Zabiuddin Ansari, wanted among other things for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack, was recently deported from Saudi Arabia to India. This has been hailed as a sign of growing convergence among India, the US and Saudi Arabia on terrorism and Iran.

But B. Raman, former head of the counter-terrorism division of India’s external intelligence agency, has convincingly argued that the India–Saudi Arabia link of the triad will remain weak. And there are several reasons why even India–US counter-terrorism cooperation will also continue to be largely symbolic and sporadic for the foreseeable future.

Let us begin with demography. Muslims, mostly immigrants, account for just 0.6 per cent of the US population, whereas Muslims account for more than an eighth of India’s population and are among the country’s founding fathers and leading public and cultural figures.

India is geographically close to the nerve centres of Islamic terrorism in South and West Asia. 
This proximity is a disadvantage as Pakistan-based transnational terrorists can easily penetrate India’s porous land and maritime borders. Moreover, India, unlike the US, has only a limited overseas capacity to counter terrorism at its source. But even if it had such a capacity, it would be largely ineffective against nuclear Pakistan. And irrespective of the incentives India may offer Pakistan’s megalomaniac and paranoid military-intelligence establishment, the latter will not deliver results because any letting down of the hate campaign against India would conflict with its raison d’être. In contrast, the US, which is geographically isolated and has a better counter-terrorism capacity, is able to fight terrorism far away from its territory.

India and the US also differ in their ability to influence Islamic countries. India is hugely dependent on Middle Eastern oil and many of its workers are employed in this region. This reduces India’s bargaining power vis-à-vis the Middle East, which is a major source of financial and ideological support for Islamic terrorist organisations in South Asia. In contrast, given its influence over international institutions and the global financial system, the US is relatively better placed to favourably influence the policies of Islamic countries.

Last but not the least, since the early 19th century Indian Muslims have been influenced by developments in West Asia, and since the early 20th century they have been in conflict with the majority Hindus. The Muslim–Hindu conflict resulted in the bloody partition of India that has left behind unresolved territorial issues, and the West Asian influence has radicalised some sectors of the Muslim community in India. As a result, the Indian policymaker and common man alike believe that terrorism is to some extent linked to the Kashmir question and to Indian youth affected by Muslim–Hindu riots, both of which are problems internal to India.

These factors contribute to a number of differences between the counter-terrorism strategies of India and the US.

US policy makers regard terrorism as a foreign and national defence problem. There is no influential domestic lobby that radically differs from the establishment’s views in this regard. The domestic debate in the US is largely about the logistics of fighting terrorism and the identification of suitable international partners. Changes in counter-terrorism strategy will not have a dramatic effect on US domestic politics. So, policymakers have sufficient freedom to rework strategy in response to changing threat patterns.

In contrast, minor changes in strategy can disproportionately affect domestic politics in India: a strong-arm strategy will radicalise the Muslim masses, whereas a softer strategy will validate the Hindu right’s claim that Muslims are appeased in the name of secularism. So, unlike the drone-borne counter-terrorism efforts of the US, India’s fight against terrorism is almost entirely police-driven and backed by potential soft cultural options.

India is similarly constrained on the foreign policy front. There are three reasons for this. First, Indian policy makers and the public view international counter-terror operations as undesirable insofar as they contribute to internationalising the Kashmir issue and attracting international jihadi attention to India. Second, India is a net oil importer; Muslims have a much stronger political presence in India; and mainstream political parties view the Palestine problem through the prism of decolonisation. So, on the one hand, the Indian government cannot, for example, support Israel on the Palestine issue and benefit from US–Israel counter-terrorism expertise. On the other hand, India cannot afford to go all out against Saudi Arabia and Iran because of the deep attachment felt by many Sunni and Shia Muslims to holy places in these countries and because of India’s dependence on oil imports. Third, the US can bargain with countries like Pakistan over, say, rendering terrorists like David Coleman Headley to third countries and demanding, in exchange, cooperation to detect threats against its homeland. But India does not have access to such tradable assets.

To conclude, India and the US view Islam differently and they face very different geo-political and domestic constraints. This in turn implies a divergence rather than convergence of counter-terrorism strategies. Moreover, belated revision of the US’s Kashmir policy and procrastination in banning terror groups focused on India ensure that the Indian public and policymakers continue to distrust the intentions of the US — and a reciprocal feeling exists in this latter country. The two sides, therefore, need to overcome historical distrust of each other. In the meantime, it is unfair to treat counter-terrorism cooperation as the bellwether of their relationship. In fact, it would help if existing counter-terror cooperation were downplayed to knock the wind out of jihadi propaganda against the phantom Judaeo–Christian–Hindu alliance. The India–US relationship should instead build upon common interests like the promotion of maritime security, free trade, energy security, clean technologies, anti-proliferation regimes, human rights and democracy.

Vikas Kumar is Assistant Professor of Economics at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.
An earlier version of this article first appeared here on Global Asia.

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