EDITORIAL: Strategic terrorism

Strategic terrorism

The attack on Mumbai has been likened to 9/11. India’s BJP likes the comparison and seem to think that India should follow in America’s footsteps with a similarly muscular response. Others fear the comparison since they recognize that such a response would be just as ill-conceived as the war on terrorism.

The question of whether the attack should or shouldn’t be compared to 9/11 is a question that commentators can wrestle over. The crucial issue right now is that a consensus be developed on why the attack happened. Now, as so many times previously, such a consensus is hard to arrive at because the perpetrators of the attack are employing strategic ambiguity. That means it serves their needs that their opponents remain unclear about the attackers intentions.

The effect of this ambiguity is to provoke a confused response that can be laid out on parallel and contradictory emotional spectra. One contrasts strength and weakness — this is the hawks’ spectrum. The other contrasts calm and irrationality — this is the realists’ spectrum. Both hesitate to clearly postulate why the attack happened, fearing that an explanation will be portrayed as an excuse.

This is a mistake. What would be far more useful at this point would be to proceed on a working theory about the intentions behind the attack and then develop a response based on that theory.

In the case of the Mumbai attack there is already an emerging consensus on why it happened: in order to provoke a confrontation between India and Pakistan. Who wants to see such a confrontation? Lashkar-e-Taiba and its allies who have been getting pounded by the Pakistani army in the tribal areas and anticipate the heat being taken off if Pakistan’s army redeploys to the east.

In the latest twist — and it’s a twist that reveals the strategic brilliance of the plan — Taliban and other tribal forces are now pledging to set aside their differences with the Pakistani government and to fight alongside Pakistan’s military in defense of the homeland, united against a threat from India. The offer comes from Maulvi Nazir, head of a powerful Pakistani Taliban splinter group in the tribal area of South Waziristan. And as The Washington Post notes:

    That promise of assistance has not gone unnoticed in Islamabad.
    In a briefing with reporters after the Mumbai attacks, several top officials of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, said they welcomed the offers of support from Nazir and Taliban leaders such as Baitullah Mehsud.

Now The News International reports:

    Tribesmen of Mohmand Agency on Saturday warned India against attacking Pakistan.
    Addressing a Jirga of different tribes at the Hujra of agency councillor Malik Muhammad Ali Haleemzai, the elders vowed that seven million tribesmen would fight shoulder-to-shoulder with the Pakistan armed forces to foil nefarious designs of the enemies.
    Malik Muhammad Ali, former MNA Malik Fazal Manan Kodakhel, Malik Israel Safi, Malik Nusrat Tarakzai, Malik Khaista Gul Tarakzai, Malik Zaman Khawaizai, Malik Manzoor Musakhel and others addressed the Jirga.
    “We are ready to sacrifice our lives for the defence of Pakistan and never allow anyone to harm our homeland,” the elders pledged.
    They suggested the government should convene an all parties’ conference to find an amicable solution to the ongoing strife in the tribal areas.

No doubt Pakistan’s civilian government officials view such offers with a healthy dose of skepticism — given the bombing campaign that, along with economic turmoil, has been pushing Pakistan towards collapse in recent months. But the claims of Pakistani patriotism now coming from tribal and jihadist leaders are likely to resonate strongly with ordinary Pakistanis who view the fight in the tribal areas as America’s war.

But for the Mumbai attack to serve its strategic aim of rebalancing power inside Pakistan, it needed to be cloaked in the disguise of international jihadism. By targeting Westerners, Jews, and the symbols of India’s commercial prosperity, the reaction the attack could be expected to provoke was one that focused on the issue of terrorism and Pakistan’s unwillingness or inability to control the extremists in its own midst.

But the other way of looking at this is to see it as an act of strategic terrorism. If the Indian government can persuasively unmask the strategic aims of those for whom it remains an indispensable enemy, then it can surely more easily argue why it must not now rise to the bait.

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