The elusive national counter-terrorism policy

Issue 21 - Dec 2008

Ajit Kumar Doval

There can no effective policy making in security matters unless those in power develop a political vision in which national security takes precedence over short-term political gains. In a competitive electoral politics, this will entail pursuing a bipartisan approach so that the national interest does not become politically unaffordable. A political discourse at a higher plane among major political parties on critical security issues, including terrorism, would be necessary for achieving this objective.

The second challenge to counter-terrorist policy-making emanates from the structural architecture of India’s legal-constitutional framework itself. When designed, it did not foresee the type of complex internal security problems, like terrorism, emerging with trans-national and inter-state connectivities.

With wars increasingly becoming cost ineffective and unpredictable instruments of achieving politico-strategic objectives, the modern world is witnessing emergence of fourth generation warfare—where the enemy is ‘invisible’—as a substitute. Even the small and weaker states can take on their more powerful adversaries in this asymmetric warfare which largely targets internal security, with terrorism as its most favoured weapon. India has been witnessing the Pakistani onslaught of covert action now for nearly there decades.

Thirdly, the very nature of the terrorist phenomenon makes policy-making difficult. The first task of policy making is defining the objectives in tangible and positive terms that are sought to be achieved.

But in fighting terrorism, the state largely achieve negative goals—preventing what the terrorists wish to do from happening. This list may include for instance, averting dismemberment or degradation of the state, preventing break-down of the constitutional machinery, frustrating terrorist plans to kill citizens and their leader, and striking at vital installations. It will appear ridiculous for a government to claim all that has not happened as the list of their achievements. Success can not be computed on the basic of political goals denied, the innocent citizens who the terrorists could not kill, the leaders who were not attacked and vital installations which the terrorists wanted to destroy but could not.

Terrorist don’t kill in the hope that their depredations will lead to attainment of their political goals, they kill to break the will of the government. Correlation between the policy initiatives taken by the government and their real impact on terrorism is also vague, diffused and a matter of subjective interpretation. For example, the efficacy of counter-terrorist laws, structural changes in the security apparatus, role of diplomatic initiatives, political engagement are all difficult to determine, at least in a short run. This provides scope for political decision-makers to take positions on political considerations as there are no clear policy rights and wrongs in the battle against terrorists.
The impediments and problems notwithstanding, gravity of the threat and its grave implications for India’s security demand a policy-driven comprehensive national response. To make it happen there is a need for the two major political parties to develop a bipartisan approach towards response to terrorism. These parties should also take upon themselves the responsibility of convincing the state governments where they are in power to support legislative measures that could enable the Centre to play a more active role in handling terrorism and allied threats. A serious national debate was already overdue before November 26th, 2008. It has become vital now.

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