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Keynote Address at Fourth IDSA Annual Conference on The Common Challenge of Terrorism in South Asia and Prospects of Regional Cooperation

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  • Gen (Retd) V.P.Malik, Former Chief of Army Staff, India
    November 02, 2010

    Dear Shri N.S. Sisodia, Distinguished Speakers and Friends from the South Asian region, Ladies and Gentlemen,

    There is rarely a lucky day in South Asia when our people are not confronted with an act of terrorism; somewhere or the other, in some form or another, for some reason or the other, terrorism ebbs and flows. It is neither definable with in geographical boundaries, nor within the traditional moulds of rationality. Terrorist groups do not owe loyalty to any national flag, religion, or even ethnic community. They extinguish innocent lives as legitimate victims and often seek ‘martyrdom’ in suicide missions. The people of South Asia are constantly threatened by the spectre of terrorist activity. Today, there is a fear that the weapons of mass-destruction may fall into the wrong hands. It is high time, therefore, we develop a new approach to address the threat of terrorist violence in the Indian Sub-continent.

    I would like to point out that the so called ‘war on terrorism’ is only a misnomer as terrorism is neither State-specific nor an ideology. It is a method of employing violence in the pursuit of an ideology. Second World War was not against blitzkrieg, but against Nazism, which used blitzkrieg to overrun Europe. The war on terrorism is just a mobilising term. What is required is; a comprehensive grand strategy that emphasises upon secular tolerance and moderation in order to win hearts and minds, while limiting the use of force to occasions where it is absolutely necessary. Implementing such a strategy will require a more holistic and coordinated approach to build counter-terrorism capacities and partnerships across South Asia and with other stakeholders.

    Counter-terrorism in South Asia

    Geopolitically, South Asia represents a unified security zone, with India at the centre. Indian has special ties; ethnic, cultural, historical, with each of its neighbour to a degree not shared among other States in the region. Currently, the whole of South Asia, from Afghanistan to Bangladesh, is going through a phase of internal unrest and upheavals arising from a range of destabilising factors which include ethnic conflicts, religious fundamentalism, and even intense political polarisation. The lack of political consensus and a comprehensive collective strategy to bring focus to much needed capacity-building efforts in South Asia has left the region ill equipped to tackle the terrorist threats.

    Despite committing themselves to several conventions on terrorism, many States of the region continue to provide direct or indirect support and shelter to terrorist organisations. A few nations carry the belief that someone’s terrorist can be someone else’s freedom fighter. Such a notion is puerile as any pre-mediated and unlawful act of violence against innocent people, irrespective of the cause and motive is nothing but terrorism. Also, some nations believe that terrorism is a weapon of the small to inflict damage to the bigger nations. Such notions and advocacy reflect lack of commitment to war against terror. My experience is that ‘Terrorism is a double-edged weapon. It is like a wicked dog, which very often bites the very hand that feeds it’. India experienced it with Bhindrawale and the LTTE of Sri Lanka in the 1980s. Pakistan is realising it now, after supporting Afghan Mujahideen and outfits like Lashkar-e-Toiba in the 1980s and 90s.

    During the November 1986 summit held in Bangalore, the heads of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations recognised the seriousness of the problem of terrorism, and its adverse impact on security and stability of the region. Agreeing on the vitality of cooperation, they condemned all acts, methods and practices of terrorism as criminal, and deplored their impact on life and property, socio-economic development, political stability, regional and international peace and cooperation. The member states passed the ‘SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism’ in 1987 and agreed to several measures. An ‘Additional Protocol to the SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism’ of January 6, 2004, recognised the updating the Convention to meet the obligations devolving in terms of Security Council Resolution 1373 (2001). In April 2007, the Heads of Governments once again agreed to work on the modalities to implement the provisions of the SAARC conventions to combat terrorism, narcotics and psychotropic substances, trafficking in women and children, and other trans-national crimes. They strongly expressed their commitment to take every possible measure to prevent and suppress, in particular, financing of terrorist acts, including through front organisations and also to counter illicit trafficking of narcotic drugs, trafficking in persons and illicit arms. They reiterated the need for law enforcement authorities of all member states to enhance cooperation in the prevention, suppression and prosecution of offences under these instruments. They directed SAARC Interior/Home Ministers to ensure regular follow-up and implementation of the decisions taken.

    Despite these measures, the lack of commitment to address the threat of terrorism has become a major concern. Nations of the South Asian region have, so far, failed to take the threat seriously and work together to tackle the transnational dimensions of the threat. The issue is crucial as cross-border terrorist activities can easily escalate into a conventional war between nations. India and Pakistan have faced such situations in 1947-48, 1965, 1971, 1999 and 2001-02. Even today, most people on both sides of the border believe that if something like the 26 November, 2008, Mumbai carnage happens in India again, there might be a military reaction which could trigger a war.

    It is, therefore, imperative that every nation of the Sub-continent substantially raises its level of commitment and works in earnest to build trust and confidence. South Asian nations should take voluntary action against terrorist activities on their soil rather than complain, or respond to complaints from each other. Governments must not be hypocritical in dealing with internationally identified cross-border terrorists, as is happening with the perpetrators of the heinous Mumbai attacks. Genuine cooperative efforts can produce security improvements, particularly in securing borders, disrupting terrorist financing, and restricting terrorist movements. These efforts are best undertaken at the bilateral or multilateral level, with international monitoring where required. Experience shows that whenever terrorist groups stop enjoying foreign securities and state-sponsorship, they tend to whither away.

    Given the lack of trust between governments in the region, there must be a greater focus on civil society and private sector actors as it can play an indispensable role in preventing terrorism. Building cooperative regional networks of civil society and private sector actors can also help build trust and the lay the groundwork for greater cooperation between States in the region.

    A New Approach Strategy

    The need for a regional strategy and cooperation is absolutely essential. At the ideological level, terrorist groups do not believe in the values of democracy, multiculturalism, and ethnic and religious tolerance. Therefore, more must be done to build and support institutional framework to promote these values, rather than continuing to place too much emphasis on military approaches which can easily descend into anarchy. Terrorism is not just a military problem. It is primarily a socio-political, and sometimes a socio-economic problem. A viable counter-terrorism strategy, therefore, should not only concentrate on stopping violence, but must also question and condemn irrational ideologies that undermine the development of healthy democratic institutions and good governance. For this reason, both hard power as well as soft power must be used, and calibrated, to deal with violent armed terrorists while ensuring that human rights as well as our culture and traditions are protected. An effective counter-terrorism strategy for the region should also integrate cross-cutting issues: linkages with trans-national organised crime, illicit drugs, money laundering, illegal arms trafficking, and the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological, and other potentially deadly materials and their means of delivery. Building capacities to counter all of these interrelated threats make sense from both the organisational as well as economic perspectives. Establishing a regional counter-terrorism centre with experts from countries throughout the subcontinent, who can share expertise and knowledge on a range of trans-national threats outlined above, would help. It will ensure a more seamless regional approach that could then serve as a platform for legal assistance to different countries in the region in matters relating to early investigations and prosecution.

    Here I wish to make a few important points:

    One, the counter-terrorism grand strategy followed in many countries with its preponderance of ‘defeat, deny and defend’ element is far too militarist and operationally focussed. It does not cover the ideological milieu adequately. A pure military approach, given the fragility of institutional framework in operational areas and volatility of developments, can easily descend into anarchy. I, therefore, support those who believe that ‘ideologues’ must be included in fight against terrorism.

    Two, we need to devise collaborative strategies at the highest level. However, a uniform ‘top-down strategy’ can not be applied everywhere. Counter-terrorism operational strategies and action plans should be worked out for the entire region, and in every location. It must take into cognizance the important indigenous factors to neutralise terror networks. Terrorists do have ideological, doctrinal and sectarian differences; even ego clashes arising from different cultural and national backgrounds. We need to take advantage of these differences. This can be done only if we attempt to analyse them properly.

    Three, counter-terrorism strategy and cooperation should deal with all aspects of international terrorism. It should also seek a firm commitment and action to meet cross-border threats posed by the terrorists.

    Four, in the counter-terrorism strategy; besides checking violence, we have to isolate and combat the ideology which is irrational and not acceptable to the modern society. We have to use all the elements of national power; not just the military but also political, economic and other kind of persuasions and pressures. Some important elements of that collective strategy and action plan would be:

    1. Establishment of a ‘Regional Counter-terrorism Centre’ with experts from different countries who would work under a common umbrella to provide professional guidance and secretarial support to the SAARC political leadership, and monitor implementation of their resolutions in letter and spirit.
    2. Capacity building in combating terrorism of intelligence, police, military and Para-military forces through training in each other’s schools of instructions and thus learning from varied experiences.
    3. Greater liaison and coordination for counter-terrorism operations. This would require certain amount of inter-operability. The backbone of such inter-operability is; sets of common inter-operable communication system and operating procedures.
    4. Updating of equipment required for counter-terrorism operations. This does not involve heavy weaponry. Rather, it requires force multipliers which enable better day and night surveillance, faster decision making and reactions, and accuracy to avoid collateral damage.
    5. A common database at the regional level, a multilateral/bilateral intelligence sharing, and a mechanism for joint interrogation of terrorist leaders and key terror suspects.
    6. Trust and transparency of action against sanctuaries in foreign territory and against States sponsoring terrorism. Effective action against terrorist-funding, gun running and narcotics production smuggling.
    7. Legal assistance to each other in matters relating to investigations and prosecution.

    Drawing lessons from the Indian Experience

    India has been a victim of terrorism; longer than most countries, yet, it has handled the terrorist threats with some success in Mizoram, Punjab, and several other parts of the country. More importantly, it has not allowed terrorism to politically or economically destabilise our country. India has adopted a ‘multi-pronged approach’ and treats terrorism as a phenomenon with political, economic, social, perceptual, psychological, operational and diplomatic aspects, all of which need equal and simultaneous attention. To ensure a holistic approach, India has devised a system of unified command in terrorism-affected areas, under a Governor or an elected Chief Minister, with committees made up of relevant government functionaries. The Indian experience with security operations in counter-terrorism has been to ‘try and win the hearts and minds’ of the people so that terrorists are denied moral and material support, and are thus isolated. The principle of ‘use of minimum force’ has guided its actions.

    I would like to conclude by saying that there are no quick solutions when it comes to combating terrorism. The security forces can only create conditions where the adversary is inclined or forced to come to the negotiating table. Ultimately, the solution lies in the political domain. Success requires a genuine desire and commitment to counter terrorism that has not yet materialised among all the nations of South Asia. To address this shortcoming, South Asian governments need to enhance the level of cooperation, build trusted networks, seek informed support of their people, provide effective governance and engage closely with the international community. Unfortunately, several vested interest groups within our region feel insecure and perpetuate mistrust between nations. For that reason, public awareness and interaction with civil society and the private sector become all the more important. Only then shall we be able to succeed in eliminating terrorism, prevent instability, and avoid conflicts.

    Thank You!
    Jai Hind!