Swadesh Rana: A Terrorist Spillover to India

Faced with a growing presence of Taliban militants on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, the Indian security establishment is no longer merely concerned. Rather, it is better prepared to deal with this genre of terrorists who seem increasingly inclined to make India a target of their rage against America. Assembled on a war footing since the Mumbai terror attack on 26 November 2008, an emerging Indian counter-terror game plan is shaping up to be the nation’s most ambitious since independence in 1947.

With the highest level of military preparedness and swift, decisive response as its overarching aims, this plan is placing a high value on the collection of actionable intelligence to prevent an act of terror and to limit its intensity and duration if it occurs. At the same time, it is designed to carry out speedy investigation and prosecution to bring all perpetrators to justice. As a key architect of this plan and leader in its implementation, Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram publicly mentions more than a dozen terror plots averted in the last one year and does not see a recent bomb blast in Pune as an intelligence failure.

On February 13, an explosion caused by a crudely assembled device left under a table in a German bakery killed nine and injured 68 in Pune, an Indian city in the western Indian state of Maharashtra that never had a terror attack before. Out of range of the closed circuit television cameras at the original target sites, the location of the bakery made it more difficult to identify the individuals who planted the device. The explosion was presumably intended for either the Osho Ashram or the Jewish Chabad House visited regularly by a larger number of foreign nationals than the German bakery. In such a location, however, out of range of closed circuit television cameras at the target sites and left unattended, identification of the individuals who planted it could easily have been avoided. Claiming responsibility for the Pune explosion was an Urdu speaking caller describing himself as the spokesman of LeT-al-Alami that he said had split from Laskhar-e-Taiba (LeT) because it took orders from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. “Joh bhi America ka ittehad hoga, hum uskey khilaf jang ladengey, chahey who India ho ya Pakistan [we will wage war against any ally of America, whether it is India or Pakistan],” the caller said according to the website of The Hindu, an Indian national newspaper. The telephone number of the reported caller was from an area code common to the Waziristan tribal area and Bannu, the adjoining district in the North-West Frontier Province in Pakistan where Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership have set up their operations.

LeT-al-Alami is not on the consolidated list of 537 individuals and entities affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban maintained by the Sanctions Committee of the UN Security Council. There was no member of such a group among the 567 inmates from 36 countries detained at Guantanamo for their suspected or proven links to the 9/11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center. Nor is LeT-al-AlamiI on the latest U.S. Department of State list of 43 foreign terrorist organizations in 28 countries with an anti-American stance. But the proclaimed, even if unsubstantiated, reasons for the Pune explosion warrant serious attention. It served to highlight a breed of terrorists looking for targets closer to home in their efforts to protest American military and diplomatic pressure on Pakistan to be more aggressive in curbing the Taliban militancy along the Durand Line that defines the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

During the Taliban’s reign in Afghanistan, over 20 per cent of the active terrorists in India’s Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir were either of Afghan origin or were trained there. Since their overthrow, the Taliban have continued to target the Indian embassy in Kabul to protest India’s support for Hamid Karzai’s regime in Afghanistan. Across the Afghan border in Pakistan, many of the Taliban’s present leadeship came of age in the 1990s and were indoctrinated to assist their Muslim biradar (brethren) in Jammu and Kashmir where all but one of the 30 sleeper or active militant groups is known to have Pakistani supporters. Most of the 28 jihad-driven acts of terror in India outside of Jammu and Kashmir over the past decade have now been traced by the Indian intelligence services to supporters in Pakistan. Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) is the most active. The first-ever terror attack on foreigners and by foreigners on Indian soil took place in Mumbai on November 26, 2008 and was led by LeT operatives. Nationals from ten countries were among the 28 foreigners killed when ten LeT-led terrorists looking for the “British and Americans” targeted eight sites in Mumbai, killing 166 people, wounding another 300 and taking 200 hostages.

Referred to often as the 9/11 of India, 26/11 is now seen as an all but inevitable consequence of American focus on an enraged Pakistani Taliban leadership after nearly a decade of pursuing Al Qaeda. By most local accounts, the Afghan Taliban are as enraged now as the Pakistani Taliban were in 2008. They resent the scheduled delivery this month of 1,000 American laser-guided bomb kits to the Pakistani Air Force designed to target them in the Afghan border region. While the Al Qaeda leadership is believed to have become dispirited in the wake of the killing or capture of 12 of its top 20 leaders and 100 of its 300 operatives, the rank and file of the Afghan Taliban are more furious than disheartened by the capture of their leaders like Mullah Abdul Ghani Beradar. Emerging from a chilling winter, they have more energy to intimidate the local population to resist American efforts to win their hearts and minds in Halmand and Majra. These regions bore the brunt of collateral damage from American-led military strikes.

Sharing the anti-American stance of their jihadi brethren in Afghanistan, the angry Pakistani Taliban are finding more former Pakistan army and intelligence operatives joining their ranks to protest their own government’s actions that let them be “droned” by amreeki kafir (American infidels). The latest to switch sides and begin fighting for, rather than against, the Taliban cause is Colonel Sultan Amir, once a protégé of the U.S. military, dedicated to training insurgents against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1990s. “If the radical extremists extend their sway to Pakistani Punjab, it will only be a matter of time before fundamentalist terrorism manifests itself in northern India,” warns the Director of the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal. He urges the Indian Government “to ensure that the epicenter of terrorism remains confined to the Afghan-Pakistani territory astride the Durand Line and does not spill over to the areas east of the Indus River.”

Some Indian counter-insurgency experts wonder whether President Hamid Karzai would be willing to reign in the Afghani Taliban without a U.S. military presence to back up the external political pressure upon him to do so. Others question the adequacy of the planned Afghan National Army that’s expected to take charge in parallel with an eventual American military disengagement. Former Major General Gagan Dass Bakshi, an Indian counter-insurgency veteran, suggests that a 850,000-strong Afghan National Army is needed, rather than the 134,000 to 140, 000 contemplated by the International Security Assistance Force. Citing Canadian estimates of force-to-space ratio to fit the rugged Afghan terrain, he wants the government of India to extend a helping hand to its Afghan friends “by offering to pay for, equip and train up to two Afghan divisions; and also raise, and arm, an armored and artillery brigade.” This Afghan force could be sent to India for training, “to be ready before the U.S. withdrawal deadline,” said Major General Bakshi on January 6.

India is now the sixth largest bilateral and the largest regional donor for development aid to Afghanistan, trains 100 Afghan defense personnel a year in Indian military academies and is committed to train Afghan pilots and technicians of MI-35 helicopter gunships at the request of President Karzai. So far, the Afghan government has made public no request for additional Indian help in making security arrangements to accompany a U.S. exit strategy. But if and when that happens, India’s counter-insurgency experience dating back more than 60 years would come in handy.

Indian forces have learned at least four major lessons in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab. First, the purpose of counter-insurgency is not to resolve an issue but to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table. Second, the strategy of counter-insurgency is not to kill insurgents but to protect civilians. Third, the tactic of counter-insurgency is a grid spread across the entire field of insurgent operations rather than hitting and retreating that merely allows time for insurgents to recover and regroup. Finally, and perhaps of paramount importance, is the public posture of counter-insurgency battalions that must be seen not as intimidating bullies, but as protectors of the common people fighting with one hand tied behind their backs.

A Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute, Swadesh M Rana was a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi from October 2009 to February 2010.

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