Home > News > Columnists > Lieutenant General (retd) Eric A Vas
How India can counter terror
March 28, 2003
The massacre of 24 Hindu Pandits, including 11 women and two children, in Kashmir has outraged the nation. This follows the terrorist attack in Udampur, which killed 11 policemen and wounded 30.
These attacks have given rise to a flood of protests. Many ask: India is spending millions of rupees on security, can we not put a stop to these attacks? What is wrong with our security forces?
Presently our conventional and nuclear forces are overwhelmingly superior to Pakistani forces. They deter Pakistan from provoking a war. Pakistani military experts know this. That is why they have shifted to a strategy of cross-border terrorism. This enables them to avoid a direct military confrontation with India and yet maintain pressure on us from militant bases in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
Some urge the best way to deter Pakistan's strategy is to attack and destroy militant bases in PoK. India has the capability to do this, but there is nothing to prevent such bases being reactivated.
Hawks say India should therefore permanently occupy PoK. Even if India had the will and resources to do this, commonsense should warn us the militants would shift into Pakistan and terrorist attacks would continue from there.
To that, the hawks say, 'So what? We have the power and should be prepared to occupy areas in Pakistan that threaten us till that country comes to its senses.'
The United States after World War II had the power to occupy both Germany and Japan, and reshape them according to their liking. The US is attempting to do the same in Afghanistan and presumably in Iraq. India lacks the military and sustained economic power to occupy parts of Pakistan for any length of time. Moreover, it is unlikely the international community would permit this to happen.
So what must India do to counter Pakistan's terrorist tactics?
We must first admit and appreciate the limits of conventional and nuclear deterrence. We should understand a terrorist attack is designed for psychological effect: to demoralise rather than gain any military advantage.
We must therefore guard against panic reactions. The mobilisation of troops on the border is no solution to the problem. Their subsequent move back to the barracks, consumption of fuel, wear and tear on vehicles, compensation for crop damage, dislocation of over a million people and other details would perhaps work out to a cost of nearly Rs 100 billion.
Large tracts of the border have been mined. De-mining could lead to more casualties and most of the mines would be unsafe for future handling; these will need to be destroyed and replaced. Expensive and sensitive equipment exposed to the elements would have suffered deterioration. Some secret troop dispositions have been revealed. And all this was for no real gain. Today we can only reach out to Kabul by a circuitous route.
It is evident the US and many others are fed up with Pakistani militants. They are alarmed about Pakistan's relationship with North Korea in the nuclear and missile fields. There is also the fear that nuclear material may have been transferred to Al Qaeda terrorists.
There have been open clashes between Pakistani and US forces on the Afghanistan border while the latter were pursuing Taliban terrorists. Our diplomatic offensive against Pakistani-inspired terrorism must take these factors into consideration so that maximum international pressure is maintained on that country.
Whilst continuing to maintain our conventional and nuclear deterrent policies, we must accept the battle against Pakistani terrorism is going to be a long and arduous one and this battle cannot be deterred by conventional or nuclear weapons. We have to remain vigilant on the Line of Control, be methodical in our surveillance of internal trouble spots, improve our intelligence, and win the hearts and minds of the people so that stray militants have no place to hide.
At the same time, we should make it clear to the world that India retains the right to cross the LoC in order to destroy militant bases in PoK, should circumstances demand such action.
There are signs our current strategy is having good results. Cross-border infiltration has decreased and gangs operating within J&K are being steadily rounded up. After the election in J&K, the people are keen on peace and dissidents appear to have accepted that in today's world there is little sympathy for separatism or terrorism. So good governance accompanied by military pressure must continue in J&K along with international diplomatic pressure.
But we should be warned that even if cross-border infiltration is stopped, terrorism will not stop. On the contrary we should be prepared for this to escalate. Apart from what has happened in J&K, March saw a marked increase in terrorist activities elsewhere in India. One attack took place in Assam, which killed six, wounded 52 and burnt a petrol storage facility. Then there were a series of train blasts in Mumbai, which killed 17 and wounded over 70. Let there be no doubt that these are inspired by Pakistan agents who use local criminals to carry out their tasks.
Attacks in J&K are designed to disrupt the peace process. Blasts in Mumbai are carried out to provoke communal violence between Hindus and Muslims. Attacks in Assam are designed to prevent peace negotiations between militants and the government.
It does not require sophisticated technology to make a simple improvised explosive device. Ammonium nitrate, which is widely used to make fertilisers, was the chief ingredient of the Mumbai blasts. Ammonia nitrate bombs are commonly used by terrorists all over the world. The bombs that flattened the federal building in Oklahoma in 1995, the US embassy in Nairobi in 1998, and the Bali nightclub in 2002 were all ammonium nitrate bombs. Forensic experts have suggested that India should place restriction on the sale of ammonium nitrate.
Apart from this threat, we should be warned there could be an escalation in the type of explosion in the near future. It is unlikely that local criminals would have access to a suitcase nuclear bomb or have the technical ability to manufacture one. However, we cannot overrule the likelihood that unauthorised persons might lay their hands on cobalt-60, which is readily available in hospitals for use in radiation therapy and food processing. Or it could be cesium-137, commonly used in medical gauges and radiotherapy machines. A coffee cup of these items if introduced into an ammonia nitrate bomb and set off at a major railway terminus would spread a plume of radiation and contaminate the area around the station as happened at Chernobyl. A large number of people living in the area would have one-in-100 chance of dying of cancer.
What can India do to guard against this two-fold threat of proliferation? One has to deal with this as with any other criminal threat. We must all, both citizens and police, be more vigilant, and deal ruthlessly with such criminals.
Methodical intelligence surveillance and citizen support will leave no scope for criminals to procure the ingredients they need, nor find a place to manufacture their lethal weapons of destruction.