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The recent attack on the Delhi high court exposes lacunae in India's counterterrorism efforts, says Dr Sahibzada Amer Latif, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the newly established Wadhwani Chair for United States-India policy studies. According to him, the terror strike has the hallmark of the dreaded Lashkar-e-Tayiba, whose ability to upset regional stability between India and Pakistan is arguably greater than other terror threats faced by the US.
The recent Delhi high court attack has the hallmark of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba, working through its surrogates in India, asserts Dr Sahibzada Amer Latif, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the newly established Wadhwani Chair for US-India policy studies.
Testifying before the house foreign affairs subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation and trade, he warned that if such attacks continue and if there is another 26/11-like strike that provokes India it would complicate Washington's counter-terrorism efforts in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
"As we sit here shortly after the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, India has once again endured another attack, which occurred at the Delhi high court," he said at the subcommittee hearing, titled 'US-India Counterterrorism Cooperation: Deepening the Partnership'. The hearing was convened by Congressman Ed Royce, who is also the Republican co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans.
"Current figures put the death toll of the Delhi blast at 13, which may increase with many of the remaining 73 injured in a critical condition. This attack followed the triple blasts in Mumbai on July 13 that left 26 dead and 130 injured. These attacks were the latest in a series of strikes that have hit India since 26/11," said Latif, who is on secondment from the Pentagon, where he was serving as the director of South Asian affairs.
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The LeT represents one of the greatest threats to American and Indian interests in South Asia today. After the spectacular attacks in Mumbai in 2008, the US undertook active shuttle diplomacy to dampen tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbours, he pointed out.
But Latif predicted, that if there's "another major attack on the scale of Mumbai 2008 that originates in Pakistan," it could lead to calls from the Indian public for retaliation. "If India was to retaliate or threaten to retaliate, it could also adversely affect US counterterrorism efforts in FATA."
In such an event, "Pakistan would most likely divert important assets and troops currently deployed in the FATA eastwards towards the Indian border. While the US involvement in Indo-Pak crises has often played an important role, there is no guarantee that it will have the same mitigating effect the next time around," he said.
But Latif argued that while bilateral counterterrorism cooperation has rhetorically become an important area of collaboration, some key challenges still remain. One of the biggest challenges is getting the American and Indian bureaucracies optimally aligned to facilitate better communication and coordination.
There are currently a number of bilateral working groups that have counterterrorism equities and are spread across various US government agencies to include homeland security, state, treasury, and defence. On the US side, many of these dialogues do not regularly communicate or coordinate with one another, and several dialogues have overlapping areas of cooperation. One suspects the same situation on the Indian side where interagency communication and coordination can be scarce.
"The limited Indian bureaucratic capacity and centralised decision-making present challenges to effective counterterrorism cooperation as well. The Indian system can be easily overwhelmed with various US government agencies attempting to engage it on various dimensions. For India, terrorism is a domestic law enforcement issue that resides with the home ministry," the official said.
He bemoaned that the Indian bureaucracy also does not have analogous agencies or offices for every area of cooperation making it common for one joint secretary or director to be responsible for multiple areas of cooperation.
"South Block's highly centralised decision-making system, in which decisions on routine activities and cooperation are frequently referred to higher levels, can cause delays and sometimes outright cancellations. The opaque nature of Indian decision-making can be a significant deterrent to closer cooperation," he added.
The relationship between the Indian central and state governments is important to note, Latif points out.
According to the Indian Constitution, the state is given primary responsibility for law enforcement matters. "To that end, the state governments are the first responders to terrorist attacks. The nature of Centre-state relations also complicates bilateral cooperation since the US government cannot directly engage state governments without first going through the central government," he said.
He explained that India's doubts about US transparency were compounded when queries to question Headley were not immediately granted. A subsequent US investigation into the David Headley affair ordered by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper ultimately revealed that while some information was available to US officials before the Mumbai attacks, it was not sufficient to link Headley to a terror plot in India.
"However, among some segments of Indian government officials and its strategic elite, there may be a lingering perception that Washington will not divulge information that could possibly compromise its relations with Pakistan," he said.
He said the US side should also undertake an active effort to examine all working groups and dialogues and consolidate those groups where there are overlaps or redundancies. "The Indian side should endeavour to decentralise some of its decision making, establish authoritative points of contact for all counterterrorism engagements, and facilitate more seamless approval processes for related activities."
Latif also said, "Coastal and maritime security are critical components of a solid counterterrorism approach but should be handled through the maritime agencies of the respective governments."
The Indian Navy was put in charge of all maritime security operations to include coastal security after the 26/11 attacks. On the US side, the Coast Guard and Navy could engage with Indian counterparts through the Navy Executive Steering Group, held annually.
Latif also said it is imperative that Washington needs to consider LeT with the same importance as Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. "Washington must apply continual pressure on Pakistani military establishment to dismantle LeT infrastructure and refrain from using LeT as an asymmetric capability against India."
Latif acknowledged that the current state of US-Pakistan relations will make this difficult in the near term, but he asserted that LeT's ability to upset regional stability between India and Pakistan is arguably greater than other terror threats faced by the US.