Since the 1980s, India has had the unenviable record of confronting the menace of cross-border terrorism first-hand. Few, however, empathised with India’s traumatic experience, which was brushed aside as a regional India-Pakistan issue. Even the spillover of extremism into Afghanistan via the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s did not substantially alter international attitudes.
In such a context, 9/11 changed everything. Many in India’s strategic community believed that the post-9/11 era would finally yield a shared discourse on terrorism, providing India a strategic advantage in its decade-long struggle. Such was the exuberance that the Vajpayee government even offered Indian military bases as a launch pad for US operations in Afghanistan. For a brief period, the notion of “shared threats” connected India and America, and Afghanistan became the first test case for a new approach.
A decade and a half later, the envisaged promise of a genuine common struggle against terrorism has simply fizzled out. Non-state actors continue to flourish in India’s immediate and extended neighbourhood. The notion that India and US could arrest and perhaps even roll back the military-mullah nexus in Pakistan was shattered through a series of terror strikes on the Indian homeland, with the Mumbai 2008 attacks being the turning point. Since then, India’s disillusioned strategic community has tempered its optimism. Once again, it seemed that India’s terror problem was its own problem.
How can we understand this disappointing story of counter-terrorism co-operation? While the post-9/11 rhetoric suggested a common perceptual image, both India and US have actually always had different frameworks for confronting terrorism and extremism.
India believes that secular, non-theocratic states are the best antidote to radical forces. The US, in contrast, does not find it difficult to accommodate theocracies and anti-secular regimes. The range of US partners in West Asia attests to this. In fact, this belief has its origins in the Cold War. For the US, political Islam was deemed a legitimate counterpoise to post-colonial Arab nationalism, which was perceived as an obstacle to US strategic expansion in West Asia and Africa.
Furthermore, for India, terrorism has never been legitimised as a tool of statecraft. It is perceived as a purely destructive phenomenon. For the US, while terrorism is also perceived as a threat, the American approach is more nuanced. While the US is uncompromising in its counter-terrorism policies insofar as they relate to American homeland threats, it has few qualms about forming tactical partnerships with radical groups to serve US geopolitical goals in the rest of the world.
The approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Syria, and the current case of the Islamist State in Iraq underscore the fundamental differences in US and Indian perceptions.
Take, for example, Afghanistan. Since Barack Obama’s post-2009 policy shift of pulling troops out of Afghanistan, the US approach to the Taliban underwent a full circle. The idea that a “good Taliban” could become part of the post-2014 dispensation in Afghanistan assumed salience. Despite overt problems between the US and Pakistan, Obama’s extrication from Afghanistan began to rely more and more on Rawalpindi to bring a Taliban leadership around Mullah Omar to the negotiating table with Kabul. Fortunately, this process has failed both because Pakistan’s domestic problems have escalated, and, because other regional powers, including India, have supported a unified and united Afghanistan not being held hostage by extremist forces from across the Durand Line.
The approach to the Arab spring and the Syrian civil war also underscores contrasting US and Indian images. A sovereign regime of Bashar al-Assad was sought to be toppled by well-paid and well-trained Sunni rebels – called the Free Syrian Army – in a concerted policy by the US and its allies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.
While in the early stages of the crisis, India chose to stay passive and even shifted its position closer to US policy, by supporting a February 2012 resolution in the United Nations (UN) against the Syrian government, this outlook was short lived. India soon realised that the Syrian regime was confronting what India had confronted for decades: an externally sponsored insurgency exploiting disaffected communities similar to Indian battles in Punjab and Kashmir. Since then, India’s position on the Syrian conflict has remained stable as it rejected external attempts to regime change.
While the Syrian regime survived because of Russian and Iranian support, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels were pushed into Iraq and came under the hold of even more extremist elements. The rise of ISIS (or now IS) was a direct consequence and spillover of the Syrian conflict. In this case, again, we see US policy being driven by multiple goals. Obama wants to “degrade and destroy” the IS but simultaneously also destroy the Assad regime. In fact, the US Senate has recently approved fresh funding for training the FSA. A weaker Syria, however, will only increase the territory for IS to expand its theocratic agenda of a stateless West Asia.
To India, this entire saga is uncannily similar to the narrative used in our region to justify “good” terrorists and “bad” terrorists. It is instructive that in his first major interview, Narendra Modi projected India’s outlook on terrorism in unequivocal language: “This is a crisis against humanity, not a crisis against one country or one race. So we have to frame this as a fight between humanity and inhumanity. Nothing else.”
In his UN General Assembly speech, Modi asked, “Are we really making concerted international efforts to fight these forces, or are we still hobbled by our politics, our divisions, our discrimination between countries, distinction between good and bad terrorists?” On West Asia, Modi added, “The effort should involve the support of all countries in the region”, implicitly questioning the present effort to exclude Syria and Iran from a common struggle.
Can Modi and Obama bridge the contrasting images that have constrained a genuine India-US partnership against international terrorism?