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Capacity and Infirmity in Counter-terrorism--Ajai Sahni*

Outline Presentation at the afternoon debate at
Committee Room 3, The House of Lords
"Terrorism, Democracy and the Rule of Law -
Can Democracy and the Rule of Law fight Terrorism effectively?"


1.1 The success or failure of any enterprise depends substantially on the measure of clarity that attends its conceptualization and execution. The responses to terrorism have been greatly inhibited by an absence of clarity, enormous confusion over the concept, a partisan debate, and deliberate obfuscation by at least certain entities. The debate on the nature of terrorism is not as complex as it is made out to be, but there are powerful vested interests that do not seek clarity. As a result, a number of 'false sociologies' have been advanced to justify terrorism. These include arguments such as the classical 'one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter', the various 'root causes' theories, and theories that derive from historical grievances of particular nations and communities. Such perspectives have often paralyzed the state and have even occasionally undermined the will of elements within the Security Forces to act with determination against terrorism, arguing, instead, that 'political solutions' - ordinarily unspecified - are required to 'resolve' the problem of terrorism. They have certainly undermined the capacity of the political and administrative leadership to define coherent policies against terrorism, and to implement these consistently. The difficulty is compounded further by the international 'tolerance of terror' and a cacophony of voices - states, international organizations and a wide range of poorly-informed, and often biased, non-governmental and 'voluntary' organizations - that exert continuous pressure on Governments and security forces, and who have historically tended to buy into the 'false sociologies' that favour terrorist action.

1.2 Democracies the world are under sustained threat today, as ideologies that unambiguously reject their fundamental values and forms of governance resort to extreme terrorist violence against them, often backed by powerful state and non-state actors. Terrorism destroys, or has a tendency to destroy, the fundamental functions of society, and liberal democracies have, in the past, tended to underestimate the devastating and pervasive impact of this pattern of conflict, and the enormity and complexity of the tasks of prevention and containment.

1.3 By and large, democratic states confronted by the threat of terrorism have tended to respond within an 'emergency paradigm', treating the challenge as a transient crisis and responding with an acute mobilisation of existing forces and resources, and, when the problem persists, some incremental augmentation of capacities.

1.4 Worse, despite apparent and often fierce condemnations of terrorism, the reality is, these are almost never unqualified. Indeed, there is a powerful stream of justification that underlies the liberal democratic critique of terrorism.

1.5 Most terrorist movements have benefited enormously from, or rely implicitly on, state support, or on the support of established political elites within host and target societies.

1.6 The near-universal revulsion against terrorist acts is not translating sufficiently into strategy and action against terrorism, or, crucially, into the acquisition of necessary and sufficient capacities to fight the scourge.

1.7 It is crucial to reaffirm that democracy and rule of law can, indeed, fight terrorism effectively, and elements of the Indian experience - although not the entirety of this experience - confirm this. It is important to recognize, moreover, that by framing our key question in these terms, we walk into a trap. The implicit suggestion in the current formulation is that there are other systems that are better equipped to efficiently deal with the challenge. But democracy and the rule of law are not peripheral choices we make, and that we can easily jettison in favour of more authoritarian models of resolution. The core questions we need to address, are

  • · Do authoritarian systems guarantee better results?

  • · If not - where precisely does the problem lie in democracy?

It is abundantly clear that the record of authoritarianism against terrorism is not particularly good, despite the myth that democratic systems are more susceptible to terrorist mobilisation. The case of Pakistan is dramatically in point. The problem is not in the notion of democracy or rule of law or the notion of rights that we seek to protect. The problem is in the specific institutional structures and processes that have been instituted to secure these. Where democracies fail against terrorism, it is usually the case that the causes lie in the absence or incoherence of strategies of response, in the evasion of reality in assessments, and, in many case, outright collusion of the establishment with extremist or terrorist elements, as a result of which the gains of each tactical or policy innovation or initiative are often cancelled out by contradictory moves before they can be consolidated.

1.8 The centrality of coherent governmental responses to the trajectory of an insurrection has generally been insufficiently understood, as the discourse vacillates between the extremes dictated by inchoate and misconceived theories of 'root causes', on the one hand, and the immediate imperatives of containment and retention of the rudiments of state control, on the other. W.C. Sonderland has noted, rightly, that, "as soon as the challenge is in the open the success of the operations depends not primarily on the development of insurgent strength, but more importantly on the degree of vigour, determination and skill with which the incumbent regime acts to defend itself, both politically and militarily."1 Barring brief periods characterized by the requisite clarity and focus, the necessary 'vigour, determination and skill' have, by and large, been lacking in the state's responses to terrorist and insurgent movements in South Asia and, indeed, the world. Exceptions to this broad trend have secured dramatic successes in at least three theatres of terrorism and insurgency in India in the recent past: Punjab, Tripura and Andhra Pradesh, each confronted by widely different patterns of political violence.

2.1 Before the core elements of these successes are outlined, it is necessary to recognize that the threat of an increasingly gloablised terrorist movement is not a transient emergency, but is integrally linked to an enduring contestation between radical ideologies and terrorism rooted in populations that have been marginalised by modernity, on the one hand, and the liberal-democratic world, on the other. This contestation is occurring within the context of widening 'black holes' of power that have proliferated after the collapse of the 'ugly stability' of the Cold War. Extreme uncertainty and instability afflicts all aspects of the enveloping geopolitical context of terrorism.

2.2 Crucially, it is in Asia and along its European periphery that this contestation is playing out at its greatest intensity, threatening the very survival of democracy and freedom across vast areas.

2.3 This troubling scenario is evolving within an unequal and often inequitable process of globalization that, while it has enormously benefited many, has at the same time marginalized large populations, generating a widening schism between two emerging worlds, and spurring "the decline of states that are less connected to globalization, creating a new fuzzy bipolarity between areas of relative stability and economic growth and regions of instability and widespread poverty".2 Asia is home to a number of such states that are "more or less disconnected from the globalization process"3 , and that are today, and will remain over the coming decades, sources of a wide range of destabilizing activities, including religious extremism, terrorism, weapons' proliferation, transnational crime, inter- and intra-state conflict, demographic and environmental crises, and a range of humanitarian disasters.

2.4 The complex interaction of these multiple factors has the potential to produce wide areas of disorder and patterns of conflict that Governments in the region - large areas of which are afflicted by endemic infirmities in the quality of governance and administration - will find progressively more difficult to confront and contain, and which will have global impact.

3. A range of largely neglected demographic factors, both within Asia, and along its wider European periphery, compound the situation, impacting directly on social and political stresses and, consequently, on the conflict potential within states and the region.

4. Europe

4.1 The general principle, here, is that, historically, "Contracting populations have often given way militarily, economically and culturally to expanding ones."4

4.2 A demographic crisis of sparse and declining populations in Europe and Russia: it is significant that, in 1950, Europe and Russia comprised 22 per cent of the global population; the share is now 13 per cent; by 2020, it will be 11.2 per cent; and by 2050, it will have declined to just 7.5 per cent.5 Further, six of the 10 most populous nations were in the developed world in 1950; by 2020, only the United States and Russia will remain in this top-10 list 6.

4.3 Dramatic declines in the working age cohorts in Europe and Russia because of population decline and ageing.

4.4 The need for large scale and potentially destabilizing immigration into Russia and Europe to maintain and expand economic activities. A large proportion of these immigrants would be Muslim, and could bring with them, or be susceptible to mobilization by, radical Islamist ideologies.

4.5 Declining capacities in Russia and Europe to maintain credible Land Armies, capacities for power projection, and effective force structures against terrorism and sub-conventional warfare, in the face of dwindling populations and a possible rise in challenges emerging in East European and Central Asian states.

5. The Arab World

5.1 Between 1950 and 2000, West Asia saw a near quadrupling of its population, from 51.2 million to 193.4 million. Between 2000 and 2020, it will surge another 44.2 per cent, to 273.5 million. The picture is somewhat more troubling when it is extending to comprehend the wider 'Arab World' including countries in North Africa. UNDP's Arab Human Development Report 2002 put the population of this larger Arab World at about 280 million, and projected a rise (in two variants) to between 410 million (46.42 per cent growth) and 459 million (63.92 per cent growth) by 2020.7

5.2 Most countries in the region are currently in the 'youth bulge' stage, with the absolute numbers of youth projected to grow further. It bears emphasis that "a large youth cohort intensifies and exacerbates most existing problems of these societies."8

5.3 A further compounding factor is that young male populations consistently outnumber the female population by about 5 per cent in virtually all Arab countries, and the percentages in many of the Gulf States are even higher due to the presence of a large 'guest worker' force that is overwhelmingly male and present in the Gulf without families. Consequently, "if the situation in the Gulf were to move toward instability in the future, this large floating male worker population could conceivably add to local destabilization."9 Already, there have been numerous cases of migrant workers in the Gulf being recruited by Islamist terrorist organisations and supporting state agencies.

5.4 Significantly, levels of illiteracy in the Arab world remain high, at 43 per cent in the mid 1990s - with female illiteracy dramatically higher. According to World Bank estimates, 10 million children in the Arab world between the ages of 6 and 15 are out of school, and if current trends persist, the percentage of children out of school in this region would rise to 14 million by 2015. The Arab world, moreover, has a low 9 per cent participation in higher education, as compared to 60 per cent in industrialized countries. Unemployment rates for those between 15 and 25 years of age are over 40 per cent for the entire region, and disguised unemployment is significantly higher.10

5.5 This youth, poorly educated, unskilled, unequipped for a productive role in a globalizing economy, "provides exceptional fodder for radical movements…", and can fuel "new waves for Islamic activism in the Middle East"11. There is enormous apprehension among regimes within the region, and, as the UNDP's Arab Human Development Report observes, "Arab authorities live in fear of the Arab street."12

5.6 These circumstances can spur greater militarization in the region and swell the ranks of non-state terrorist and extremist groups, acting domestically and also exporting terror to other parts of the world.

6. South Asia

6.1 By year 2020, India's population will touch 1.38 billion, adding nearly 333 million to its year 2000 population (an increase of 31.83 per cent). The growth in other countries in the neighbourhood is even more alarming. Afghanistan nearly doubles its population, adding 20.26 million to its 2000 population of 20.74 million (registering a growth of 97.68 per cent); Pakistan would add over 63.96 million to its year 2000 population of 144.360 million (44.3 per cent); Bangaldesh adds 53.9 million to its 2000 population of 139.43 million (38.66 per cent); Nepal would add 11.5 million to its 2000 population of 24.42 million (46.9 per cent). Sri Lanka, however, is the only country in the region where the rate of growth appears manageable, with populations rising by a little over 1.5 million from year 2000 levels at 18.7 million (8.1 per cent). Intra-regional variations in growth may add to the skew, with poorer and ill-governed regions often contributing most to the greatest population growth.

6.2 Most of South Asia is experiencing a swelling 'youth bulge' and also has dramatic skews in the sex ratios, resulting in the destabilizing phenomenon of bare sticks" or "surplus adult males". This "surplus of men" translates into a "deficit of peace"13, as this rootless population is "prone to seek satisfaction through vice and violence".14

6.3 Patterns of the urban-rural distribution of populations will also prove crucial for a variety of reasons. Tremendous migration into urban areas has already brought the urban infrastructure in many areas to the very edge of chaos, with urban governance often failing to come to terms with the magnitude of the challenge. Crucially, the dramatic growth in the urban population would not provide any relief to the rural areas, as absolute population figures continue to rise, even though percentage proportions drop dramatically. Given the patterns of narrow and focused development in a handful of priority sectors, rural-urban disparities can be expected to widen, aggravating social tensions in rural areas.

6.4 As population pressures rise within these various countries, political turmoil and resource pressures could aggravate current instability, with demographic pressures compounded by efforts at aggressive demographic re-engineering, diversionary political brinkmanship, extremist mobilisation and covert military adventurism.

6.5 It is the principal contention of this presentation, consequently, that terrorism, insurgency and sub-conventional warfare will remain central in shaping the ongoing global powershift over the coming decades, and this is the consequence, variously, of the emerging nature of global instability, the shifting balance of power, technological imperatives and, crucially, demography.


7.1 There appears to be little within the available spectrum of global policy instrumentalities that can entirely avert or effectively contain the considerable potential for violence that is being released by epochal transformations across the world. This potential is being harnessed by a wide range of radical ideologies and forces, most prominently including global Islamist extremism and terrorism.

7.2 By and large, the principal constituents of conventional policy which have dominated the global discourse have failed or have demonstrated limited capacity to impact in predictable ways on the growth potential of terrorism. These include, particularly,

  • Democratisation

  • Development

  • Regime change

  • Large scale conventional military operations

7.3 Among the alternatives that have been thrown up by the experience in Punjab, Tripura and Andhra Pradesh, and that need to be vigorously explored and developed in other theatres, are:

  • Recognizing the time frames of the conflict: this is a protracted war. It can only be addressed by altering the enduring strengths and weaknesses of both the sponsoring and targeted systems. Imposing overwhelming short-term objectives and strategies to the larger detriment of long-term objectives will yield failure.

  • Bringing capacities in line with a realistic assessment of the challenge.

  • Instrumentalities of conventional warfare cannot neutralize terrorism.

  • Intelligence and police led operations.

  • Small commanders' war. Development of capacities within local Police forces to execute narrowly targeted anti-terrorist operations.

  • Sharp distinctions between the terrorists and the larger community from which they are drawn.

  • Building a consensus against terrorism and ending the tolerance of terror.

  • Ideological contestation of extremist dogmas underlying terrorism.

  • Inflicting demonstrable defeats on terrorism.

  • Punitive strategies against sponsoring states and organisations - including, among others, the imposition of unbearable costs on support structures.

  • Democracies must devise institutional structures of response that are cushioned against the psychological impact of terrorist actions and the panic responses they often provoke, and internalize more strategic orientations to contemporary protracted and irregular warfare, including terrorism.


  • Ajai Sahni is Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management; Editor, South Asia Intelligence Review; Executive Director, South Asia Terrorism Portal; and Executive Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution. He is also a founding and Executive Committee member of the Urban Futures Initiative.

  1. W C Sonderland, "An analysis of the Guerilla Insurgency and Coup D' Etat as techniques of indirect aggression," International Studies Quarterly, December 1970, p. 345. [Emphasis added].
  2. Banning Garrett, "The New International Strategic Situation, U.S. Strategy and the Future of Sino-American Relations", Asia Society, September 1, 2003 .
  3. Ibid.
  4. Long-Term Global Demographic Trends: Reshaping the Geopolitical Landscape, July 2001, US Central Intelligence Agency, p. 13.
  5. Long-Term Global Demographic Trends: Reshaping the Geopolitical Landscape, US Central Intelligence Agency . Data for 2020 derived from World Population Prospects: The 2004 Revision Population Database, United Nations, Population Division.

  6. Long-Term Global Demographic Trends: Reshaping the Geopolitical Landscape, op.cit.

  7. UNDP Arab Human Development Report, p. 37.
  8. Graham E. Fuller, "The Youth Factor: The New Demographics of the Middle East and the Implications for US Policy", January 2003 .

  9. Ibid.

  10. John Waterbury, "Hate Your Policies, Love Your Institutions," Foreign Affairs, January-February, 2003, p. 62.

  11. Long-Term Global Demographic Trends: Reshaping the Geopolitical Landscape, op. cit.
  12. UNDP: Arab Human Development Report 2004 - Towards Freedom in the Arab World, p. 117
  13. Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea Den Boer, "A Surplus of Men, a Deficit of Peace", International Security, Volume 26, No. 4, Spring 2002, pp. 5-38.
  14. Ibid. p. 12. Comparable problems afflict several societies in Asia, including, among others, India and Pakistan.

(February 23, 2009)





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