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If you have no strategy, you are very likely to become part of someone else's strategy.

Alvin Toffler2


Nations that fail to evolve effective warfighting capabilities - conventional or sub-conventional - are often found to be the very nations that have failed in the fundamental and essential task of studying history; or those that have perverted their study of history with dissimulation, falsehood or delusion. This is substantially the case with India's war against terrorism, where the invention of a range of pseudo-histories (terrorism in Punjab was defeated by 'the people' and not by counter-terrorist action by the Forces); of false sociologies ('root causes of terrorism'); and of pseudo-solutions (development, negotiations, autonomy, political accommodation of terrorists) has blinded the policy establishment to the imperatives of counter-terrorism (CT) strategy and tactics and, indeed, to the lessons of India's past counter-terrorism successes.

The net result is that a wide range of effective policy options has actually been shut out by prevailing dogmas and slogans that have come to dominate the ill-informed and diversionary national discourse on terrorism and counter-terrorism. But "awareness of the full range of options is a vital element in the development of any sound policy",3 and India has failed, despite decades of relentless terrorism directed against it, and exceptional experience in defeating terrorism in at least some theatres, to examine the 'full range of options' and, consequently, to evolve a coherent and effective perspective on, and strategy against, terrorism.

The absence of strategy and the incoherence of tactics has long afflicted India, as the country finds itself responding continuously and insufficiently to provocations by its neighbours, and to a rising tide of subversion and terrorism. Worse, the pattern of responses has, with rare exception, reflected a quality of desperation and directionless-ness that, after decades of contending with these problems, is impossible to fathom. With over 25 years of Pakistan sponsored Islamist terrorist activity on Indian soil, the country is still to correctly define the problem that confronts it, or to craft an appropriate 'strategic architecture'4 and to derive policies and practices that are in conformity with such an overarching design.

The unfortunate truth at the heart of India's crisis is the fact that, despite the continuous flood of rhetoric on 'proactivity' and 'synergy', the nation's responses have remained steadily frozen in a purely reactive mode, with little evidence of coherence or coordination between security and intelligence agencies. The result is, depending on the 'stimuli' generated by the enemy - directly, or through pressures from the 'international community' - the Indian response to terrorism has swung abruptly from one extremity of pacifism and conciliation, to the other, of jingoism and threats of war. Indeed, as George Tanham notes, "India has not developed a coherent internal strategy for domestic law and order and separatist and insurgency problems, or a counter to Pakistan's policy of assisting these separatist movements."5 Tanham notes further that India has, at best, developed counter-insurgency tactics, not an overall strategy. It has, in fact, in this context, been possible to speak of a "fruitless cycle" that has been "repeated in an endless succession of 'peace initiatives' at the highest level - regularly interrupted by escalating violence, military mobilization, coercive diplomacy and belligerent political rhetoric…"6 in a pattern that displays "the consistency of a pendulum, swinging with insistent regularity from one extreme to the other."7

This incoherence of response has been the single most significant factor in the persistence of terrorist and extremist movements in India over extended periods of time, as the gains of each tactical or policy innovation or initiative are often cancelled out by contradictory moves before they can be consolidated.

The centrality of coherent governmental responses to the trajectory of an insurrection has been insufficiently understood, in this context, 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."8 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 India. The resolution in Punjab, and dramatic (though still not comprehensive) successes against insurgencies in Tripura and Andhra Pradesh were, in fact, the product of episodes of political resolve and strategic and tactical lucidity against a background of extended vacillation, drift and active political mischief.

At the national level, with these rare exceptions, the principal tasks of the acquisition and disposition of forces and resources has been chronically neglected, leaving the country vulnerable to continued terrorist blackmail. Here, the failures of political assessment, and lacunae in mandate and strategy, have been crucial. For decades, on the conventional defence front, the prevailing dogma in the Indian establishment has sought 'defensive parity' with Pakistan - a country one-eighth India's size. The foreign policy dogma has insisted - despite the unremitting hostility of that country - that a 'strong and stable Pakistan is to India's advantage'. India is, perhaps, unique among nations - through history - to have argued that a 'strong and stable' enemy is to its advantage. Further, internal security policy and practice has regarded expenditure on 'policing' as a 'non-developmental' and consequently, in some sense, wasteful outflow, and there has been an ill-advised parsimony attending allocations to the entire security establishment over decades (something that is only now beginning to be reversed). The result is that capacities for policing and intelligence are now discovered to be wholly inadequate to meet the challenges of terrorism and the imperatives of a nation that has pretensions to being an 'emerging global power'. Worse, the entire system of law and order, and of justice administration, has become so infirm and dysfunctional that the very possibility of economic and social development has been undermined across vast and augmenting areas of disorder and non-governance. Terrorism and political extremism now increasingly threaten India's 'lead sectors' in many urban concentrations, and the tremendous growth potential that has been unleashed over the past decade-and-a-half is in possible jeopardy.

In all this, the very elemental certainty, that security - both internal and external - is the first precondition for governance, for development, for the preservation of national integrity, and for national survival, has been systematically and obdurately neglected. As K.P.S. Gill notes,

The harsh truth is that the weak are never at peace. This is as true of nations as it is of men; it is not a choice, or a moral predicament, but an inexorable law of nature.9


With two thousand years of example behind us, we have no excuse, when fighting, for not fighting well…

T.E. Lawrence10


The shameful debacle in Mumbai on 26/11 epitomised the cumulative failures and vulnerabilities of the Indian state and its security apparatus. An objective assessment of the operational responses and the concatenation of preceding intelligence and preventive failures forces the conclusion that the state's immediate reactions to both the threat and to the attack itself "must stand out as a signal failure of India's security agencies."11

Nevertheless, given the degree of public ire, media hysteria and political discomfiture in the wake of the Mumbai carnage, great hopes were stirred that this would be a 'watershed' and would have transformative impact on India's internal security policies and apparatus, and on the country's counter-terrorism strategies and capabilities. Regrettably, despite some random symbolism and a perceptibly stronger and more lasting political focus on the issue of terrorism, the 'transformations' actually secured have been of marginal value, essentially incremental, often misdirected, and far from what the magnitude and character of threat demand.

Indeed, the very expectation of radical transformation was misconceived. Of course, when the rich are killed in iconic locations, and on 24/7 'reality TV' in an operation that was extended by the enveloping incompetence of response to more than sixty long hours, the theatrical impact is naturally tremendous (note that little mention has been made in subsequent commentary about the 58 'ordinary people' who were killed, within minutes, at the Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus). But if over 55,000 lives lost to terrorism over just 1994-2008, the assassination of two Prime Ministers, IC 814 and its disastrous consequences, an attack on Parliament, and a growing encirclement of disorders across the country, have failed to change the way our political leaders and bureaucracy react, why should the killing of a few (no doubt privileged) more, leave any permanent mark? Inevitably, we will once again, demonstrate the 'resilience' to 'put this behind us', and go on with our tawdry lives as before.

In the wake of 26/11, political leaderships - to start where the fountainhead of all power and incompetence is located in this country - have focused overwhelmingly on symbolism, rather than substance. Legislation to create the National Investigation Agency and to bring 'tougher' anti-terrorism provisions into the statute books, are essentially zero-impact initiatives intended to create an illusion of response, to distract the public, and to dissipate the rising popular rage against the political establishment.12 Certainly, a few measures to augment capacities in the Police, Coast Guard and Intelligence apparatus have also been announced by the Centre, and some Force upgradation programmes have been outlined by State Governments (including Maharashtra), but most of these are merely old proposals to fill up massive vacancies against sanctioned strengths, or for incremental augmentations, and there is little reason to believe that their implementation will be attended by an unprecedented measure of urgency. Indeed, it would not be surprising if the flurry of current sanctions comes up immediately against a veritable wall of inflexible procedures and institutional limitations that make implementation impossible within any time frame that could be relevant to counter-terrorism objectives.


A nation has security when it does not have to sacrifice its legitimate interests to avoid war, and is able, if challenged, to maintain them by war.

Walter Lippmann13


The principal strategic challenge in any conflict comprises four elements:

  • a realistic and accurate assessment of the threat;

  • an objective assessment of the resources for an adequate - if not overwhelming - response;

  • the acquisition of these resources within timeframes imposed by the conflict;

  • and the sagacious deployment of these resources to secure the objectives of a coherent and clearly defined strategy.

Sun Tzu thus remarks, "a skilled commander seeks victory from the situation and does not demand it of his subordinates."14

The challenge of counter-terrorism policy in India is to create the situation of victory.

The precondition of effective policy in this direction is a consensual and reality-based assessment, within the policy establishment, of the nature and threat of terrorism, and of the extraordinary geopolitical environment within which this threat is manifested. This is currently conspicuous by its absence. It is essential, now, for the national leadership to stop mouthing politically correct platitudes and slogans; to recognize the realities of the ground and frame solutions that are in conformity with the actual situation, the capacities of the enemy, and the capacities of the state. Within this context, it is particularly urgent to recognize that the so-called 'developmental solution' to insurgency and terrorism, as currently conceived, is meaningless; in fact, it is a fraud on the people. No nation in the world has ever 'out-developed' an ongoing insurgency. Development, in any event, is not something that can simply be ordered off a menu card and its time frames cannot be reconciled with counter-terrorism objectives. Counter-terrorism responses cannot, consequently, be predicated on the final resolution of India's developmental deficits and discontents.

It is imperative, further, that the policy establishment clearly recognizes the vulnerabilities of the Indian state, and does not underplay the threat - as has been the proclivity in certain quarters in the past. The temperature is rising slowly and critical sections of establishment have long been in denial. Great powers have, through history, been defeated by lesser powers - and, unless India recognizes this risk and initiates effective measures to protect itself, its future is potentially imperilled.

Investment in policing and security must now be treated unambiguously as developmental expenditure. It is an integral part of infrastructure development, and the general enterprise of modernisation, industrialization and globalization cannot progress without securitization. The crippling deficits of the internal security apparatus15 must, moreover, be addressed, not in terms of incremental augmentations of existing capacities, but of objective demands of the risks and challenges the component institutions are required to meet and neutralize. The first and most crucial principal here is that you cannot have a first class counter-terrorism response within the context of a collapsing law and order and justice administration. A corollary to this is that there is no such thing as a small crime. The same networks service both petty crime and major crime, including terrorism. The same enforcement agencies 'look the other way' when this happens. Hawala networks service corrupt politicians, corrupt administrators, corrupt businessmen and terrorists alike. Unless they are shut down for all the others, they cannot be shut down for the finance of terrorism. Similarly, the same smuggling networks bring grey market goods as well as arms, ammunition and explosives into the country. Enforcement agencies cannot lack the capacities or the will to check one of these elements, and simultaneously demonstrate any great efficiency or effectiveness in controlling others.

Security is 'indivisible' in another sense as well: you cannot protect cities if your rural hinterland is un-policed and ungoverned. Particularly after Mumbai 26/11, there has been inordinate emphasis on protecting metropolitan concentrations, especially through the creation or relocation of 'special' and 'elite' Forces. But it is impossible to contain terrorism permanently at its points of delivery. It is necessary to deal with the networks of terrorism wherever they exist, and, eventually, to neutralize its sources. Otherwise, the Irish Republican Army's dictum will inevitably apply: "You have to be lucky all the time; we have to be lucky just once".

Force structure and capabilities are not defined by numbers and technologies alone. Force profiles and mandates need urgent review. Moreover, it is not possible to fight terrorism with instruments framed, trained, developed and maintained to address other ills and crimes. New mandates for various Police and Central Paramilitary Force organisations, new manpower profiles, new training methods and institutions, new standard protocols of response and a new legislative context are now urgently needed.

Counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency, moreover, are "small commanders' wars". The task of policy and generalship is to empower first responders. Force capabilities at the Thana and Police Post, at the CPMF company and platoon level have to be adequate to respond to every foreseeable eventuality, and the necessary tactical and technological capabilities must be created for immediate responses at this level. Any proclivities to the centralisation of responses will undermine effectiveness. While Special Forces have a role to play in an environment of General Force dominance, Special Forces alone cannot resolve the problem of terrorism. General Force capabilities are, consequently, the crux of counter-terrorism capacities.

It is useful, finally, to remind ourselves that there can be no 'permanent strategy of defence'. Unless we secure the capacities and the will to strike at the sources of terror - and the most significant among these are located on Pakistani soil - it will be impossible to contain its manifestation at the point of delivery, irrespective of the scale and sophistication of our policing and intelligence responses. While envisaging the capacities to strike at the sources of terrorism, moreover, it is useful to note that a military struggle is "not only a competition between military forces, but also a comprehensive conflict embracing politics, economics, military force, and diplomacy."16 All tools must be harnessed to this end, and the military perspective alone - which has limited utility in a nuclearized South Asia - should not exhaust the nation's strategic options.


The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works…

Barack Hussein Obama17


India has evocatively been described as a "flailing state". It is a nation, today, with the capabilities to put satellites into space, to orchestrate a moon landing, to build missiles and nuclear weapons; but it lacks the capabilities to design a functioning sewage system or efficient transport network even for its capital city. By 2008, it had 53 billionaires on the Forbes List - up from 36 in 2007 - but has 77 per cent of its population living on less than Rs. 20 per day (US$ 0.40 against an international poverty line of US$ 2 per day). Its leadership sees it as an emerging great power and a global player, but cannot devise a coherent strategic architecture or forge effective internal security instrumentalities to meet even the quotidian requirements of the present age.

These irreconcilable and pervasive disjunctions riddle the nation's security with vulnerabilities, which have been neglected for far too long. The limited current effort to correct these infirmities goes no further than peripheral and incremental tinkering, and cannot address the mounting challenges of terrorism, insurgency, and sub-conventional or proxy warfare. National and State Governments - with occasional and qualified exception - are yet to demonstrate the capabilities to meet the contemporary challenges of internal security administration and there is, in fact, some evidence of progressive decay in core institutions.

Far too much of the debate on terrorism and counter-terrorism has been dictated by partisan and electoral considerations, or by doctrinaire perspectives unconnected with the realities of the ground. Indeed, there is little evidence that the political, administrative and security establishments possess a sufficient understanding of 'the nature of the beast' to address and resolve the issues. Each new terrorist outrage provokes paralysis or hysteria in the first phase, and forgetfulness soon after.

It must be abundantly clear that government in India is not 'working' - certainly not within the parameters expected of a 21st Century power with global ambitions. The incoherence of perspectives and policies that is currently endemic across the security spectrum - and well beyond - threatens to undermine the dreams of over a billion people in this country. The nascent dynamism of small sectors of the economy had almost transformed the way the world looked at India; but Mumbai 26/11 has already compromised such perceptions. The damage done can, of course, be both contained and reversed - but this will demand much higher efficiencies of response than the system is currently capable of. Clearly, then, the fundamentals of the system, its basic capacities and capabilities, now have to be brought into alignment with the threats and requirements of the present age. Absent such a decisive realignment, the entire national enterprise could founder against the threat of terrorism, compounded by the numberless fissures and faultlines that afflict the nation.

  1. Lant Pritchett, "Is India a Flailing State: Detours on the Four Lane Highway to Modernisation", September 19, 2008,
    *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.
  2. Alvin Toffler, "How will future wars be fought?"

  3. Transnational Terrorism, Security and the Rule of Law (TTSRL), "Mapping Counter-terrorism", Deliverable 11, Workpackage 6, June 17, 2008, .

  4. Gary Hamel & C.K. Prahlad, Competing for the Future, New Delhi: Tata McGraw-Hill, 2002, p. 117.

  5. George K. Tanham, "Indian Strategy in Flux", in Kanti Bajpai and Amitabh Matoo, eds., Securing India: Strategic Thought and Practice, New Delhi: Mansarover Publications, 1996, p. 123.
  6. Ajai Sahni, "Another Swing of the Pendulum", South Asia Intelligence Review, Volume 2 No. 16, November 3, 2003 .

  7. Ibid.
  8. 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].

  9. K.P.S. Gill, "The weak are never at peace", The Pioneer, September 4, 2004.
  10. As quoted in Robert B. Asprey, War in the Shadows, The Guerrilla in History, Vol. 1, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1975, p. 270.

  11. Ajai Sahni, "CT Scan", Defence and Security of India, Volume 1, Issue 3, December 2008.

  12. For a detailed critique of these initiatives, see Ajai Sahni, "Strategic Vastu Shastra", South Asia Intelligence Review, Vol. 7, No. 24, December 22, 2008, Ajai Sahni, "A Triumph of Form over Content", Seminar, No. 593, January 2009.

  13. Walter Lippman, U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic, Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1943, p. 51.

  14. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Finland: Wordsworth Reference, 1993, p. 110
  15. Ajai Sahni, "Strategic Vastu Shastra", op. cit.; Ajai Sahni, "A Triumph of Form over Content", op. cit.

  16. General Tao Hanzhang, Sun Tzu: The Art of War, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Reference, 1993, p. 19.

  17. President Barack Hussein Obama, "Inaugural Address", January 21, 2009, .

  18. Lant Pritchett, op. cit.

(Published in Eternal India, Volume 1, No. 5, February 2009)





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