9/11 Anniversary | The global war on terror has done little to help India tide over its security issues
Periodisation of the recent past customarily ends the post-Cold War unipolar moment of United States’ hegemony at 9/11. Though the US response to 9/11 epitomised its power at its zenith, its strategic overreach has turned its strategic trajectory indubitably downwards, not so much in aggregate power but in relative terms to its peer competitors, as also the suitability of its power to the issues of the day. Nothing illustrates this better than the manner of its exit from Kabul last month.
The observance of the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks in the US on September 11 is an appropriate moment to likewise appraise as to where India’s power is poised.
The anniversary finds India hemmed into its regional space, with the two-front challenge feared for more than a decade now a manifest reality. An economy under strain from missteps even prior to the onset of COVID-19 is stretched to find the necessary resources for the corresponding defence outlay.
India is coping by movement doctrinally (integrated battle groups) and structurally (integrated theatre commands), though its efforts to return to equable relations with China continue as a work in progress ever since the Chinese intrusion in Ladakh. Its strained equations with Pakistan are likely to heighten in wake of Pakistan seemingly stealing a march over India with the movement it backed, the Taliban, taking over Kabul in one fell swoop from the India-supported Ashraf Ghani government. The apprehended fallout has India gearing up for instability in Kashmir.
The clock appears to have rewound some 20 years.
Immediately prior to 9/11, India was stocking up for giving Pakistan a sock in the nose for its being unheeding of India’s outreach at the Agra summit and upping of its proxy war in Kashmir, then raging at a higher note since the Kargil War. The plan was called Operation Kabaddi and involved taking a few posts along infiltration prone routes on the Line of Control (LoC). In the event, 9/11 intruded and so rudely did the US into the region with the operation hastily renamed Operation Enduring Freedom from its earlier hubristic moniker Infinite Justice.
The impact of the global war on terror (GWOT) swirling in the close vicinity led to Pakistan’s deft footwork in reacquiring strategic capital from its location as a frontline state a second time round. This enabled it to wiggle out of a tight spot after the coincident terror attack on India’s Parliament. India’s military reaction — slow off the blocks — allowed Pakistan to rely on the US to bail it, then and in the next peak of the twin-peak crisis.
The upshot of the crisis was benign in the two countries able to work their earlier plan of engaging each other on issues of discord. Meetings followed, marked by ceasefire on the LoC and quietude in Kashmir. However, internal politics playing spoil sport, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf was deposed and then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s latitude eclipsed in the aftermath of Mumbai 26/11. In retrospect it is easy to espy a lost opportunity.
Having shot its bolt on peace initiatives, Pakistan turned its attention to its northern neighbour, nursing the Taliban back to insurgent good health while encouraging US President Barack Obama’s peace surge. It withstood US President Donald Trump’s fulminations by delivering the Taliban to the table at Doha. Strategic patience through some 10 rounds of talks since 2018 enabled it to finally see the US pack up and leave Afghanistan last month. A small price to pay for this strategic gamble was in playing down India’s surgical strikes, refraining from proxy war and its reluctant inaction on India’s dilution of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir.
For its part, India snuggled up with the US, starting with the nuclear deal and participating in Obama’s pivot to Asia, that has lately culminated in its co-option into the Quad. It hopes to balance against growing Chinese power, but the effect has arguably spurred China to through its intrusion caution India against proximity with the US, despite personal ministrations of the ties by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in successive summits with China’s Xi Jinping. The Ladakh intrusions, prompted in part by the changed political map of J&K, signify India’s current day strategic predicament.
The US having departed Afghanistan and poised by year end to leave Iraq, the GWOT has run its course. The GWOT in the backdrop did little to help India tide over its security issues that predated 9/11. The lesson is that India must be Atmanirbhar Bharat, a term popularly associated with economic regeneration, but also relevant for strategic autonomy. Self-reliance, interpreted as a return to non-alignment rather than external balancing, must be leitmotif of strategy hereon