Two weeks ago the commuter train system in Mumbai was the target of a despicable attack calculated to create terror. Almost 200 people were killed in a series of co-ordinated near-simultaneous attacks on the commercial heart of India. Six days later, on July 17, a rail depot in the Israeli city of Haifa suffered a rocket attack that killed eight people and paralyzed rail traffic.
After the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the powerful countries of the world woke up to a fact that India and Israel had been asserting -- that terrorists without borders were the worst nightmare of a state. Although the U.S. responded to 9/11 with the bombing of Afghanistan and forced regime change there, it was only too aware that terrorism was still alive. Yet as long as the "war on terror" remains focused on punishing countries for harbouring or supporting terrorists, it can never be completely won.
Terrorists, like epidemics or environmental catastrophes, do not respect state borders. How then can countries combat cross-border terrorism?
The responses of India and Israel to the attacks of last week illustrate the payoffs of their different choices.
While Hezbollah is known to have carried out the terror attacks in Israel, the perpetrators of the Mumbai blasts are not yet known (although a group calling itself Laskhar-e-Qahhar or Army of Fury has tried to claim responsibility for the attacks). Analysts within and outside India have pointed the finger of suspicion at the Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamist group that is known to receive support from the Pakistani government. Both Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Taiba have denied any links with the explosions.
Israel opted for a military response, bombing over 130 targets in Lebanon, where Hezbollah is based, and where a Hamas leader recently claimed responsibility for kidnapping an Israeli soldier. There's a definite threat of a regional war against Iran and Syria, Hezbollah's sponsors. Israel's actions have, in the long run, greatly reduced the chances of arriving at a solution to the half-century old Middle East problem. In the short run they have also damaged international efforts to get Iran to stop enriching uranium and to bring about democratic change in Iran, Syria and Palestine.
Israel's response is founded on, or at least justified by, the idea that terrorists are essentially instruments of "rogue states." As U.S. President Bush's profane, whispered aside at the G-8 summit suggests, this idea is popular among state leaders. The reality, however, is that while states purport to control flows over their borders, they are increasingly unable to do so. This does not absolve them of culpability for criminal acts; however, it is unrealistic and dangerous to react to terrorist attacks by attacking neighbouring states.
India's chosen path
While in the past India has resorted to military escalation -- in the winter of 2002, Indian and Pakistani troops faced off along their border, with the spectre of a nuclear conflagration looming over them -- the response to the recent attacks has been more restrained. Earlier military operations had to be called off when it became clear that Pakistan was unable and/or unwilling to hand over the 20 suspected terrorists India accused it of harbouring. The leaders of South Asia seem to have drawn the lesson that terrorism cannot be combated by interstate conflict. Although it has indefinitely suspended talks with Pakistan, the Indian government reaffirmed its commitment to continuing the peace process that has held together for three years now. Pakistan for its part has condemned the attacks and promised co-operation in tracing the perpetrators.
Manmohan Singh's government also deserves credit for maintaining the peace on the streets of Mumbai and other Indian cities. Yet, under pressure from outraged public opinion and the opposition to prove that India is not a soft target for terrorism, it has committed some strategic blunders, such as the (inevitably unsuccessful) attempt to block popular web sites like Blogger and Typepad on the pretext that these were being used by terrorists. Such misguided efforts to impose control over international flows of information will only result in tainting India's growing reputation as a globalizing information technology giant.
The need of the hour is for careful investigative work to unravel the transfers of money, arms and people across the border that made the Mumbai blasts possible. India should take Pakistan's offer of co-operation at face value and draw the international community's attention to shortfalls on this account. While the situation in the Middle East is more volatile and more complex than in South Asia, all parties involved in that conflict could learn from the restraint shown by the Indian government.
Karthika Sasikumar is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Simons Centre for Disarmament and Non-proliferation Research, Liu Institute for Global Issues, University of British Columbia.