Sunday, December 14, 2008

India must not follow the U.S. example

By Claude Salhani, al-Jazeera Magazine, 08/12/2008

The U.S. has denied much of its own democratic tradition in its “global war on terror.” India must not do the same.

Reeling from the terrible shock of the attacks on India’s commercial capital, the authorities of the world’s largest democracy may find it logical to follow in the footsteps of a certain world-leading country that considers itself to be spearheading democracy around the world.

But the United States has denied much of its own democratic tradition in its “global war on terror.” Now India must resist the temptation to do the same.

The authorities in New Delhi would be well advised to take the time necessary and assess the situation and its potential consequences thoroughly before taking any action they may later regret. As nearly everyone knows, a conflict between India and Pakistan — both countries armed with nuclear weapons — would bring nuclear mayhem to the subcontinent and beyond.

The urge for vengeance by an enraged public demanding action from their officials is understandable, and pushes New Delhi to feel it needs to act. But Delhi’s leadership must avoid a path leading to such a precipice in Indo-Pakistan relations.

The attacks on Mumbai by gunmen belonging to a radical organization, in which nearly 200 people were killed and several hundreds wounded, some severely, in the words of one Indian official, was described as “India’s Sept. 11.”

The similarities between the two raids are numerous. Both the attacks on New York City in 2001, and the raids on Mumbai targeted financial hubs. By hitting large business centers, as they did, whoever is behind the Mumbai attacks wanted to do more than kill as many people as they could, before eventually being gunned down by security forces. The attackers were aiming to cause greater harm than the killing of some 200 people and the destruction of hotels and restaurants. (Or in the 9/11 case, the deaths of 3,000 people and several buildings.)

Granted, the senseless killings in Mumbai, as in New York and the Pentagon were, in the sick minds of those committing those terrible act, an added “benefit.” But to them, the killing of innocent victims was simply that, merely an added benefit.

In this analyst’s opinion, the real intent of those two raids were far more nefarious. The real intent is to cause disruption of the countries’ economies. In New York, the attacks had a direct effect on Wall Street and subsequently, on the country’s economic situation. Likewise, Mumbai’s stock market will be affected by last week’s attacks, as will India’s economy.

Furthermore, both operations were at the same time ingenious from the terrorist’s point of view. They were relatively simple to implement, particularly in open and democratic societies like India and the United States. And the result will be additional security around hotels. The central lesson of the 9/11 attacks was the ability terrorists had to hijack civilian aircraft and turn them into lethal weapons. The attacks of 9/11 forever changed the way airlines and airport conduct business and the way we look at travel today. Costs for increasing security for airports, airplanes and passengers is passed down to the traveler.

Along similar lines, the attacks in Mumbai will forever change the way hotels — particularly luxury ones — conduct their business. The challenge facing intelligence services worldwide now is to try and identify and pre-empt the next likely targets.

Barely 48 hours after the attacks, India began using strong-worded language, saying that Pakistan was behind the attacks. According to Indian security services, the surviving terrorist in custody admitted to being Pakistani and having been trained in Pakistan. Indian authorities also found a cell phone of one of the terrorists showing several calls made to Pakistan and Afghanistan. What of the consequences if India follows the U.S. example? What if India is dragged into the vicious cycle of attacks and counterattacks — verbal, at first — but which could lead to hostile acts and to full-scale war? This is a frightening scenario since both Pakistan and India are nuclear-armed.

Besides the apparent danger that the two countries reach a point of no return, India risks falling into the same trap the United States found itself in after 9/11. The mistakes of the Bush administration were those of enacting undemocratic laws (the USA Patriot Act), and ordering law-breaking government practices (torture, detention, and rendition).

For India to go that route would be self-destructive in the extreme. Anti-Muslim sentiments in India can easily spin out of control. There is bound to be a growing desire in Delhi to retaliate, but this is a time for restraint. India, one of the rare democracies in that part of the world, risks alienating its 154 million Muslims.

-- Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times and a political analyst in Washington.