Why Terrorists Will Continue to Beat Us

Soldiers on the top of a building at the Indian air force base in Pathankot , a day after the end of military operations against militants. Credit: PTI

Soldiers on the top of a building at the Indian air force base in Pathankot , a day after the end of military operations against militants. Credit: PTI

Asymmetric warfare, the blue book of terrorists, is as old as warfare itself. Sun Tzu mentions this form of war in his 300 BCE treatise, and history is replete with countless instances where numerically smaller organisations have beaten vastly superior adversaries fighting asymmetrically.

Asymmetry in war means one side is by definition substantially weaker than the other. Predictably, it is this side which resorts to asymmetric war in one variant or the other –  guerrilla warfare, insurgency, internal resistance and, in contemporary times, terrorism. As Clausewitz observed ‘war is a mere continuation of politics by other means’. His aphorism highlights two key components of any conflict – military victory and political will. Since the weaker player cannot possibly ‘invade’ the territory of the larger one, nor destroy any significant war waging capability the superior enemy may have, they have no choice but to attack the adversary’s political will. And in that arena they have some advantages.

Whether it was the French and then the Americans who were beaten out of Vietnam, the Soviets who were driven out of Afghanistan by the Mujahideen, or, most recently, the American withdrawal from Iraq, all narratives have one common thread. That while the larger invader or occupier scored higher in military victories, they lost in sustaining the political will to continue the fight. In fact, each of these defeats or withdrawals continued to have a domino effect in the politics of their own countries, with several political leaders losing their positions and, in the case of the Soviet Union, losing the Union itself. This paradox was addressed by Andrew Mack way back in 1975 in his paper aptly titled “Why big nation lose small wars: The politics of asymmetric conflict”. The reasons remain valid even today.

The terrorist’s advantage

Firstly, the weaker player focuses purely on attacking the political will of his adversary. Terror attacks are never launched with the intent to destroy or degrade an adversary’s armies or war waging capabilities. Even in the devastating attacks of 9/11, there was no intent or capability to affect the US war machinery. Instead, the attacks were intended to demonstrate that the political leadership of the country has failed to protect their citizens. Similarly, the 1983 Beirut attack that specifically targeted US and French soldiers and killed 300 of them hardly dented the US war machinery but compelled the peacekeeping force’s withdrawal from Lebanon by demolishing the political will of American leaders to continue. The 26/11 attack in Mumbai saw its own share of political decimation and recriminations against the government, giving fodder to the opposition as well.

This leads to the second advantage of the terrorist/insurgent – that while their adversaries are fighting a ‘limited’ war, they themselves are engaged in an ‘all out’ war. This brings out a sense of fervour for their cause,  allowing the unquestioning acceptance of far higher casualties (including suicides) whereas the ‘limited’ definition of war causes the larger player to flinch at every body count – especially civilian but armed forces personnel too.

More importantly, since the war is ‘limited’, its conduct can and is questioned at every step – with political leaders of the opposition themselves challenging and even undermining the government in power, thus further eroding political will. Leaders in power want to stay in power and so baulk at body bags. And eventually the side that has less and less to lose, tends to win.

Unless we in India understand these subtle nuances of asymmetric war, we will continually play the terrorist’s narrative.

For instance after the 2001 parliament attack, the fourth largest army in the world was mobilised in classical posturing and Pakistan reciprocated. This year-long buildup, codenamed Op. Parakram,  cost the two countries over $4.5 billion and almost 2,000 dead and wounded on the Indian side. Neither did infiltration or terrorist support by Pakistan reduce nor did Parakram do anything to deter the same elements from attacking Mumbai in 2006 and then again in 2008. These subsequent attacks again goaded the entire Indian security machinery into highest gear and billions of dollars in direct and indirect costs continue to drain out from much needed development projects.

How to fight back

We need to understand that terrorism seeks to leverage fault lines in the political landscape of the target country to attack its will. Ironically, the best strategy to defeat terrorists is to stop being terrorised by their attacks. Now that is easier said than done because while our country can shrug off millions of preventable road accidents, live with spurious medicines taking countless lives, food adulteration deaths and even a hooch tragedy that kills over a hundred people in Mumbai in a single incident, a terror attack pushes us into frenzied – and often ill thought through – activity. And that is simply because terrorists are attacking our minds, not our physical assets. Rapes, robberies, murders, kidnappings, human trafficking etc. do not elicit the same clamour to modernise the police forces or build better security infrastructure, though we are far more likely to be affected by these dangers than a terror attack.

The solution to these disadvantages may seem radical but are inevitable. We need to obviate the advantages of asymmetric war for the terrorists by understanding the strategic constructs, mechanics and psychology of terror. Whether we like it or not, terror is here to stay. In a unipolar world, when asymmetry among nations is exacerbating, the weaker will continue to resort to this mode of furthering their political objectives. Terror attacks are only going to increase. So we need to take away the ‘limited’ tag from this war and accept that it is a total war. Only then will we muster the unified and sustained political will to address the threat in a systematic and unrelenting manner.

Secondly, the battlefields of terror are civilian as are the ‘combatants’. Hence there is no choice but to start educating them about the logic of asymmetric war. Citizens have to realise that the real enemy is not the terror attack per se – but the knee-jerk reactions that have become the norm after every such attack. They are not assaulting our airbases. They are attacking our unified will. And winning.

Raghu Raman is former CEO of NATGRID & Group President Reliance Industries. Views expressed are personal.