Column: Bush fires do not win war against terror

Written by Michael Walton | Michael Walton | Updated: Nov 27 2009, 02:17am hrs
The 26/11 attack on Mumbai had striking parallels with the 9/11 attack on New York: spectacular and horrifying assaults on iconic targets, at the heart of the richest, most cosmopolitan cities in India and the US. For a moment, both state and society seemed acutely vulnerable. A year later, what is most noteworthy is the difference. India comes out well. The leadership of the US effectively played into the terrorists game in the wake of 9/11. Indias leaders displayed impressive restraint, and this was backed by societal resilience and electoral rewards.

After 9/11, President Bush briefly flirted with a conciliatory stance, but soon shifted to the War on Terrorand especially Islamist terroralso proclaiming a heroic fight against the Axis of Evil, essentially comprising Iran and Iraq, with North Korea reportedly added so that it was not exclusively about Islamic countries. The subsequent unfolding is all too familiar: the invasion of Iraq, Guantnamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, the continued failure to confront Israel over Palestine. All these fed the polarisation that is the lifeblood for the terrorists. While Saddam Husseins regime was vile, it had no connection with Al Qaeda; the US invasion converted Iraq into a recruitment ground for jihadists. The collective heritage of alienation, anger and felt injustice can be extraordinarily hard to turn. Obamas remarkable Cairo speech had important symbolic value, but Afghanistan and Palestine remain quagmires, and change in attitudes to the US is understandably slow in coming.

Back in the US, Major Hasan, an American soldier reportedly increasingly radicalised by his perception of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, went on a killing spree of his army colleagues in Fort Hood, Texas.

This tragic trajectory was not just the product of Bush and his leadership cabalthough sometimes it felt like that. After all, the Iraq invasion was initially popular, a polarising discourse worked with much of the US electorate, and Bush was voted back.

By contrast, Indias government displayed restraint, and Indian society impressive resilience. This was in spite of a much tougher context. The terrorists were clearly linked to the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the government of Pakistan has a history of tolerance of this group. Mumbai has a recent history of conflict and political mobilisation around identity. The Hindu-Muslim violence following the destruction of the Babri Masjid occurred just 16 years ago. Yet the attack did not further the Hindutva cause, notwithstanding Narendra Modi and co suggesting the terrorists must have had Indian accomplices, representing an alien enemy within. The May elections either rejected this, or saw it as irrelevant.

This contrast has a physical manifestation. The Taj was swiftly re-opened. The reconstruction on the site of the Twin Towers in New York is still unresolved. The New York Times described this as a development plan crippled by politics, petty self-interests and the weight of the sites history. It is like an unresolved wound.

There are, of course, major issues to be dealt with. Flaws in the Indian security apparatus were vividly showna manifestation of the broader weaknesses of accountability and functioning of the Indian state. The shock over failings, investigation and action is a necessary response.

More fundamentally, there remains a potentially dangerous complementarity between conflict with Pakistan and the risk of deepening alienation of Indias Muslim minority. India cannot solve Pakistans internal problems, and it is hard to tell if that country is further or closer to the precipice. But the potential for deepening alienation of Muslims is a domestic issue. As the UK experience has shown, generalised alienation can provide the breeding ground for the tiny numbers of potential terrorists. It is impossible to fully protect against organised individuals willing to die for their cause. The real protection comes from a genuinely inclusive society, with thick networks of information and social engagement, and mutual trust with state actors. Unfortunately, the trends in urban India appear to be of rising ghettoisation of Muslims, a product both of extreme events and of collective violence, and of daily discrimination in housing, work and encounters with the police.

A year after the trauma of the Mumbai attacks is a time for remembrance and grieving. It is also a time to draw lessons. One of these is the great value of leadership and maturity. There may well be further major attacks. Pakistans internal conflicts make it hard to negotiate with. It could be increasingly hard to sustain such mature restraint. But the long-term costs of playing into the terrorists polarising game are all too vividly shown by the strategy of the US in the years following 9/11.

The author is at the Harvard Kennedy School, the Institute of Economic and Social Change, and the Centre for Policy Research