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Sunday, December 7, 2008

Terrorism As Theatre Of The Absurd

Even after the din and bustle of the activity of those fateful 60 hours has settled, the mind somehow fails to make sense of the theatre of the absurd that was staged in Mumbai right before our eyes. To fight a motley group of less than a dozen terrorists who had declared war on the Indian state, which is a nuclear power in its own right, it had to throw all it had –the army, navy, air force, and its elite commando units apart from the local police to counter the threat. We are still celebrating our Pyrrhic victory but as Pyrrhus himself explained after the battle of Asculum in Apulia, “one more such victory and we are lost”. An enraged nation finds that it is not as easy to deliver a lethal blow to the real enemy who controls these foot soldiers jiggling like puppets on strings. And these remotely controlled vehicles of terror can always be landed in a vast open and liberal democracy.

Kurt Kusenburg's story "Three In One" may be read, as an allegory on the dilemma of modern states fighting the war against apocalyptic terror. As the story goes, a certain tourist Mr. Fidelis Valentine in his account of his travels to the republic of San Trajan mentioned that the match box manufactured in that country were of a poor quality and only one out of three match sticks ignited. The President of the republic asked the writer to withdraw his offensive observation or face war. Upon his refusal war was declared from both sides. The problem of the combatant nations getting at each other was solved by a wealthy millionaire, who in order to relieve himself of his boredom offered his deserted Island for the combatants to slug it out. San Trajan mobilized for war and arrived in full strength on the Island hut they didn't know how to light a lone enemy. The forces of the Republic were finally split into two equal halves and one each was given to the warring camps. But sensing, the futility of the conflict the combatants deferred to the fact in issue: the tourists claim regarding matchbox. The San Trajan matches failed the test and the general of the republic accepted defeat with good grace. Meanwhile, in San Trajan the conduct of the protracted war encouraged people at large to verify for themselves the claim about the matchsticks and to their horror they discovered the unjustness of the war. The people rose against their president deposed him and the victorious tourist was installed in his place.

The global world is now full of sovereign states that are faced with the predicament of San Trajan, if we substitute the obdurate tourist with a terrorist. In fact Yossef Bodansky's book is captioned “Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America.” There has been a paradigm shift in the nature of conflict. Wars in the traditional sense are becoming increasingly unlikely because of the highly enmeshed nature of economic relations and power equation. In a positional warfare things are clear-cut and laid down. There is a front, there are orders, and there is a hierarchy. The enemy is there. There are positions to defend, targets to demolish, territories to occupy or hold on to. But today a lone terrorist or a highly organized group of them embedded in several countries exploiting the sovereignty of the host state exposes the inadequacy of the territorialized nation state against global terrorism which copiously draws upon the resources of globalization.

The global world has created some entirely unforeseen new responsibilities and at the same time eroded the old capabilities of a sovereign state. It is now required to protect its national interests not within the realm only-but increasingly beyond its sovereign jurisdictions. There is a direct relation between military might and national security but military power becomes its own caricature when it is unable to realize its objective of deterrence, retaliation or punitive expedition. There are very few nations, barring perhaps USA and Israel, who can connect military power to their national security concerns emanating from terrorist threats from outside their borders. The devolution of terrorist organizations into smaller and more compartmentalized groups capable of acting independently and unbeknown to others acts as virtual sapper squads of international terrorism who commit their acts and disperse quickly into the local population or cross over to another nation who may not share the view of the victim nation. The Indian state has been reduced to the situation wherein it must depend on the good will of its hostile neighbour, reminiscent of the bored millionaire, to hand over the fabled 20 terrorists for them to be got against, because war is clearly not an option.

There was a time when the exercise of military power had its own logic and the outcome was decided by the relative strength of the combatants but in the globalized world even this equation has changed. So here we are, more than seven years after 9/11, despite the deployment of the full US military might and state of the art surveillance machinery-from powerful spy satellites to stool pigeons, the task of arresting dead or alive a bearded, possibly cancer ridden sixty year old man, who may be traversing the Pamirs of Afghanistan astride a mule has proved elusive. Could Jorge Louis Borges have proposed a better script?