Friday, Dec 02, 2022

The virtuoso militant

Terrorist acts in Mumbai and Lahore have scrambled the rules of international conflict

There used to be a time when it was easy to tell the difference between terrorism and counter-terrorism. One achieved publicity for its cause by taking hostages,planting bombs and making demands. The other operated silently to control neighbourhoods,free prisoners and capture militants. Since the Mumbai attacks of November 2008 it has become clear that this model no longer works,since it was the terrorists rather than their enemies who mounted a commando operation by moving rapidly across a sector of the city to secure key sites within it. And all this without any demands,communiqués or claims of responsibility,so that it remains unclear what exactly they wanted.  

Even the so-called confessions of Ajmal Kasab,the surviving gunman,shot through with contradictions as they are,tell us little about why these sophisticated attacks were launched. If publicity was important,then why did the terrorists make no statements or claims of responsibility? If death and destruction was the issue,then why not take the easy path of setting bombs in the same places that were taken at great risk by force of arms? And if martyrdom was the object,then why not send suicide bombers to kill themselves in hotels or railway stations alongside victims? 

Though some of them have included claims of responsibility,the recent attacks in Lahore and Islamabad follow the precedent set in Mumbai,comprising as they do audacious strikes and occupations whose purpose seems to be the demonstration of commando-like professionalism and staying power. Unlike the deliberately amateurish acts attributed to al-Qaeda,such attacks dispense with the guise of civilian vengeance to focus on military virtuosity alone. It is as if the terrorists were imitating tactics used by coalition forces in Afghanistan,trying out upon their enemies the methods learnt from them. Since these demonstrations of virtuosity go well beyond the crude aims of murder and mayhem,which are much more easily achieved,their meaning is still in question. 

The kind of terrorism inaugurated in Mumbai’s hotels and followed up in Lahore’s police academy appears to herald a new ability to transport war zones beyond the battlefield to cities and countries at peace. Unattached to regular armies and even partisan militias,such attacks seem to have freed war from its conventional institutions,making it available in miniature and patchwork forms across a wide area. And so the strikes and sieges in Mumbai,Lahore and Islamabad might well be outtakes from the war in Afghanistan,rather than instances of the rivalry between India and Pakistan or gunfights between militants and the state. In this scenario Mumbai serves as a warning that what is happening in Afghanistan can be repeated elsewhere at will.  

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While traditional conflicts between states remain important,more worrying is the fact that war in South Asia has moved outside the clash of armies and even undercover operations. The Indo-Pakistan wars,for example,were textbook exercises fought outside civilian areas for the most part. The devastation wrought by domestic strife,on the other hand,to which the state in both countries is of course party,has been much more extensive by comparison. The internal conflicts of these violent societies have therefore become the battlegrounds for a new kind of war,one that quite dispenses with the traditions of international conflict,which as in Afghanistan was quickly and cleanly concluded so that the real struggle might begin. What we see throughout the region,then,is the militarisation of domestic strife,with non-state actors locked in combat with each other as well as with regular armies. And for these actors,like the Lashkar-e-Taiba,loyalty to states and long-time sponsors has become less and less relevant. But this means that the model for such warfare is no longer international or even state-centred but rather civilian in nature. Crossing borders as they do,these attacks join what are in effect civil wars spread over much of South Asia,including struggles concerned with class,ethnicity and religion.   

The replication of warlike conditions in South Asian societies has less to do with the state’s loss of control over its citizens than with their ability to clone the very security apparatus it deploys against them,thus creating a simulacrum of the state beyond itself in a bizarre act of mirroring. Indeed conspiracy theories that would preserve the old-fashioned integrity of states by holding their secret services responsible for such strikes only illustrate the anxiety produced by this fragmentation. If the virtuosity and staying power of suicidal occupations like those in Mumbai and Lahore cannot achieve strategic aims greater than any delivered by other means,then their function is not to create an alternative to the state’s violence but rather its miniaturised reflection. It is in this context that their relative silence and rejection of demands and negotiations needs to be interpreted,as a form of war taken outside its traditional institutions and so lacking an evident rationality. 

The writer is associate professor of history at the New School,New York 

First published on: 07-04-2009 at 12:01:07 am
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