I don’t know anyone who shed a tear over the assassination of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the terrorist mastermind and al-Qaeda chief. But the US policy of assassinating terrorists does raise many questions that should concern us in India.
But first, the assassination. Al-Zawahiri was killed when two US missiles (possibly Hellfires) struck his home in Kabul, where he had been hiding under the noses of his old pals, the Taliban. When the US pulled out of Afghanistan, it told the world that the Taliban had assured it that Kabul would not become a safe haven for terrorists. But history has a way of repeating itself. Just as Osama bin Laden hid out in Abbottabad, probably with the connivance of the US’ great ally, Pakistan, Zawahiri was sheltered by people who the US told us were actually not such bad chaps, really.
It is a measure of how safe Zawahiri felt in Kabul that according to the US, he spent long periods of time on his balcony where he was clearly visible from the streets and the skies. At least bin Laden had tried to remain out of sight.
There is evidence to suggest that Afghanistan is now becoming a centre of al-Qaeda operations. We already know about Pakistan’s terrorist infrastructure. This means that India has two terrorism-supporting countries at our doorstep.
Over the last year, as Pakistan grappled with internal problems of its own, terrorist attacks in India have slowed down. Although the US officially accepts the Pakistani position that the terrorism is carried out by non-State actors (the ‘snakes’ that Pakistan is supposed to keep in its backyard), no Indian intelligence officer seriously believes that the attacks are not State-sponsored or State-encouraged. And once things settle down in Pakistan, they will resume. That has been the pattern over the last two decades.
The US has two answers on terrorists
So, how does a country cope with the threat of terrorism from across its border?
There are two answers. The first is the answer the US gives to the rest of the world: We must rely on foreign governments to apprehend terrorists in their own countries. We must use diplomatic pressure. And so on.
This is the answer the US has always given India. When the Taliban facilitated the ISI-sponsored hijacking of IC-814 in late 1999, the US was not particularly concerned. It did not even blink as India was forced to release dangerous terrorists in return for the lives of the passengers.
When the Mumbai attacks took place in 2008, the US advised restraint. Worried by reports that India was considering retaliation against Pakistan, it warned us not to escalate the situation and assured us that Pakistan would cooperate in tracking down the plotters of the attack.
That’s the answer the US gives us and the rest of the world.
And then there is the answer the US provides when its own interests are threatened. After the 9/11 attacks, it asked the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden. When the Taliban refused, America launched a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan, ousted the Taliban and took control of the country itself.
When ISIS and other terrorist groups continued to plot attacks against America, the US used drone strikes to destroy terrorist hideouts. Later, it created a so-called Disposition Matrix. The US press recognised this for what it really was: A kill list.
A list of individuals who were potential threats to the US was sent to the President on a regular basis. The President (Barack Obama was the first to get this list) would then tell his officials who they could kill. Once presidential approval was granted, the US would assassinate the targets with missiles, drones or (as in the case of Osama bin Laden) actual ground assaults.
One rule for all?
There is, first of all, a moral issue here. Who made the US President judge, jury, and executioner? And even if you assume that due process is followed (when, of course, it can’t be, by definition, because the condemned person has no right to a defence) isn’t there a question of morality here? Should elected officials sanction the murder of individuals?
The US has been here before. In the 1970s when it emerged that the CIA had been involved in assassination attempts against world leaders and other figures, there was widespread outrage and a storm in US Congress. The mood has now changed 180 degrees, but it is hard for America to argue that there are no moral questions to confront.
And then of course there is the basic problem. One rule for America. One rule for the rest of the world.
It is not my case that the US is necessarily wrong to kill terrorists. It may well explain why there are so few terror attacks on the US now. (But let’s not forget that when policemen make the same who-to-kill decisions in India, there is global outrage over staged ‘encounters’.) My problem is this: If assassination is such an effective way of ending terrorism, why can’t other countries follow the US example?
With both Pakistan and Afghanistan next door to us and with the history of the terrorist attacks we have suffered, why can’t we take direct action without Washington getting all self-righteous and indignant?
A talk India needs to have
Over a decade and a half after the Mumbai attack, most of its planners remain free. As for the IC-814 hijack, Pakistan never returned the terrorists we released, the hijackers themselves went on to live in Pakistan with the connivance of the government. And except for Balakot, where we executed a level of retaliation, we have been stopped from doing anything that remotely resembles what the US is doing itself.
I have long argued that the only way to fight terrorism is through covert operations, if not retaliatory strikes. Only a fool would hope to get justice from the Taliban or the Pakistan Army. When the terror attacks resume (as they surely will), this is a discussion we need to have in India.
Let’s not do as America says. Let’s do as America does.
Vir Sanghvi is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.