India Still Feels Aftershocks of 9/11: Choudhury

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.
Read More.
a | A

In May, almost 10 years after he engineered the bloodbath of Sept. 11, Osama bin Laden was finally hunted down and executed by U.S. forces in his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The news had personal significance for many in India. More than 30 Indians were killed in the attack on the World Trade Center; some worked in the building, others were aboard the ill-fated airplanes that were flown into the towers.

More generally, there was relief that the curtain had come down on the career of one of the world's most poisonous ideologues. Bin Laden's efforts to stoke a jihad among Muslims worldwide through a toxic cocktail of conspiracy theory, megalomanic fantasy, literal and reductive readings of Islamic scripture, and rabid anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism, had never found much currency in India. But there is no doubt that India's Muslim population, the world's third-largest, has suffered some of the ill-effects of the demonization of Islam across the world in the last decade, including hostility from the country's powerful Hindu right-wing.

Last, there was little surprise in India that bin Laden had been discovered in a military town in Pakistan, so close to the shadowy halls of power. Indeed, the site of bin Laden's death was, if anything, even more meaningful than the fact of his death, and stripped bare the naivete of the U.S. decision to make Pakistan an ally in the "war on terror."

In contrast to the U.S., the decade after the attacks has involved, for India, the protracted experience of terror. In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, it had been hoped in India that there would now be greater unity and coordination among the world's two largest democracies in fighting Islamist terrorism in all its forms. India also expected that Washington would take a tougher line with Pakistan in the effort to bring peace and stability to South Asia, a dangerous flashpoint that is home to two nuclear powers. New Delhi also hoped Pakistan would end its practice of giving safe refuge to terrorists involved in acts such as the Mumbai bomb blasts of 1993 and the hijacking of an Indian airplane in 1999.

Instead, to borrow a phrase that has come into fashion in this decade, India's internal security has become part of the collateral damage of America's military and strategic response to the terror attacks. In a long, but not especially surprising, series of reverberations, the U.S. decision to use Pakistan as an ally to destroy the Taliban in Afghanistan and hunt bin Laden has greatly strengthened the army in Pakistan at the expense of the now-tottering state. It also has supplied Pakistan with funds that have been funneled not just into the war in Afghanistan, but into terror plots aimed at India with the cooperation of Islamist groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed that enjoy the patronage of the Pakistani establishment.

As Joseph Fitsanikis wrote in a piece called "An Embrace Without Trust" in the Indian political journal Pragati last year:

By November of 2008 -- the time of the Mumbai attacks -- the U.S. had provided Pakistan with nearly $15 billion in security-related aid (excluding unknown amounts in covert assistance). The CIA was directly bankrolling as much as a third of the ISI’s annual budget, in full knowledge that large portions of these funds were being secretly channelled to support Pakistan’s strategic rivalry with India, including financing Pakistan-aligned militant groups in Afghanistan. Yet, in the eyes of both the Bush and the Obama Administrations, the U.S. could not afford to sever its security ties with Pakistan any more than Pakistani agencies could afford to cut their financial contacts with Washington. One former senior U.S. intelligence official told The New York Times that the U.S. National Security Council voices “deep misgivings about the ISI [...] every year, but ultimately decides that there [i]s no other game in town.”

Thus it is that over the last decade, as Americans have absorbed -- and to some extent come to terms with -- the shock of Sept. 11, Indians have watched with dismay as their country suffered several major terrorist strikes with their origins across the border in Pakistan, including the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001; the Mumbai bomb blasts of 2003 and 2006; and the attacks in 2008 by armed gunmen, who were in telephone contact with their handlers in Pakistan, on Mumbai's Taj Mahal hotel, Trident hotel, and a crowded railway terminus. On each occasion, the Indian government eschewed a military response at the urging of the U.S.

But it has become increasingly clear that, not for the first time, U.S. policy in the Indian subcontinent has been catastrophically self-involved and short-sighted. It might even be argued that Washington is fighting its "war on terror" by agreeing, effectively, to fund and then turn a blind eye toward terrorism against other targets. As Christopher Hitchens wrote in a characteristically plainspoken piece in Vanity Fair in July:

The two main symbols of Pakistan’s pride -- its army and its nuclear program -- are wholly parasitic on American indulgence and patronage. But [...] that army and those nukes are intended to be reserved for war against the neighboring democracy of India. Our bought-and-paid-for pretense that they have any other true purpose has led to a rancid, resentful official hypocrisy, and to a state policy of revenge, large and petty, on the big, rich, dumb Americans who foot the bill.

[...] We have been the enablers of every stage of [Pakistan's] counter-evolution, to the point where it is a serious regional menace and an undisguised ally of our worst enemy, as well as the sworn enemy of some of our best allies. How could it be “worse” if we shifted our alliance and instead embraced India, our only rival in scale as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy, and a nation that contains nearly as many Muslims as Pakistan?

Writing in the Wall Street Journal in June, the Indian foreign-policy analyst Nitin Pai succinctly summarized the case against the cosseting of Pakistan through financial aid in exchange for military support and intelligence. Pai wrote:

As the United States reviews its troubled relationship with Pakistan after the killing of Osama bin Laden, a number of thoughtful voices have argued for Washington to continue aid to Islamabad. The money is necessary, the argument goes, both to buy support for a graceful U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and because nuclear-armed Pakistan is "too big to fail."

This is a terrible idea.

First, it's important to understand why aid to or sanctions against Islamabad so far have not had their desired effect. In effect, two entities comprise Pakistan—the military-jihadi complex and the Pakistani state—and aid benefits the former at the expense of the latter. The military-jihadi complex started on the back of U.S. assistance during the anti-Soviet war in the 1980s and has been in effective control since. The state is little more than a shell entity.

Though the world's governments plead with or try to coerce the state into co-operating with them in the fight against terrorism, it can't because it doesn't really hold the reins. Look no further than President Asif Zardari's inability to prosecute the assassins of his own wife, Benazir Bhutto, who was killed in 2007.

On the other hand, the military-jihadi complex is more powerful, officially taking one-fifth of the state's budget, receiving three-quarters of direct, overt U.S. aid and presiding over a business empire with interests ranging from nuclear technology to breakfast cereal. This complex presents a security threat to the international community because it uses terrorism as an instrument of policy, secure in the knowledge that its nuclear arsenal shields it from punishment.

India and Pakistan have been antagonists since they were carved out of the British empire in 1947. Yet they also share a great deal in terms of history, culture and language. Even when I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, both countries were obsessed with each other, as if unable to forget the bloodbath of Partition that marked both their founding and their fracture. This pride was also the reason that they were unwilling to budge an inch on the standoff over Kashmir.

But as democracy has settled in India -- something that the military establishment has never permitted in Pakistan -- and Indians have seen the world open to them and the economy take off after the liberalization of the economy in 1991, Pakistan's hold on the Indian imagination has fallen away. Most Indians today genuinely desire, if only from self-interest, that their neighboring state become a stable and peaceful democracy, so that both countries -- which between them host a substantial chunk of the world's poorest people -- may turn their attention to the many challenges of economic development and social reform that lie before them.

Yet Pakistan's establishment has much to gain by keeping a low-intensity war against India simmering, and India rightly holds that there can be no dialogue between the two countries as long as Pakistan continues to export terror across its borders. One of the legacies of Sept. 11 has been to exacerbate this state of affairs. The columnist Vir Sanghvi wrote in a piece in the Hindustan Times last year:

The Pakistanis have told the Americans that they would like to help [with the war on terror] but domestic public opinion is deeply hostile to the U.S. The only way they can mollify their own people is if they can say that Washington is on Pakistan’s side against India, that it will help secure Kashmiri freedom, etc.

Naturally, the U.S. cannot do all of this. But it can put pressure on India to talk to Pakistan (so that the Pakistanis can claim we blinked). And that is exactly what the Americans are now doing.

Given this background, how can any peace be possible? We are just being used by the Americans and the Pakistanis and our genuine desire for peace is being exploited.

I subscribe to [Prime Minister] Manmohan Singh’s vision. Of course, we must stop being obsessed with Pakistan. But can we do this while Pakistan is still obsessed with us?

This is an obsession often situated at a great distance from reality. Earlier this month, several Pakistani newspapers, including The Dawn, The Daily Times, and Pakistan Today ran an Agence France-Presse piece from Abbottabad, "Pakistanis in denial 10 years after 9/11":

In such a country -- so fearful of India, distrustful of America and protective of its traditional influence over Afghanistan as a counterweight to Indian power -- conspiracy theories fester unchecked.

Wahab Khan Maseeb, 20, leaves his lectures at the medical faculty in Abbottabad. A young Pakistani-American in jeans and a T-shirt, he was in school in Brooklyn on that fateful day 10 years ago. He saw the ash cover everything.

But was it an militant attack? Wahab hesitates. Like others, he saw the “Loose Change” series of documentary films, which accused elements of the U.S. government of carrying out the 9/11 attacks.

“It was pretty convincing,” he says. In a country awash with anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism, Pakistani newspapers peddled totally unsubstantiated claims that 4,000 Jews didn’t turn up to work in New York that day, so the attacks were somehow a Zionist plot.

Such theories are preached from mosques and propagated by madrassas responsible for the education of millions of largely penniless children.

[...] The danger is that conspiracy theories create a climate in which it is easier for extremist networks to recruit.

“The wave of intolerance sweeping the country is also due substantially to the conspiracy theories put about by the ruling establishment and their allies in the media,” wrote Ahmed Rashid this summer in the New Republic magazine.

One popular narrative —that Washington is in cahoots with India and Israel to destroy Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and the Muslim world —papers over inadequacies of corruption and inefficiency closer to home.

So, if the world's largest democracy could say one thing to America about Sept. 11 and its aftermath, it would be a request for America not to penalize India for being a peaceful, multicultural democracy, and to practice a foreign policy more in keeping with America's purported antipathy to terrorism universally and commitment to political freedom. There would also be a warning from India about America's own addiction to militarism, the subject of a perceptive piece in this month's Atlantic Monthly. (India might consider a similar warning when it comes to the state of Kashmir, one of the world's most militarized zones.)

It wasn't in America's power to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks, but when it comes to the matter of Washington's response to that cataclysm, most Indians, including a great number who would like democracy and the rule of law take root in Pakistan, would say that an urgent course correction is required.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author of this story:
Chandrahas Choudhury at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at