Terrorists know no borders. But the governments, who are supposed to fight against them, do.
The Indian army exterminated militants holed up along the Indo-Myanmar border last week, setting off widespread talks of India’s bold new stand against terrorism. This was the first time in recent memory that India had crossed into foreign territory in its fight against insurgents anywhere.
Many have been debating the merits of New Delhi’s aggressive policy. While the Myanmar Presidential Office sent out contradictory statements over whether or not the operation took place within its borders, Pakistan issued virulent attacks on New Delhi, saying that “Pakistan is not Myanmar.”
But what many miss is that this isn’t the first time a country has carried out anti-terror operations on foreign soil. America’s midnight heist against Osama bin Laden is a prime instance, launched not far from a Pakistani military base well within the territory of Pakistan. Notably, Islamabad made no threats against Washington at the time, merely expressing its displeasure at the raid. America continues to fight terrorists far from its own borders – in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia has been launching a relentless attack against the Houthis in Yemen for the last few weeks.
There are subtle differences between these, but all of them operate on the same principle – national security does not end at your border. Let’s face it. Terrorists don’t recognise international borders. Many global terrorist organizations in the modern world carry out operations on a country from the comforts of foreign soil. Take the Russian-speaking rebels in east Ukraine today, who certainly receive intelligence and direction from across the border in Russia; or, more famously, the men who attacked Mumbai in 2008.
The truth about global terrorism is that terrorists, militants and insurgents in the modern world are smarter than the governments they fight. They exploit political differences between neighbours, set up base in the more patronizing country, use the international border as a protective shield against the enemy country and misuse the sovereignty of their ‘safe haven’. They know no boundaries or sovereignty under international law, unlike the governments they fight.
The only way to tackle such highly strategic and intelligent terrorism is to foster multinational anti-terror cooperation. Operations such as those in Myanmar, Yemen or Ukraine would be far more successful if they were carried out jointly by all those involved in and affected by the militancy in the region. Governments must collaborate with each other in the boardroom, and their armies must fight together on the ground. International law too should be amended to account for this new reality. Terrorists can’t be allowed to hide behind the sovereignty of the countries they operate from. Those who give them shelter ought to be made accountable.
Sadly, none of this international collaboration is yet visible on the horizon. The ‘Global War on Terror’ was largely a one-man American show, often impeded by international law and spoilt by those whom America declared its allies. Terrorism in the modern world has become a part of state policy and a tool for proxy war at the hands of rival nations around the world. Funding and training rebels to operate in the enemy country is now seen by governments as a cheap and easy form of war, bereft of accountability for the guilty government. Such political rivalry has even crippled the United Nations, making it increasingly ineffective at stopping the spread of terrorism from one part of the world to another.
For India, terrorism is serious business, close to home and real. What the Indian army did last week was not an act of “hostility” or “aggression” directed at Myanmar or its government, as has been insinuated most conveniently by some analysts and officials in Pakistan. Rather, it was an operation carried out against dangerous and armed terrorists who were wanted for killing Indian soldiers.
Many argue that unilateral military operations, by India, the United States or any other power, are detrimental to international cooperation. Yes, unilateral action isn’t ideal; far from it, it shouldn’t even have to be the norm. What is ideal is collaboration between governments against terrorists who cause massive damage to life and property around the world – a joint South Asian anti-terror force, for example, or a less paralysed and more inclusive United Nations Security Council.
But as long as even one government is willing to provide safe havens to a terrorist who operates against someone else, that dream will not turn into reality. In the meantime, terrorists can’t be allowed to take lives and wreak havoc.
Mohamed Zeeshan is a policy analyst based in Bangalore, India. He also writes for The Diplomat and The Huffington Post.
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