Today marks seventeen years since 9/11 happened. If terrorism is theatre, all its shows have been running full house since that fateful day in September 2001.
India has of course been dealing with the threat posed by terrorism long before 9/11. But that attack made the rest of the world take notice of the dangers posed by terrorism. In the US for example, new strategies were made, new intelligence organisations were setup, and armed forces were retrained for counter-terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11.
Similarly, India underwent a change to add teeth to its counter-terrorism strategy and the question that I want to focus on in this blog post is: at what cost have we achieved counter-terrorism effectiveness? Let me explain.
The cost of terrorism is a subject that’s been discussed in great detail. But lest we forget, a cost is incurred for countering terrorism as well. By cost here, I mean the economic cost and not merely the explicit accounting cost. Economic cost is the sum of accounting cos and opportunity cost. And the opportunity cost of a choice is the value of the opportunities lost (Cowen and Tabarrok). So, is the value of the opportunities lost by India in choosing to focus on counter-terrorism significant enough that we should lose our sleep on it?
To be sure, counter-terrorism requires spending money and deploying resources. At a macro-level, every resource spent by the government on counter-terrorism could’ve instead been used on something else. But because the threat of terrorism is so potent, it probably makes sense to incur the cost of letting other opportunities slip by. But is there any component of this opportunity cost that needs a relook?
I believe there is one component that needs some rethinking – the opportunity cost of getting R&AW involved in counter-terrorism. Because we probably will never have solid data to understand the resources diverted from R&AW to focus on counter-terrorism, my claim is only based on statements made by intelligence officers.
One such statement I came across was in a recently televised interview of two highly respected retired intelligence officers Tilak Devasher and Vikram Sood. At 10:25, Mr Devasher paraphrases from Mr Sood’s book The Unending Game, saying:
The focus is on terrorism and immediate actionable intelligence. What everybody is looking for is an instant coffee book report. So nobody is looking at the longer-term picture. What happens six months or six years down the road, where is that country headed, what are the vulnerabilities of that country which will affect us, those capabilities have been diminished.
Assuming this is how R&AW has actually transformed itself for countering terrorism, the opportunity cost is not at all trivial. This is because R&AW is a small organisation with limited resources at its disposal. On the other hand its mandate is huge – it is perhaps the only Indian organisation that is tasked with collecting intelligence and conducting operations in other countries. If such an important organisation is disproportionately focused on counter-terrorism, it means that there is diminished focus on extremely critical questions such as: what will happen in China over the next six months? What should India’s stance be with respect to persecution in Xinjiang? How should India influence political events in Afghanistan? What will be the security implications of a water crisis in Pakistan?
This is a huge opportunity lost. Particularly so because terrorism is not just the only threat facing India. The conventional threats of an arrogant China and an irreconcilable Pakistani military-jihadi complex are just two others in a larger list of long-term threat vectors that India needs to be worried about. The US can afford to focus on counter-terrorism disproportionately because probably it really is the largest threat, given its geography and relative power. But India’s threat matrix looks very different and hence an assessment of opportunity costs of counter-terrorism is necessary.
PS: I suppose the same case of high opportunity cost applies to the Indian army. With its focus on countering terrorism in J&K, one needs to ask, what is the value of other opportunities being lost.