To Better Protect India, Harden the Indian Periphery

By Amer Latif

Indian Customs at a Nepal - India border crossing. Source: Flickr user Jakol's photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Last month, I had the privilege of testifying before the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade on the subject of US-India Counterterrorism Cooperation.  During the hearing, I made the point that the U.S. and India should closely examine the possibility of working together on strengthening the borders and counterterrorism capacities of India’s neighboring states to prevent them from being exploited by regional terror groups such as Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT).

Without a doubt, terror groups operating from Pakistani territory continue to represent the greatest terrorist threat against India.  However, groups such as the LeT and HUJI have become adept at exploiting weak borders and ungoverned spaces along India’s borders in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives.  For India, it is not only strategically essential to build its domestic counter terror (CT) capabilities, but also to harden its periphery and deny the use of its neighbors‘ territory as facilitation nodes for terrorist group operations such as transit, money laundering, and recruiting.

In Nepal, the country has recently emerged from a brutal civil war in which a fragile government is trying to form a constitution and determine an acceptable way to integrate cadre from the People’s Liberation Army into the Nepalese Army.  While Kathmandu wrestles with these challenges, the LeT has reportedly established operations in Nepal in the Terai where a majority of Nepal’s Muslims reside.

In Bangladesh, LeT has worked to establish a terror infrastructure by forging ties with HUJI-Bangladesh (HUJI-B) and the Jamaat ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), and used Bangladeshi territory as a transit point for counterfeit currency and recruitment.  Recent bilateral military exercises between the Indian and Bangladeshi militaries focusing on counterterrorism are a step in the right direction.  The Maldives is an archipelago consisting of approximately 1200 islands, only 200 of which are inhabited. This wide swath of ungoverned maritime space was reportedly explored by LeT commander Faisal Haroon as a possible logistical base.  Sri Lanka was also reportedly seen by LeT as an attractive location for transit operations with its large Muslim population in the eastern region of the country.

In order to better harden India’s periphery, the U.S. and India should explore possibilities for working together on strengthening borders, building CT capacity, improving maritime security, and improving the professionalism of security forces in India’s neighboring states.  By working trilaterally with regional states, the U.S. will be able to work cooperatively with their Indian partners in building capacity, while respecting Indian sensitivities as the dominant regional power.  While India has typically been resistant to such proposals in the past, New Delhi should consider the benefits of leveraging U.S. assistance.

U.S. Pacific Command has already undertaken some capacity building work throughout South Asia.  While DOD has begun work to build CT capacity on India’s periphery, there are limits to what it can do.  Given the sensitivities about the region’s colonial legacy, any American efforts at engaging neighboring states must be respectful of each country’s sovereignty.  High profile American engagement has the potential to antagonize host governments and cause concern in New Delhi about prominent American presence in a region that it considers its sphere of influence.  Any engagement with regional South Asian states needs to be executed discreetly and, wherever possible, in close coordination with India.  Being mindful of these sensitivities, the U.S. and India could use this opportunity to work trilaterally or multilaterally with regional states to build CT capacity.  An example of this could be trilateral or quadrilateral CT exercises among the region’s CT forces.  Or perhaps a multilateral training seminar that discusses the principles of effective coastal security.  In this way, the United States and India could take their CT cooperation to a new level by cooperating on CT initiatives outside of India’s borders, and preventing the exploitation of India’s periphery against another terror attack.

S. Amer Latif is a Visiting Fellow with the CSIS Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies.