One of the most popular Chinese martial arts is Wing Chun. Practised by 20th century icon Bruce Lee, it is a form of aggressive self-defense in which a defensive move is almost immediately turned into an attack. If a combatant does not pay enough attention to attack the opponent while defending, he may soon find himself at a disadvantage.

It may be bizarre to draw parallels between the intricacies of a martial art and the security of a nation but it may not be erroneous to compare India’s fight against terrorism to the lazy Wing Chun combatant, as India continues to pay dearly for a counter-terrorism strategy that is limited to “strengthening the intelligence setup”, calling for new laws, new investigating agencies and acquisition of the latest weapons.

The terror strike in Poona provoked yet another display of official irresponsibility. While the Maharashtra government pleaded innocence by stating that it did not receive any specific intelligence about an impending terror strike, the Union Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, showed off his taxonomical skills by discriminating between “hard targets” and “soft targets”, the latter apparently proving too tough for the government to defend. Shashi Tharoor, Minister of State for External Affairs, suggested that it is impossible for the government to provide 100% safety.

One could fault them for evading responsibility for the Poona attack but all of them were speaking the truth.

Terror strikes occur when capabilities meet opportunities. Capabilities include the ability to plan, organize and carry out terror strikes. Opportunities include loopholes in security that terrorists can exploit to successfully perpetrate an act of terrorism. Prevention of terror strikes, therefore, requires a balanced approach to suppress capabilities and to deny opportunities. In India’s case, however, the balance is heavily titled towards the latter.

It is very common to hear, after a terror strike, suggestions that we must strengthen our intelligence setup, reform and modernize our police, and require malls and restaurants to install security guards and scanners.

Without doubt, all these are very important. Basic law enforcement can take us a long way in fighting terror. India needs major improvements in this area. But that should not distract from the need to focus more on negating the capabilities of terrorists.

Though Indian security forces continue to make impressive gains in busting sleeper cells, capturing explosives and weapons, rounding up suspects, intercepting communications and gathering intelligence, their efforts cannot guarantee 100% safety, as our ministers would readily agree. They cannot hurt terrorists’ capabilities beyond a point because much of it originates overseas.

It is said that the best defense is a good offense. It could also be said that the worst defense is the absence of any offense. By opting for a limited and defensive approach, India leaves an extraordinary amount of control in the hands of those who plan attacks against it at will. As The Acorn observes, terror handlers in Pakistan have the disturbing “ability to both pick targets and the level of violence.”

When neither going to war with Pakistan nor carrying out ‘surgical strikes’ is viable, India needs to explore unconventional options to take the battle directly to the epicentre of terrorism – Pakistan.

India needs a proactive and covert campaign in which Indian operatives enter Pakistani territory, penetrate terror groups, gather intelligence, relentlessly and ruthlessly pursue and eliminate terrorists and those who train, arm and finance them, and destroy their assets. India needs to strike at the very roots of the terrorists’ capabilities.

Every attack in India must be followed by painful reprisals targetted against those connected with the ‘jihad’ against India. The message must be clearly conveyed that the ‘jihadis’ can attack India all they want but not without being made to face greater pain in return.

These underground efforts must supplement an overground policy of engaging in continuous talks with Pakistan. That would shield India from the old charge that it does not talk. It will also diminish the strategic value of terrorism for the Pakistani Army as it will learn that India will not consider overt war or calling off talks in the event of a terror strike.

Fanciful? Such a campaign requires manpower, training and technology of the highest calibre. Managing public opinion in the event of another terror strike as big as 26/11 is a challenge, as there are bound to be passionate calls to cease talks with Pakistan and to go to war. Therefore, it also requires strong conviction from India’s leaders and a high level of coordination between security forces, the bureaucracy and the political leadership.

The enemy wants to bleed India through a thousand cuts. Instead of wasting all its energies in trying to hold the line, India must consider the smarter option: disable the enemy’s hands.

PS: This post was inspired by, among other things, this tweet by fellow blogger Amar. It does not get more precise.