Homeland Security

Terrorism as a Cancer: Does this Metaphor Work for India?
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Issue Vol. 33.4 Oct-Dec 2018 | Date : 09 Feb , 2019

State of Diplomacy

India’s Minister for External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, during her meeting with the previous US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, in New Delhi in October 2017, stated that Pakistan needed to dismantle the terror infrastructure operating out of that country. Rex Tillerson agreed that Islamabad needed to take concrete action against terror groups to ensure peace and security in the region, particularly in Afghanistan. He stated that terror havens inside Pakistan would not be tolerated by the US. He asked the Pakistani leadership “to take action against terror groups” and said that “an enhancement in [the terrorists’] capabilities may pose a threat to the government in Islamabad”.17

If the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir were to be resolved, Pakistan’s military would have no legitimacy to remain on the national scene.

In his very first tweet in 2018, President Trump was more direct, stating, “The US has foolishly given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid over the last 15 years and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”18 The tweet highlights the tensions growing between the US and Pakistan, since August 2017, when President Trump described his administration’s strategy for war in Afghanistan. At that time, President Trump had accused Pakistan of offering “safe haven to agents of chaos, violence and terror.” Pakistan has expressed deep disappointment at President Trump’s assertions, citing “decades of sacrifice made by the Pakistani nation.” Retired Air Vice Marshal Shahzad Chaudhry states that “the US looks at Pakistan as a transactional nation…used when needed and trashed when not needed.” He cites that “seventy thousand lives for the last 16 years” have been the price of Pakistani support for US in the war on terrorism.19

Cordesman and Vira state, “Broad patterns of violence in Pakistan have serious implications for Pakistan’s future, for regional stability and for core US interests. Pakistan remains a central node in global terrorism. Osama Bin Laden was killed deep inside Pakistan in an area that raises deep suspicion about what Pakistani intelligence officials, senior military officers and government officials did and did not know about his presence…”. They also state that there are numerous movements feeding violence and extremism in Pakistan, due to consistent failure of the government “to meet the needs of Pakistan’s people over a period of decades.”20 Ian Bremmer goes further. He states that “counter-terrorism will only become more important as ISIS fighters from Syria and Iraq scatter around the world. The US may never get exactly what it pays for in Pakistan, but China will be only too glad to double down on its own investment if Trump decides to cash out entirely on this inconstant ally.”21

Diplomatic overtures between India and Pakistan have so far yielded limited returns. Peace initiatives are interspersed with aggression and conflicts. In 1987, India engaged in proactive military exercises in response to Pakistan’s nuclear programme. This was followed by Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq visiting India in a gesture of reconciliation. After a crisis in 1990, the two Prime Ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi, collaborated to initiate some confidence-building measures. In 1999, India’s Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met in Lahore. However, the goodwill developed there dissipated when, in the same year, the two countries fought a mini-war in Kargil, along the LOC. Nevertheless, after the Kargil conflict, Prime Minister Vajpayee met with President Parvez Musharraf yet again, but with little yield. It is evident that India and Pakistan are capable of arriving at agreements on confidence-building measures and secondary issues. However, when it comes to Kashmir, resolution is absent. As the two countries progress toward agreements, they reach a point at which the cost of breaking off further discussions is perceived to be less than the cost of proceeding further, mainly due to forces within the respective countries.22

Although India claims all of Jammu and Kashmir to be a part of India, the Line of Control has served as the de facto border between India and Pakistan for these past 71 years…

State of Counter-insurgency

It is notable that since 1987 of the 43 Ashoka Chakras23 awarded, 27 (63 per cent) went to those valiant individuals who stopped terrorists infiltrating into India in the Jammu & Kashmir region and additional ten (23 per cent) to those who confronted terrorists in Mumbai, Delhi and Kabul. These terrorists were all handled or assisted out of Pakistan. Six Ashoka Chakras (14 per cent) were awarded to brave individuals who confronted the Maoists or Naxalites in the North-Eastern states. Some of these too, had foreign links. Counter-insurgency efforts cost India dearly in terms of its precious lives. Of the 43 Ashoka Chakras awarded since 1987, 42 were awarded posthumously!

Terrorist organisations in Pakistan are a major threat to Pakistan itself. In 2014, reporting on the massacre of school children in North-Western Pakistan, Dennis Ross referred to the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and the Tehreek-e-Taliban and stated, “Beheadings, taking young women as sex slaves or murdering children, are the normal practices of these groups who claim to own the truth. These radical Islamists seek to remake the world in their image and terror is their chosen instrument for doing so.”24 US Intelligence experts continue to warn the US Congress that terrorists out of Pakistan will remain a threat to the US, India and Afghanistan.25 At the same time, responding to the proposition that for most Pakistanis, “foreign aggression and interference by outside powers seem to top the list of potentially mortal risks facing them,” Syed Rifaat Hussain of the National University of Sciences and Technology in Islamabad states, “While Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capability has thwarted the threat of foreign invasion, it has made the country more vulnerable to proxy wars, externally sponsored subversion and acts of armed violence by non-state actors such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and Al-Qaeda.”26

In the same forum, Babar Ayaz, a Pakistani journalist, states, “After dithering for decades and suffering the loss of over 60,000 with twice as many injured and maimed, Pakistan’s ruling elite has finally declared that terrorist organisations are an existential threat to the country. The exclusionist interpretation of Islam propagated by Al-Qaeda, ISIS and their various franchisees, attracts people to join terrorist outfits and lay down their lives for it. These extremists know that their brand of Sharia cannot be imposed in Muslim-majority countries through a democratic system. Hence, terrorism is their chosen tactic.”27

However, India blames Pakistan for promoting insurgencies in India. It accuses Pakistan of supporting terrorist infiltration into India across the LOC, “To facilitate this infiltration, Pakistani soldiers open intense fire at Indian posts to keep soldiers’ heads down. That provides an opportunity for small groups of militants to thread their way across no-man’s land, scale a formidable Indian border fence and then cross through minefields between Indian posts.”28

Diplomatic overtures between India and Pakistan have so far yielded limited returns; peace initiatives are interspersed with aggression and conflicts…

State of Surgical Intervention

In June 2015, India had executed a surgical strike against North-Eastern militants hiding in the jungles of Manipur-Myanmar, well within Myanmar territory, eliminating at least 60 insurgents. The applicability of this tactic in Pakistan was not lost on the military decision and policy makers. Former Defence Minister of India Manohar Parrikar recalls, “Although I didn’t spell it our explicitly, I knew someday a grave provocation by Pakistan may require a Myanmar-like operation.”29 That provocation seems to have come on September 18, 2016, when militants from Pakistan crossed over the Line of Control and killed 19 Indian soldiers in Uri, Jammu & Kashmir. Eleven days later, India conducted a ‘surgical strike’, going into POK claiming to have killed 35 to 50 individuals. Pakistan disputed India’s claims. The significant point, however, was that the announcement of the September 29 raid was the first time that India had publicly acknowledged crossing the LOC. US security expert, Bruce Reidel, stated that while India’s “surgical military response was limited and calibrated, it would send a sharp signal to the Pakistani establishment.” He acknowledged that, “India could legitimately cite a right to self-defence in taking such strong action, following the example of US operations in Pakistan against Osama bin Laden and Mullah Akhtar Mansour.”30 

Limitation of the Cancer Metaphor

More than sixty years ago, we were warned by Edith Penrose against taking biological analogies of social systems too far.31 She stated: “The chief danger of carrying sweeping analogies very far is that the problems they are designed to illuminate, become framed in such a special way that significant matters are frequently inadvertently obscured.” We cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that ultimately, terrorism is a tactic designed by people, who seek specific ends. In that context, Peter Klein, a professor at Baylor University, describes terrorism as being more like a military tactic rather than a disease.32

In the case of terrorism exported to India from Pakistan, the medical metaphor has its limits. The international law scholar, Oscar Schachter states, “When a government provides weapons, technical advice, transportation, aid and encouragement to terrorists on a substantial scale, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the armed attack is imputable to that government”.33 The exported, state-supported terrorism is essentially a military warfare, whether we choose to call it a proxy war or for what it is in the eyes of Oscar Schachter. Management of diseases is often described in terms of military metaphor. Conventional military conflicts, however, are seldom described in terms of medical metaphors. Yet rare examples might be found in the context of nuclear warfare. In one such case, Jane Orient observes that although considerable resources are applied to extend the lives of cancer patients by a few months, “physicians have labeled as hopeless any conflict involving nuclear weapons. While prevention is always preferable, nuclear warfare is the only disease in which physicians say with moral fervour, ‘No response to medical needs should be expected from medicine’.”34 The medical metaphor appears to be not very helpful or useful in the management of a military conflict.

When a government provides weapons, technical advice, transportation, aid and encouragement to terrorists on a substantial scale, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the armed attack is imputable to that government…


This article reviews the medical metaphor of cancer for its applicability to explain the nature of terrorism in India. This metaphor draws on the similarities in the characteristics of cancer and that of terrorism to assess whether various treatment plans for cancer suggest analogous approaches to the management of terrorism. To grow, cancer usually uses the resources of its host. An analogy would suggest a degree of applicability to indigenous terrorism. The degree to which one can make the case that the Maoist insurgency in North-Eastern India arises through general neglect of economic development in that region, the metaphor of cancer could be helpful.

However, to the extent that terrorism in India is launched from outside India, the analogy suggests different strategies. India could act diplomatically and seek to aid its neighbouring countries in the effort to exercise control over the agencies promoting terrorism. In the case of terrorism exported to India from Pakistan, such aid would be of limited use, as already being claimed by President Trump. In addition, decades of diplomatic give and take between India and Pakistan has yielded no resolution for the Kashmir issue. The cancer metaphor suggests that the factors that trigger cancer, be blocked or removed before the cancer is triggered. From India’s perspective, this makes counter-insurgency important. India is ever vigilant to stop infiltrators at the LOC in Jammu and Kashmir and at its Eastern borders. This strategy is already costing India dearly in blood. Her soldiers sacrifice their lives to neutralise the terrorists on the LOC.

After seven decades of dealing with on-again-off-again crises between India and Pakistan and the associated history of terrorism, India is showing signs of impatience and a tendency towards surgical strikes well within Pakistan. Today, the 776-kilometre LOC is “the most intensively manned and militarised border in the world.”35 India’s Chief of Army Staff, General Bipin Rawat, declared on January 12, 2018, that Indian troops were indeed violating the LOC to punish Pakistani troops for supporting infiltrations by militants, stating, “These militants are disposable commodities for Pakistan. The pain has to be felt by the Pakistan armed forces for supporting infiltration. So we have started targeting (Pakistani) posts. That is why we get repeated requests from Pakistan to take the ceasefire back to 2003 levels.”36

In light of the potential for a nuclear war between Pakistan and India, with unthinkable consequences for destruction and lives lost, using the medical metaphor for treating cancer by surgical removal of terror pods within Pakistan, is difficult when these organisations appear to have active support of the Pakistani military and government, as useful tools to destabilise India. One has to conclude that the medical metaphor does not produce an advantage for India in terms to reducing the cost of neutralising terrorism.


  1. Institute for Economics and Peace (2017). Global Terrorism Index 2017: Measuring and understanding the impact of terrorism, available at http://visionofhumanity.org/app/uploads/2017/11/Global-Terrorism-Index-2017.pdf, accessed on 11 February 2018.
  2. Institute of Economics and Peace, 2017, ibid.
  3. Neeraj Chauhan (2017). “India 3rd largest terror target after Iraq and Afghanistan: US report”, The Times of India, 23 July 2017, available at https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/india-3rd-largest-terror-target-after-iraq-and-afghanistan-us-report/articleshow/59719216.cms, accessed on 11February 2018.
  4. Neeraj Chauhan (2017), ibid.
  5. Dudley, Dominic (2016). ‘The Ten Countries Most Affected by Terrorism’, Forbes, 18 November 2016, available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/dominicdudley/2016/11/18/countries-most-affected-by-terrorism/#23449a3530d9, accessed on 11February 2018.
  6. Paul B. Stares and Mona Yacoubian (2007). “Terrorism as a disease: An epidemiological model for countering Islamist extremism”, The Mathew B. Ridgway Center for International Security Studies, University of Pittsburgh, available at https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/3a62/c0105444e2739f40357091f76db6c74f2eff.pdf, accessed on 11February 2018.
  7. Gregory A. Curt (2005). “Terrorism and cancer: Four years after 9/11”, The Oncologist, Volume 10, Number 8, p. 663.
  8. Gregory A. Curt (2001), ibid.
  9. Joseph H. Campos (2016) The State and Terrorism: National Security and the Mobilization of Power. New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.
  10. Maria Jose Hellin Garcia (2010). “Diagnosing terrorism in Spain: medical metaphors in presidential discourse.” Southwest Journal of Linguistics, Volume 29, Number 1, 2010, p. 53
  11. Ashton B. ‘Ash’ Carter (2016). “Ash Carter: It’s time to accelerate the ISIL fight”, Politico Magazine, 22 January 2016, available at https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/01/ash-carter-isil-fight-213554, accessed on 11February 2018.
  12. Muslims were in majority in different parts of British India.Therefore, Pakistan was created both, in the East and the West, separated by nearly 1,700 kilometers or over 1,000 miles of India!
  13. Krishna S. Dhir (2015). “Explaining the Poverty of India to IITians,”Fundamatics, Volume Q3, pp. 42-52, available at http://www.fundamatics.net/article/explaining-the-poverty-of-india-to-iitians/, accessed on 11 February 2018.
  14. Shahid R. Siddiqi (2010). “Insurgency movements in India: Failure of the Indian government to address the root causes could lead to a domino effect in South Asia”, Axis of Logic, 26 December 2010, available at http://axisoflogic.com/artman/publish/Article_61885.shtml, accessed on 11February 2018.
  15. Shahid R. Siddiqi (2010). Ibid.
  16. Shahid R. Siddiqi (2010), ibid.
  17. US worried about Pakistan government’s stability: Tillerson”, The Times of India, 25 October 2017. Available at https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/pakistan/us-worried-about-pakistan-governments-stability-tillerson/articleshow/61220850.cms, accessed on 11February 2018.
  18. Daniella Diaz (2018). “Trump’s first 2018 tweet: Pakistan has ‘given us nothing but lies & deceit’”, CNN politics, 2 January 2018, available at http://www.cnn.com/2018/01/01/politics/donald-trump-2018-pakistan/index.html, accessed on 11February 2018.
  19. Diaa Hadid (2018). “Tensions rise between Pakistan and U.S. after President Trump’s tweet”, National Public Radio, 2 January 2018, available at https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2018/01/02/575056954/tensions-rise-between-pakistan-and-u-s-after-president-trumps-tweet, accessed on 11 February 2018.
  20. Anthony H. Cordesman and Varun Vira (2011). Pakistan: Violence vs. stability, A national net assessment, Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, available at https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/110607_Stabilizing_Pakistan.pdf, accessed on 11February 2018.
  21. Ian Bremmer (2018). “Trump turns his back on Pakistan, giving China an opportunity”, TIME, Volume 191, Number 3, p. 12, 29 January 2018. Available at http://time.com/5107502/trump-turns-back-pakistan-gives-china-opportunity/, accessed on 11February 2018.
  22. Stephen P. Cohen (2004). “India and Pakistan: Steps towards rapprochement”, Brookings, 28 January 2004, available at https://www.brookings.edu/testimonies/india-and-pakistan-steps-towards-rapprochement/, accessed on 11 February 2018.
  23. Ashoka Chakra (AC) is India’s highest peacetime award for gallantry and valor. The other peacetime gallantry awards are the second highest, Kirti Chakra (KC) and the third, Shaurya Chakra (SC). When gallantry is observed during war, the recognition is through the war time Chakra awards, namely the Param Vir Chakra (PVC), the Maha Vir Chakra (MVC) and the Vir Chakra (VrC).
  24. Dennis Ross (2014). “Ross: Taliban bigger threat to Pakistan than India”, The USA Today, 16 December 2014, available at https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2014/12/16/pakistan-taliban-school-massacre-dennis-ross-column/20502987/, accessed on 11February 2018.
  25. Anwar Iqbal (2017). “Pakistan struggling with terrorism threat, claim US secret agencies”, Dawn, 13 May, 2017, available at https://www.dawn.com/news/1332858, accessed on 11February 2018.
  26. Syed Rifaat Hussain (2016}. “Trouble in the neighbourhood”, in “What is the most potent existential threat to Pakistan?” Herald, 18 August 2016, available at https://herald.dawn.com/news/1153036, accessed on 11February 2018.
  27. Babar Ayaz (2016}. “The elephant in the room”, in “What is the most potent existential threat to Pakistan?” Herald, 18 August 2016, available at https://herald.dawn.com/news/1153036, accessed on 11February 2018.
  28. Ajai Shukla (2018). “Viewpoint: India and Pakistan up the ante on disputed border”, BBC, 30 January 2018, available at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-42856494, accessed on 11February 2018.
  29. Nitin A. Gokhale (2017). “The inside story of India’s 2016 ‘Surgical Strikes’”, The Diplomat, 23 September 2017, available at https://thediplomat.com/2017/09/the-inside-story-of-indias-2016-surgical-strikes/, accessed on 11February 2018.
  30. Wikipedia (2018). “India – Pakistan military confrontation (2016 – present)”, last edited on 23 January 2018, available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/India%E2%80%93Pakistan_military_confrontation_(2016%E2%80%93present), accessed on 11February 2018.
  31. Edith T. Penrose (1952). “Biological analogies in the theory of the firm”, The American Economic Review, Volume 42, Number 5, pp. 804-819.
  32. Peter G.Klein (2016). “Is terrorism a disease?” Mises Institute: Austrian Economics, Freedom, and Peace, available at https://mises.org/blog/terrorism-disease, accessed on 11February 2018.
  33. Oscar Schachter (1993). The lawful use of force by a state against terrorists in another country, in Henry H. Han, ed, Terrorism and Political Violence: Limits and possibilities of legal control, 243, 249, Plymouth, UK: Oceans Publishing.
  34. Jane M. Orient (1984). “The medical metaphor for nuclear warfare: A critique”, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Volume 27, Number 2, pp. 289-298.
  35. Ajai Shukla (2018). “Viewpoint: India and Pakistan up the ante on disputed border”, BBC, 30 January 2018, available at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-42856494, accessed on 11February 2018.
  36. Ajai Shukla (2018), ibid.
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Krishna S Dhir, PhD

KRISHNA S. DHIR, a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado, is Professor of Management Science and former Dean of the College of Business and Economics at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, USA. He has also served as a visiting professor at Hungary’s Szechenyi Istvan University and University of Pannonia, Australia’s RMIT University and Swinburne Univerisity of Technology, UK’s Coventry University, and other institutions.  Earlier, he was the chief academic officer of the business programs at The Citadel: The Military College of South Carolina in Charleston, USA.  Former Vice President of BioStar Medical Products and engineer with Borg-Warner in the US; and an executive of CIBA-GEIGY in Switzerland, he was elected Fellow of the Operational Research Society in 2004.  He served as the President of the Decision Sciences Institute during 2011-2012. He can be reached at: kdhir@iitbombay.org.

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