What’s common to money, terrorism and weapons?

Just like money, both terrorism and weapons are fungible.

Fungibility is a term used in an economic context to describe two or more things that are inter-changeable or of equal value. Thus, money is said to be fungible because one 100 rupee note can be exactly substituted by another 100 rupee note.

Money is fungible in terms of its usage as well. Consider a college student who has 100 rupees in his pocket. With this limited money, he can do only one of the two things he is equally interested in – either buy books or buy a cigarette pack. His parents, unaware of his smoking habits decide to give him 100 rupees to purchase the book, which he does and in turn uses the 100 rupees in his pocket to buy the cigarette pack as well. This action implies that the 100 rupees given by the well-intentioned parents was effectively used to buy cigarettes – an action that they never intended initially. This fungibility in usage is a very significant property of currency.

Interestingly, the same property of fungibility applies to terrorism and weaponry as well! Consider this example to understand the fungibility of terrorism: The US covertly and overtly aided the Afghan mujahideen to fight the Soviet Union forces during the cold war. However, the same mujahideen, aided by US support, also fostered Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden – ‘institutions’ that eventually lead to attacks on the US itself. Thus, what was designed to act against Soviet Union ended in self-immolation on account of its fungibility.

Similarly, fungibility applies to weaponry as well. Consider this example: The newly formed state of Pakistan in the 1950s looked up to US military assistance. The CIA assessed that a strong Pakistan army could be a bulwark against Soviet aggression in the middle-east. Here again, the point of fungibility was ignored. The same weapons could be, and were used against India by Pakistan on several occasions later.

Along with the US, the Indian establishment too failed to appreciate this fungibility of terrorism and weapons. Had this realization come to fore, the efforts to reduce the replaceability of both terrorists and weapons could have begun much earlier. One way to reduce the fungibility of terrorists is to make infiltration difficult. This was eventually done by India only in 2004 with the construction of a robust Indo-Pakistan border fence. In order to reduce fungibility of weapons, India could have lobbied with the US or the Soviet Union to get arms that could counter the arms given by the US to Pakistan.

Both the ways suggested above decrease fungibility by reducing the value of using a terrorist or a weapon for an unintended cause. This could be a guiding principle for future responses to international power shifts.



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