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Towards a small war - What should be India's response to terror?

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By Subir Bhaumik
  • Published 6.03.15

The former American ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, made the speculations public in February when he said that the next time India faces a 26/11-type terrorist attack, the country might consider going to war with Narendra Modi as prime minister. Blackwill, a Harvard academic who has researched the Asian alliances of the United States of America, was not kite-flying in solitude. During Barack Obama's recent India visit and beneath all the visible Obama-Modi bonhomie, the US security and intelligence officials accompanying the president, or in some way connected with his visit, were all involved in a detailed side exercise to assess what India might do if attacked by terrorists the next time on with Modi in the top job. Blackwill said what many in the US security-intelligence establishment seemed to strongly believe that though previous Indian prime ministers from Indira Gandhi to Manmohan Singh had considered the war option from time to time when hit by bloody terror attacks from Pakistan, it is Modi who could actually exercise the war option.

A popular - and populist - prime minister, who loves playing to the gallery and projecting himself as a modern day 'iron man' like Sardar Patel, and one whose political grooming as a fierce Hindu nationalist makes it incumbent on him to hit out strongly at Pakistan at the first opportunity, may not act with the kind of restraint that Atal Bihari Vajpayee displayed after the terrorist attack on Parliament when he mobilized the entire Indian army (Operation Parakram) but did not finally go to war.

Vajpayee, more than any Indian prime minister, had good reasons to make war on Pakistan as someone who had gone to Lahore to make durable peace and then been hit by Kargil, Kandahar, and finally the assault on Parliament. But he limited the Kargil campaign to a defensive effort to eject intruders from Indian territory, avoided pressures to do an Entebbe at Kandahar, and then deployed the entire Indian army without finally going to war with Pakistan. The feeling in Washington is that Modi is no Vajpayee. The fierce Indian riposte in artillery duels across the Line of Control seems to have confirmed American impressions that they need to work on developing a proper response to a scenario when India faces another Parliament attack or 26/11, and then decides to go to war.

A war between two nuclear-armed arch rivals has been Washington's worst case scenario in Asia, and Modi may make that happen is the feeling. As part of its ongoing exercise to defuse India-Pakistan tensions , Obama has done his bit to 'encourage'(some say, incentivize) Modi to resume dialogue with the Nawaz Sharif administration in view of Sharif's determined onslaught against the Pakistani Talibans after the Peshawar school attack. That has produced some results - the new foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar has visited Islamabad, although as part of a larger "Saarc yatra". But it is now emerging that Modi and his security-intelligence establishment are also confabulating on possible responses to a terror strike from Pakistan that some see as a possibility in the not-too-distant future.

If there is one discernible pattern in India-Pakistan relations, it is the certainty of a major terror strike being attempted by non-State actors backed by rogue elements in the Pakistani establishment (the army and ISI) to derail any bold step towards peace. As the Kargil mastermind Pervez Musharraf and the Lashkar-e-Toiba chief, Hafiz Saeed, have both said, the Kargils and Mumbais are a way of avenging Dhaka, 1971. For the 'dogs of war' in Pakistan, ceaseless terrorism and bleeding India by a thousand cuts is the only way to avenge a reality called Bangladesh that emphasizes the failure of Pakistan as a nation-state by its own success and points to the total inadequacy of Jinnah's two-nation theory. Unless our own Hindu zealots go out to promote it, as they sometimes do. At a time when Pakistan's civilian rulers moan over the country being itself the worst victim of terror (the Frankenstein syndrome catching up), its military establishment is still bent on fighting terror in the West but promoting it in the East .

Bangladesh's Hasina Wajed government has recently expelled an ISI official, Mohammad Mazhar Khan, working under diplomatic cover for the alleged funding of Islamist terror groups, including the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, which has created quite a base in West Bengal and Assam. The veteran Awami League minister, Tofail Ahmed, has even alleged that Pakistan was funding Khaleda Zia's disruptive agitation, which was bleeding Bangladesh in more ways than one. So, neither the US nor the Indian intelligence takes the Pakistanis seriously on their claims of not backing terror groups any more - hence the exercise in both Washington and Delhi over possible responses to a future 26/11.

Hawks may bay for war, pointing to Israel's avenging missions or even Jordan and Egypt ordering air strikes against Islamic State bases on the soil of other countries. Such air strikes or Entebbe-type missions are only successful if the forces have accurate intelligence - location of bases, number of terrorists, weapons they possess, levels of motivation, and so on. All punitive expeditions ordered without adequate intelligence and executed without sufficient preparation may backfire badly on those who undertake it. Compare Jaffna, 1987, with Bangladesh, 1971, and the depth of phased preparation for a final strike into East Pakistan stands out as a pre-requisite.

But 1971 is history because it happened before both India and Pakistan went nuclear. Therefore Parakram turned out to be a useless exercise. It became evident after the attack on Parliament that India will not be allowed to go to war. Modi is too clever to realize what India stands to lose if he overrides the global community and attacks Pakistan after a possible 26/11. Second, Modi has already been briefed by his service chiefs and surely has read up the last Parliament committee report on defence preparedness to entertain ideas of a 1971-type war. To fight a two-front war involving China and Pakistan, India needs 45 squadrons of combat aircraft when it appears to have less than 40. It needs 25 submarines to operate with two aircraft carriers to interdict Chinese shipping in the Indian Ocean - it has less than half of that in shape. From snow boots to helicopters, ships and tanks, the Indian defence forces are going through a phase where brave talk of being "prepared to fight a two-front war successfully" sounds like a joke. The military hardware is just not in place.

So, how does India deal with another 26/11? The only way that kind of crisis can be handled is by developing a doctrine of appropriate response. We do not have the American capacity for a trans-border surgical strike, either in PoK or elsewhere in Pakistan. And if non-State actors are responsible for attacking India, it is they and their patrons, and not the Pakistani people, who should be punished. Attacking terrorist bases, assets, hideouts and finances requires superb intelligence-gathering and offensive intelligence capabilities with quality "small-war technologies" that Israel, more than any other country, can help India develop. That is the direction in which Modi and his national security advisor, Ajit Doval, a great advocate of covert operations, seem to be moving.

Doval will also find powerful allies in Afghan and Iranian intelligence if he has to take on the ISI in its own game. Sensing that they can be paid back in their own coin, Pakistan's military establishment has started crying foul, blaming India for not merely fomenting disaffection and insurgency in Balochistan, but also instigating the Peshawar school attack. While the peaceniks in the Sharif administration welcomed Jaishankar's visit, the hawks in Rawalpindi threatened to have shared with the world evidence of Indian involvement in terrorism in Pakistan territory.

After I.K. Gujral as prime minister stopped RAW's offensive operations in Pakistan, which had intensified during Rajiv Gandhi's prime ministership when A.K. Varma was the RAW chief (as B. Raman testifies in Kaoboys of RAW), India lost its assets and networks for covert strikes inside Pakistani territory. There is no evidence that either Vajpayee or Manmohan Singh, famous for his Sharm-el-Sheikh faux pas, did anything to rebuild that capability. If Modi decides to do it, that will still take some time to develop. But that is what Modi should be going for - and not, as Blackwill predicts, for a war against Pakistan. The answer to Pakistan's terror machine is to unleash a peace offensive targeting millions of Pakistanis who seek better relations with India for their own future, using India's famed but rarely used soft power, and prepare deep assets for effective covert strikes as an appropriate response to any 26/11-type adventure. As the hero says in Neeraj Pandey's blockbuster, Baby, India needs to stay two steps ahead in the intelligence game for effective counter-terrorism.