(Photo: The Swat valley in northern Pakistan, where the Pakistan military has cut a ceasefire deal with Taliban-linked militants, allowing them to impose Shariah courts in Swat)
If you can’t walk the talk, don’t talk the talk. India’s toothless sabre-rattling after the Mumbai attacks damages its credibility internationally, and does a disservice to its own people.
by Ajai Shukla
Defence & Security of India
The chilly rhetoric between India and Pakistan following the November 26 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, with New Delhi continuing to indicate that military force remains an option, goes hand-in-hand with an incongruous confidence amongst officials on both sides that push will not come to shove. Indian policymakers admit, off the record, that tensions are not nearly as high as when Parliament was attacked in 2001. And Pakistan’s new German-speaking ISI chief, Lt Gen Ahmed Shujaa Pasha, in a carefully chosen interview with German newspaper Der Spiegel, smoothly dismissed the possibility of armed conflict, remarking, “There will be no war… we are distancing ourselves from conflict with India, both now, and in general.”
Nor, evidently, is the international community as worried as it was after the Kaluchak terror strike in Jammu in May 2002, when a series of top American and British diplomats shuttled between Islamabad and New Delhi to stave off a conflagration between two fully-deployed armies. This time around, the desultory efforts of the US State Department --- both outgoing and incoming --- seem directed more at keeping the Pakistan Army’s nose to the “war on terror” grindstone. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited Islamabad three weeks after the Mumbai attacks, but to partner Pakistan, not admonish it; Britain and Pakistan signed up for a “pact against terror”, funded from London to the tune of 6 million pounds. And British foreign secretary, David Milliband, in a gaffe that has sections of the British government staring at their shoes, declared that the masterminds of the Mumbai attacks should be tried in Pakistan. [Editor's note: Since the article was written, Mr Richard Holbrook, President Obama's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan has tried, with his customary enthusiasm, to turn the heat on Pakistan; there is little evidence so far of any real success]
But Delhi’s tough talk continues. It doesn’t take a Sun Tzu to identify this as a ham-handed attempt, in an election year, to deflect public attention from the appalling security failures that bestowed such spectacular success on the Mumbai attacks. If threats were a substitute for effective intelligence and policing, the NDA government would, with Operation Parakram in 2001/02, already have provided India with absolute security. The UPA government had criticised the failure of that lengthy, costly and eventually fruitless military mobilisation; now, driven by the electoral compulsion to appear decisive, but without the time, ideas, resources, or will to create an anti-terror shield, the Manmohan Singh government has in turn chosen the easy option of flexing muscles at Pakistan.
While pointing the finger at Islamabad may be good politics, it is a self-defeating strategy. No agency in Pakistan can risk being seen to deliver under Indian threat; even the few moderate elements in that country will be left with no choice but to close ranks with rabidly anti-Indian forces. Suspicion of India runs deep in Pakistan, even at the best of times. Overt Indian military threats fan that country’s deepest existential fear: that India has never reconciled to its existence. In such a situation the issue at hand, in this case Pakistan’s inability or unwillingness to prevent attacks on India, is lost in a fog of insecurity and hostility.
In addition to crystallising anti-Indian feelings in Pakistan, war drums from New Delhi are also damaging Indian credibility. Western intelligence knows well—and Pakistani intelligence knows even better—that Indian forces are thoroughly unprepared for selective strikes, which are today the only viable kind of military operation. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal precludes the option of a conventional Indian military mobilisation followed by full-scale combat operations. That was amply illustrated during the Operation Parakram crisis when India mobilised its military after the December 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian parliament. From December 18 2001 when India mobilised, to October 16, 2002 when the troops were ordered back, there was only a ten-day window at the end of December 2001 when India could have prosecuted a war with clear advantage, because the Pakistani Army defences were still not prepared. Once the Pakistani mobilisation gathered momentum, a war could have had only two outcomes. If the fully deployed Pakistan Army managed to hold up against Indian thrusts, grinding battles of attrition would have produced no clear winners. On the other hand, if the Indian thrusts had made rapid headway, the war would have quickly moved into the nuclear realm.
Today, India doesn’t even have that weeklong window; Pakistan has mobilised pre-emptively, even pulling back forces from its Afghanistan border. The “marginal conventional conflict” that India’s army chief General Deepak Kapoor mentioned as an option is no longer a possibility. Pakistan’s early deployment of troops at battle stations means that combat operations will quickly escalate all across the border.
That leaves India with just one other option: air and missile strikes against terrorist targets in Pakistan, combined with ground raids by Special Forces. But Indian defence planners have failed to build the specific capabilities needed for such cross-border strikes. India neither has pinpoint intelligence about the targets that need to be struck, nor has it developed the wherewithal—surveillance equipment, electronic jammers, Special Forces and precision munitions—needed for cross-border air and ground raids.
The Indian right wing admires Israeli strikes in Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian territory and asks why India cannot do the same in Pakistan. India is held back for two reasons. Firstly, it does not have the human intelligence resources that Tel Aviv has deployed against anti-Israeli organisations. Israeli-nurtured moles, infiltrated over decades into groups like Hamas and Fatah, provide Tel Aviv with information about the movement of top militant leaders, including details about timings, routes, car colours, models, and even car numbers. This provides Israel with identifiable targets to strike. Indian intelligence on the other hand, after 25 years of fighting Pakistani-based terrorists, has failed to infiltrate groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed to an operationally significant degree.
Secondly, an Indian cross-border operation would be both risky and costly. Pakistan’s relatively small defence budget (at $4.39 billion for this year, barely one-fifth the size of India’s) is biased towards inexpensive, defensive systems like anti-air defences, which most experts believe are considerably more watertight than India’s. In contrast, the bulk of India’s defence budget is frittered away on heavy warfighting equipment, usable mainly in the full-scale wars that are becoming increasingly more improbable. The hardware and electronics needed to get past Pakistani air defences comes lower down in India’s shopping list.
This is why, even as the Indian public is misled into believing that the government means business, New Delhi’s sabre-rattling evokes international scepticism. Threatening military action without the means to back the threat does incalculable harm to India’s credibility; and the damage is greater each time the threat is made. Even as India seeks the status of major power, such crises tend to hyphenate India with Pakistan, bracketing the two in strategic calculations across the world.
And so, even though the world knows that the Mumbai attacks were masterminded from Pakistan, New Delhi’s response must be logical rather than emotional, anticipating the outcome of what it says. So far, India’s threats have produced only one clear winner: Pakistan. At the time of the Mumbai attacks, that country was at war with itself. The clergy was ranged against the establishment; the huge majority of Pakistanis were seething over a perceived sell-out to America. The Pakistan Army was taking heavy casualties in anti-Taliban operations in the tribal areas of the NWFP; the generals were wracking their brains to explain why devout Muslim soldiers were taking on the mujahideen of Islam. The chickens had come home to roost and, for once, India couldn’t be blamed for Pakistan’s troubles.
Now, with a belligerent New Delhi popping up conveniently, it’s back to business as usual. The traditional enemy sits nicely in everyone’s comfort zones. The jehadis are heaving sighs of relief; the Taliban has actually offered to fight India shoulder to shoulder with the Pakistani military. The Pakistan Army is negotiating ceasefires with brutal Taliban commanders like Baitullah Mehsud and Maulvi Fazlullah, who are now being billed as “patriotic Pakistanis”. The generals are happily contemplating winding down, or at least slowing down, bloody counter-militancy operations, and returning to the army’s old pastime of sitting on the Line of Control and pushing militants in to do the dirty work.
In bringing the Pakistani Army back to centre-stage, India’s tough talk has undermined Pakistan’s civilian government. In the months since Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, Pakistan was slowly beginning to deploy the instruments needed to confront the jehadi factory that had taken root in that country. President Asif Zardari was in the process of creating what India’s government has so far only talked of: a top-class federal anti-terrorism agency. Pakistan’s Special Investigation Group, or the SIG, was originally set up by President Musharraf in July 2003 as a crack squad to foil terrorist attempts to assassinate him and his generals. Zardari was moving to reinvent the SIG on the lines of Britain’s highly regarded Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre.
Journalists Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, no apologists for Pakistan or strangers to its underhand dealings (their book, Deception, is the authoritative account of Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation) have reported in detail how Zardari was transforming the SIG. He had managed to obtain British expertise and funding by promising to set up a special SIG cell to track British Pakistanis travelling home, providing Britain with access to raw intelligence and to terrorists who were tracked down.
The SIG’s focus, report Levy and Scott-Clark, was on Baitullah Mehsud, the NWFP-based commander of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an organisation variously described as a “one-stop terror shop”, the “Next-Gen Taliban” and “the new epicentre of global jehad”. It is the TTP that has given extra teeth to India-focused groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad, by creating an umbrella organisation that draws simultaneously on Punjabi organisational skills, Al Qaeda financing, Arab bomb-making expertise, and young Pathan and Punjabi fundamentalists for suicide missions like the Mumbai attacks. With the Pakistani army and intelligence agencies turning their backs—however unwillingly—on the disparate terrorists that they had nurtured for a quarter of a century, there was little choice for the various tanzeems but to come together in their murderous cause.
Indians are understandably sceptical of Pakistan’s assertions that it is cracking down on terrorists. Call it the “wolf, wolf syndrome”; Islamabad has made such claims before. But something has clearly changed in the last year and a half. It is hard to ignore the ferocity with which terrorists have turned their guns on the Pakistani establishment. The death toll in the Pakistani Army has been estimated to be as high as 1,500 soldiers, a casualty rate higher than the Indian Army’s at the height of the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir.
Even more revealing of the Pakistani state’s new confrontation with the jehadis is the targeting of the ISI and the SIG. On November 24, 2007 a suicide bomber drove his RDX-rigged truck into a bus in Rawalpindi carrying thirty ISI operatives for their morning shift. All thirty were killed. On March 11, 2008 a suicide attack on the SIG’s headquarters in Lahore killed 25 people, including 13 SIG officers.
All that could now become history if India insists on thrusting itself centre-stage in Pakistan. The ISI chief has just declared that, “terrorism, not India, is Pakistan’s main enemy”. It is surely counter-productive for New Delhi to try so hard to prove him wrong.
The Indian government has enough to do by way of creating anti-terrorism machinery in this country. It need not add to its burden by taking on the task of cleaning up Pakistan. There are enough people on the job, including Pakistanis, Britons and Americans, and none of them are reaping much success; it is a pipe-dream to imagine that India would improve things by leaping into the fray. Instead, New Delhi would do better to focus on putting in place the intelligence machinery, the border and coastal defences, the monitoring and surveillance mechanisms, the police and paramilitary forces, and the quick reaction teams needed to ensure that terrorists do not find the going as easy as they apparently did in Mumbai. And it is equally important for India to build public awareness of the new terror threat that it must live with. Bluffing its own people is a poor way to start.