Narendra Modi has suggested he would authorise India’s intelligence services to stage cross-border strikes against terrorists. The stakes are seismic — and must be debated with dispassion, before a choice is made in rage

Early one summer morning in 2008, an ageing Toyota car slowed down to turn at the corner next to the Indian Embassy complex in Kabul, transforming itself as it did so into a wall of searing, white light. Fifty-eight people were killed and 141 injured, their bodies torn apart by shock waves, fires, and shards of metal and glass. Inside hours, western intelligence services listened in to Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officers inside Pakistan congratulating the perpetrators. Furious, then National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan called for action. “Talk-talk is better than fight-fight,” he said, “but it hasn’t worked. I think we need to pay back in the same coin.”

Mr. Narayanan, intelligence officers serving at the time recall, authorised India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) to begin a quiet dialogue on doing just that with its Afghan counterparts. It found a willing partner in Amrullah Saleh, the then head of the Riyasat-e Amniyat-e Milli, or the National Directorate of Security (NDS). Following the 26/11 strike, the officials said, RAW even explored the prospect of targeting Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, using NDS’ assets inside jihadist groups hostile to the Pakistan Army.

A Modi way of war?

India’s intelligence czar, though, never got the political clearance he hoped for. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh remained committed to the dialogue process with Pakistan, believing that bomb-for-bomb strikes would increase terrorist violence. In early 2010, foreign service officer Shivshankar Menon replaced Mr. Narayanan, and the doves came to control policy-making.

“Keep your hands in your pockets,” a senior RAW official recalls Mr. Menon as telling Afghan desk officers in mid-2010 — and that was that.

Except, that might not quite have been that. Last week, prime ministerial front runner Narendra Modi made the first-ever public suggestion by any politician that he might authorise offensive covert operations against terrorists — one of the most fateful decisions facing India’s next government. Mr. Modi lashed out at Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde’s revelation of joint efforts by India and the United States to apprehend terrorism-linked ganglord Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar in Karachi. “Do these things happen through the medium of newspapers?” he asked. “Did the United States issue a press note before they killed Osama bin Laden?”

It’s hard to say whether Mr. Modi’s speech was driven by election-time testosterone, or reflects considered counsel from his inner circle of advisers. This much is clear, though: inside the intelligence community, there is a growing view that India must learn a new language of killing.

Ever since the 1999 Kargil war, India’s security calculus has been derived from the assumption that the U.S. would moderate sub-conventional warfare against India. Dr. Singh’s 10 years in office show that this belief was well-founded. The authoritative South Asia Terrorism Portal database shows that violence in Jammu and Kashmir declined year-on-year from 2002 to 2013 — and though there’s substantial evidence to suggest that the ISI backed the 26/11 attacks, international pressure has forced it to rein in jihadists since.

In the past two years, though, the wheel has turned. The Pakistan Army’s war against jihadists is flailing and its control over one-time proxies among the jihadists has diminished. Political parties there have sought to appease the increasingly powerful jihadists. For their part, Pakistan’s Taliban has sought to wean away the ethnic-Punjabi constituency of state-backed organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Last year, Tehreek-e-Taliban leader Wali-ur-Rahman warned that “the practical struggle for a sharia system that we are carrying out in Pakistan, the same way we will continue it in Kashmir, and the same way we will implement the sharia system in India too.” Indian Mujahideen are training with the Taliban; violence in Kashmir is up.

India’s secret wars

Little genius is needed to see what might emerge to the west of India’s borders: a nuclear-armed state with crumbling central authority, controlled for all practical purposes by rival Islamist militias. “The water,” Pakistan’s military ruler General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq instructed his spymaster, General Akhtar Malik, in December 1979, “must boil at the right temperature.” Now, the water seems dangerously close to boiling over.

Faced with not-dissimilar problems, Afghanistan’s NDS has made its choice. Last year, U.S. forces captured senior Pakistani Taliban commander Latif Mehsud from the custody of Afghanistan’s intelligence services — lending weight to claims that the NDS has been backing the jihadist group, in retaliation for the ISI’s support to the networks of Islamist warlord Sirajuddin Haqqani, and the Afghan Taliban. In private, NDS officials admit they have staged bomb-for-bomb actions against attacks they attribute to the ISI, including one in March on Kabul’s prestigious Serena Hotel.

The question is simple: will India be able to deter Pakistani jihadists with similar tactics?

From the early 1980s, Khalistan terrorists began receiving weapons and arms from the ISI Directorate. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi ordered retaliation. RAW set up two covert groups, known only as Counter Intelligence Team-X and Counter Intelligence Team-J, the first targeting Pakistan in general and the second directed in particular at Khalistani groups. Each Khalistan terror attack targeting India’s cities was met with retaliatory attacks in Lahore or Karachi. “The role of our covert action capability in putting an end to the ISI’s interference in Punjab,” the former RAW officer B. Raman wrote in 2002, “by making such interference prohibitively costly is little known.”

India came to covert warfare late in its history. In 1947, imperial Britain stripped the assets of India’s covert arsenal as it left. The senior-most British Indian Police officer in the Intelligence Bureau, Qurban Ali Khan left for Pakistan with what few sensitive files departing British officials had neglected to destroy. The Intelligence Bureau, Lieutenant General L.P. Singh has recorded, was reduced to a “tragicomic state of helplessness,” possessing nothing but “empty racks and cupboards.” The Military Intelligence Directorate in New Delhi didn’t even have a map of Jammu and Kashmir to make sense of the first radio intercepts signalling the beginning of the war of 1947-1948.

For Pakistan, covert warfare was a tool of survival: faced with a larger and infinitely better-resourced neighbour, it knew it could not compete in conventional military terms. Mr. Khan’s doctrine posited that sub-conventional offensive warfare could provide it defence. From 1947, Pakistan engaged India in what Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru would later call “an informal war.”

India’s covert capabilities grew in the wake of the 1962 war. Helped by the U.S., the newly-founded RAW developed the capacities for deep-penetration espionage meant to target China. It used its new tools to target Pakistan in 1971. Establishment 22, operating under the command of Major General Surjit Singh Uban, carried out a secret war in what is now Bangladesh. Establishment 22 personnel aided Sikkim’s accession to the Union of India; trained Tamil terrorists; and armed rebels operating against the pro-China regime in Myanmar.

Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, though, ended RAW’s offensive operations against Pakistan — and his predecessor, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, wound up its eastern operations. India continued to possess a superior conventional military, but as it became known in the late 1980s that Pakistan possessed a nuclear weapon, it became clear this sword would remain sheathed.

In 1999, soon after the Kargil war, intelligence officers attempted to persuade Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to authorise the development of offensive covert capabilities.

“He didn’t say a word,” one official present at the meeting told The Hindu, “not yes, not no.” Less than three years later, when terrorists attacked Parliament House, Mr. Vajpayee had no tools at his disposal to deter Pakistan — bar an expensive, and ultimately useless, threat of war.

Mr. Vajpayee’s silence, like that of his predecessors, wasn’t cowardice. The use of covert action inside Pakistan will, almost certainly, invite retaliation — ending, thus, in more violence, at least in the short run. It can cause large-scale civilian fatalities, with damaging international consequences. It can end in the arrest of Indian assets, damaging the country’s credibility. It can succeed in its aims, as Israel, the U.S. and the United Kingdom have sometimes proved — or, as those very countries have learned, just as easily fail.

There is no easy path to be taken, for each winds past the taking of human life. It is imperative, therefore, that India’s new security czars discuss their choices dispassionately, before a decision has to be made in rage.

*The article has been corrected for a factual error

praveen.swami@thehindu.co.in

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