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The best among limited options

In the early dawn of September 18, Pakistani irregulars belonging to the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) > attacked an Army camp in the Uri sector of Jammu and Kashmir, killing 18 jawans and inflicting grievous casualties on many more. The fidayeen were able to breach the Line of Control as also the camp’s security, employing a combination of incendiary grenades and close-quarter weapons to inflict heavy casualties.

Questions are being raised as to how this could happen when Jammu and Kashmir was on maximum alert — this being one of the worst periods in the State’s history since the 1990s. This is, however, not the time for introspection on security breaches and failures; there are far more serious matters on hand.

Uri and the UN

The Uri attack had an eerie similarity to the > attack on the Pathankot Air Force base in January this year, in which seven security personnel were killed. Lessons from that incident obviously have not filtered down. What is significant is that the JeM was responsible for both attacks. The JeM — even more than the Lashkar-e-Taiba — is the handmaiden of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). It obeys implicitly, and acts directly on, the directions of the ISI. There is, hence, a message in the latest attack, coming as it does straight from the deepest recesses of the ‘Pakistani Deep State’.

The timing is hardly fortuitous. The carefully planned attack — with intelligence obviously provided by the ISI — was timed to coincide with the debate in the UN General Assembly (featuring both Pakistan’s Prime Minister and India’s External Affairs Minister), thus helping rivet world attention to an otherwise hardy annual event. Whatever be the nature of evidence produced by India, Pakistan will still remain in denial.

The question is: quo vadis, > India-Pakistan relations? Tensions remain high on both sides. All of India feels that mere impotent rage and euphuistic excesses are insufficient. There is clamour for action, all the more because the present government had come into office promising strong action against Pakistan after accusing the United Progressive Alliance government of pusillanimity vis-à-vis the neighbour. The shoe is now on the other foot, and the wearer is since learning where the shoe pinches.

Words, options and actions

Strong words had similarly accompanied the > attack on the Indian Parliament (2001) and ‘Operation Parakram’ (2001-02) in the wake of the Kargil conflict. Policymakers at that time had been compelled to step back subsequently on account of the prevailing international climate.

India faced a similar dilemma following the multiple terror attacks in Mumbai city on November 26, 2008, in which over 170 people were killed. Pakistan’s perfidy was clearly proven in this instance, following the live capture of one of the attackers. Yet — and despite the fact that many of the attack victims were foreigners — deciding on a coherent response that would adhere to international ‘best practices’ had proved difficult.

The Cabinet Committee on Security (at the time headed by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh) had examined and considered several options. It was not pusillanimity, but mature judgment based on a cost-effective analysis, that led to the withholding of ‘direct action’ in the form of an overt attack on Pakistani targets. A mature nation like India could hardly afford to function like a ‘rogue state’, viz. Pakistan.

Mature response the key

The need for caution is even more imperative today, as not only is the world more interconnected and events in any one region do have a geopolitical impact, but the stakes for India as one of the world’s leading economic powers have become considerable. It is, hence, necessary to temper the voices being heard about paying Pakistan back in its own coin, that strategic restraint is passé, and that the government must exercise the military option. Many former members of the armed forces are seen indulging in rhetoric that verges on ‘jingoism’. This could prove dangerous at a time when emotions are running high. Pakistan’s military is anxious to engage in a conflict not so much to assess its own capabilities, but to gauge how soon the world and its allies like China would step in and internationalise the conflict, including issues such as Kashmir.

The foremost issue before India, at present, would thus be whether to maintain diplomatic relations with Pakistan at the existing level or not. It is important to recognise, however, that while we can choose our friends, we cannot select our neighbours. Once diplomatic relations are broken, healing the rift will become still more difficult.

The next issue for India would be whether it is possible to impose a heavy economic burden on Pakistan. The inherent weakness in any such step is that few nations would be willing to follow India’s lead and, treating Pakistan as an outcast, impose an economic blockade on that country. Pakistan has every reason to be certain that China would not go along with any such Indian initiative. Apart from this, Pakistan’s importance vis-à-vis China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, and the criticality of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in China’s overall geostrategic plans make it highly unlikely that China would take sides against Pakistan. Other Asian nations, > including members of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), may also be less than willing to take sides in a conflict of this kind.

Utmost care again needs to be taken when considering any military option. Pakistan may be a ‘basket case’ approximating to North Korea, but like the latter it is a ‘militarised’ state which has ‘nuclear teeth’. In 2008, India did not exercise the military option not due to any fears of a possible nuclear conflict, but because of the futility of resorting to any such step as it was likely to be indeterminate. The decision to eschew the military option was based on mature consideration of all facts available at that time. In retrospect, it greatly added to India’s prestige, instead of the country being equated with a ‘rogue state’ like Pakistan. India also won the ‘perception war’, gaining international support and sympathy, while Pakistan was consigned to the position of an ‘international outcast’.

Sober reflection, not strikes

Sub-military options available to India to put pressure on Pakistan are not too many. In 2008, after > the Mumbai attacks, similar suggestions had been made by some experts from outside the government. These were not considered viable, as merely hitting a few terrorist training camps inside Pakistan-occupied Kashmir was hardly likely to hurt Pakistan. At the time, India lacked the capability to carry out spectacular raids like the one by the Israel Defense Forces at Entebbe and German GSG 9 forces in Mogadishu in the 1970s or the taking out of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad by the U.S. Navy SEALs in 2011.

The reality is that India’s security agencies, including the armed forces, still do not have adequate capabilities of this kind — notwithstanding claims to the contrary. The Army, the Navy and the Air Force do have their Special Forces, but unlike the U.K.’s Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boat Service (SBS), the Green Berets and SEALs of the U.S., Germany’s GSG 9 and Russia’s Spetsnaz, these are primarily intended for military operations ‘behind the lines’ during a period of war. They are not capable of any independent operation. The Special Frontier Force has some capability for very limited operations and in specified circumstances. The National Security Guard, though raised as a counter-terrorist force, is not in the same league as the GSG 9.

All this should induce sober reflection. India is, of course, in a position to engage in a ‘water war’ with Pakistan, to deprive Pakistan of water from the Indus river. This would, of course, mean reneging on India’s international obligations under the Indus Waters Treaty.

Perhaps, India’s best option would be to engage in cyber sabotage and cyberwarfare, hiding behind the plausible deniability available in such attacks. Our capacity in this area is considerable, and it should be possible to engage in extensive cyber sabotage and cyberwarfare to bring Pakistan to its knees. This may be worth examining, instead of adopting ‘tit for tat’ methods with a ‘rogue’ nation.

M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and former Governor of West Bengal.

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