Talking tough with Pakistan


Over the last six months, the Indian security establishment has been signalling a new policy of robust response, the kind the country has not witnessed in the recent past.

This week’s India-Pakistan tension climaxed with Pakistan shooting down a Chinese-built drone on the Line of Control (LoC). Earlier, a great deal of chest-thumping greeted the Indian Army’s recent raid on terrorists on the India-Myanmar border, and it was accompanied by salutary warnings to neighbouring countries, including Pakistan, not to mess with India. Islamabad dismissed the operation as an inaugural attempt by an Army that had to hitherto take permission from New Delhi to return fire across the LoC. Then there was the recent book by A.S. Dulat and Aditya Sinha, Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, which reopened the wounds of the Kandahar hijacking ignominy, when India failed to immobilise the aircraft at Amritsar. New Delhi’s tepid response to Mumbai’s 26/11 and the subsequent beheadings and killings of Indian soldiers on the LoC have only served to highlight India’s conventional deterrence policy in poor light. Something had to be done to alter India’s image as a soft state.

A response doctorine

Ashok K. Mehta
Over the last six months, the security establishment has been signalling a new policy of robust response, the kind the country has not witnessed in the recent past. The one time it was successfully attempted was in 1965 when Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri warned Islamabad during its Rann of Kutch offensive not to test New Delhi’s patience. He told Parliament on April 20, “If Pakistan continues to disregard reason and persists in aggressive activities, our Army will defend the country and it will decide its own strategy...” Army commanders were surprised — and so was Pakistan — when he ordered crossing the international border opposite Lahore and the start of the 1965 war, in response to Operation Gibraltar, which was Pakistan’s second variant of cross-border terrorism, its first having been made by tribal raiders in 1947 to capture Srinagar valley.

Both Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval have been sending messages to Pakistan to end cross-border terrorism. The Indian response to brazen attacks — such as those on its Parliament in 2001 and on Mumbai in 2008 — was varied. From coercive diplomacy and attempts to persuade Pakistan, the response moved to not allowing the use of territory under its control to supporting terrorism to virtually no action, barring the traditional politico-diplomatic demarche after Mumbai.

Following the attack on Parliament, the Americans extracted from Gen. Pervez Musharraf, not once but twice, pledges that Pakistan would end terrorism permanently, irreversibly, visibly, and to the satisfaction of India. These pledges were followed by the January 6, 2004 joint statement by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Gen. Musharraf to the same effect. As long as Gen. Musharraf was around, the commitments held; once he was eased out, the cycle of violence recommenced, culminating in Mumbai.

After Mumbai, the United Progressive Alliance government continued to warn Pakistan that there would be consequences to another big attack but it had no punitive response strategy in hand. With the new National Democratic Alliance government, one thing is clearly emerging: there will be a response. It will not, however, be from the vintage list of surgical strikes on terrorist camps inside Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, a reverse Kargil to secure real estate, or, least of all, any Cold Start offensive with integrated battle groups across the international border.

So, what signal exactly are Mr. Doval and Mr. Parrikar sending to Islamabad? Mr. Doval said in January this year, “We want to deal with Pakistan in a way that is fair, correct and transparent.” He spoke of not bending to pressure tactics or blackmail on the assumption that the nuclear threshold leaves India with no option but to accept covert war. Three months later, he remarked: “We would like to solve problems with Pakistan through negotiations... But, on the other hand, India would like to have an effective deterrent to deal with terrorism”. And his most potent and direct comment was: “If you do one Mumbai [26/11], you may lose Balochistan”.

Mr. Parrikar has been more nuanced. Speaking at a public meeting, he lamented that some former Prime Ministers had compromised India’s “deep assets”, alluding to RAW’s (Research and Analysis Wing) intelligence infrastructure inside Pakistan that had been ordered closed by Prime Minister I.K. Gujral. Rolling back strategic assets was a cardinal sin that virtually wiped out the country’s undercover capabilities. On another occasion, Mr. Parrikar referred to taking out ‘terrorists with terrorists’. The coupling of hired assassins with deep assets is both a tactical and strategic deterrence.

The joint message is that India will be prepared to employ covert means in PoK and Balochistan to deter and punish cross-border terrorism. Pakistan TV has been airing Mr. Doval’s threat on Balochistan and Mr. Parrikar’s advocacy of terrorism. For long, Islamabad has accused India of fomenting unrest in Balochistan, through which the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will pass, linking Kashgar in Xinjiang with Gwadar and Balochistan. This will be the biggest economic endowment from China to Pakistan, making their all-weather relationship even sweeter. India could put a spoke in this wheel.

Reacting to Mr. Parrikar’s ‘neutralise terrorists with terrorists’ remark, Pakistan has said it reflects New Delhi’s support of terrorism against peace-loving Pakistan. Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relations, in the latest issue of its in-house magazine Hilal, highlights Mr. Parrikar’s comments. So does Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz: “This confirms our apprehensions of India’s involvement of terrorism in Pakistan”.

The recent leak of two documents alleging India’s support to Pakistan’s MQM (Muttahida Qaumi Movement) are being linked to Mr. Parrikar’s comments. The alleged funding of MQM by RAW has led to Pakistan threatening to take India to the United Nations for ‘interference’ in its internal affairs. Pakistan is making much of Mr. Parrikar’s remarks to counter the image that Pakistan is a state sponsor of terrorism, and to reinforce its victimhood status.

Pakistan is of the opinion that cross-border terrorism is working in Jammu and Kashmir, where Islamabad claims that India has been compelled to deploy one-third of its Army as well as State and central armed police forces since the early 1990s. New Delhi claims that its counter-insurgency grid and fencing of the LoC has been effective in foiling infiltration as well as reducing terrorists from 3,000 fighters in 2002 to roughly 300 today.

Counter-infiltration moves

The infiltration figure till May-end this year, obtained from the Multi Agency Centre (MAC), is an incredible zero, inclusive of attempted infiltrators, those killed, and those who returned. It would appear that New Delhi’s counter-infiltration moves have blunted Islamabad’s moves in Jammu and Kashmir.

Breaking the 13-month stalemate in dialogue at Ufa in Russia this month, the NSAs of both India and Pakistan agreed to meet to discuss “all forms of terrorism”. This will lead nowhere, as Islamabad has now moved itself out of the category of terrorism sponsor to victim. The Parrikar-Doval threats have threaded the needle of a new response centred on covert action. This slow-burn strategy is calibrated for escalation when required. Given the nuclear overhang, any response to another big terrorist attack from Pakistan will be decisive. Only when the Pakistan Army realises that this Indian government will respond, and respond meaningfully, will it decommission its terrorism network. That the new needle is sharp is apparent from the chorus of Pakistani protests. At last, India has found its voice, to end terrorism sourced from Pakistan.

(Gen. Ashok K. Mehta is founder-member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the Integrated Defence Staff.)

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2020 6:50:50 AM |

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