Fighting Pakistan’s ‘informal war’

Praveen Swami

National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan calls for retaliation against the ISI.

Back in 1947, as Pakistani irregulars battled in Jammu and Kashmir, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru laid out what remains the principal doctrinal challenge before New Delhi’s security strategists.

India, Prime Minister Nehru said, was confronted not just with tribal irregulars, but “a well organised business with the backing of the State.” As such, it had “in effect to deal with a State carrying out an informal war, but nevertheless a war.”

Last week, infuriated by mounting evidence that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate organised the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan proposed a solution:. “I think we need to pay back in the same coin”. “Talk-talk is better than fight-fight,” Mr. Narayanan concluded, “but it hasn’t worked so far.”

Covert deterrence

No Indian official has ever used language that even approaches that deployed by the NSA — but more than a few in its covert services, including the former Intelligence Bureau chief, Ajit Doval, and his Research and Analysis Wing counterpart Vikram Sood, have long made a similar case.

Exactly what is it, though, that advocates of retaliation have in mind?

Put simply, they argue that India must have covert deterrent capabilities. If a Pakistan-based terrorist group carries out strikes against civilians in Mumbai, the argument goes, India must be able to assassinate its leaders and their financiers. While it makes no economic or strategic sense to start a potentially-catastrophic war to deter terrorism, covert tools can still be used to punish its sponsors.

Is this a workable idea? Critics of unleashing India’s covert deterrence capabilities say such action will strip New Delhi of the moral high ground it has for long occupied. Advocates argue that India’s high moral ground hasn’t made its citizens’ lives safer.

For the first decades after independence, India’s covert capabilities were in the main defensive. By contrast, Pakistan’s Intelligence Bureau — led by Qurban Ali, the senior-most Indian officer of its colonial predecessor — sponsored a series of offensive operations in Jammu and Kashmir. In line with imperial ideologues like General Francis Tucker, Mr. Ali believed that India’s ethnic-religious faultlines made it unsustainable as a nation. Much of the Pakistan Intelligence Bureau’s work was — and is — aimed at deepening these faultlines.

India’s own covert capabilities only began to grow after its 1962 defeat by China. Aided by the United States, the newly-founded Research and Analysis Wing developed sophisticated signals intelligence and photo-reconnaissance capabilities.

RAW soon put the lessons it learned to use against Pakistan. According to the still-classified official history of the Bangladesh war records that, by November 1971, over 83,000 guerrillas of whom over 51,000 were operating in east Pakistan had been trained and armed by India. Establishment 22 — a force set up by the CIA to target China — carried out deep-penetration strikes against Pakistani prior to the onset of war, drawing them forward to the Bangladesh border and thus easing the way for India’s eventual thrust to Dhaka.

India’s decisive triumph in 1971 seemed to have rendered the need for an offensive covert capability against that country redundant. India withdrew support for Baloch guerrillas fighting the Pakistan army, and slashed its involvement with anti-Islamabad forces in Afghanistan.

But the wheel turned again, as wheels are wont to do. After the Soviet Union’s intervention in Afghanistan, the regime of General Zia-ul-Haq acquired both the strategic influence and military resources needed to insulate itself against India’s superior conventional military capabilities.

Pakistan’s informal war resumed. By the mid-1980s, the ISI had initiated supplies of Afghan war-surplus military hardware to Khalistan terrorists in Punjab. Five years later, similar support was made available to jihad groups in Jammu and Kashmir. On two occasions, in 1987 and 1990, India threatened to go to war in retaliation; both times, the threat of a potentially-catastrophic war deterred its politicians.

Interesting, RAW and the ISI played a role in ensuring the informal war did not escalate into a full-blown one. After the 1987 crisis, RAW chief A.K. Verma and ISI Director-General Hamid Gul met to discuss limitations for Pakistan’s support for Khalistan groups, a negotiation brokered by the then-Jordanian Crown Prince, Hasan bin-Talal, whose wife, Princess Sarvath, is of Pakistani origin. Later, in the wake of the 1990 crisis, the ISI ensured that jihad groups in Jammu and Kashmir did not gain access to anti-aircraft missiles, after India made clear that the shooting down of an aircraft would lead to a full-blown war

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s regime did not, however, restrict itself to sending verbal signals to Islamabad. In the mid-1980s, RAW unleashed two covert groups, CIT-X and CIT-J, the first targeting Pakistan in general and the second directed at Khalistani groups. A low-grade but steady campaign of bombings in major Pakistani cities, notably Karachi and Lahore, followed. According to former RAW official and security analyst B. Raman, India’s counter-campaign yielded results by making Pakistan’s terror campaign “prohibitively costly.”

For a variety of reasons, these operations proved short-lived. Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, who took over in 1997, shut down RAW’s offensive operations on moral grounds, pointing to the end of the terrorist campaign in Punjab and the improved situation in Jammu and Kashmir. Earlier, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao ended RAW’s eastern operations earlier as part of his efforts to build bridges with China and Myanmar.

Successive covert services heads attempted to gain fresh authorisation for deterrent covert operations, but without success. After the 1999 Kargil war, key intelligence officers attempted to persuade Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to issue the necessary authorisations. “He didn’t say a word,” recalls one official present at the meeting, “not yes, not no.” It is probable that Prime Minister Vajpayee had reason to regret that silence in 2001, when he was compelled to use the only weapon at India’s disposal — the threat of full-blown war — to compel Pakistan to scale back the jihad in Jammu and Kashmir.

Indian politicians need to debate Mr. Narayanan’s suggestions seriously, whether or not they see reason to eventually endorse them. So, too, do Pakistanis. If nothing else, the NSA’s comments show just how deep frustration with the ISI’s informal war runs in New Delhi. Pakistan has long feared a nightmarish future where a hostile India dams its water resources in Jammu and Kashmir and throws its weight behind irredentist forces. Each terror bombing against Indians, paradoxically, is bringing that nightmare one step closer to realisation.

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