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India’s response to the next terror attack

Ali Ahmed was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • August 26, 2009

    “There is credible information of ongoing plans of terrorist groups in Pakistan to carry out fresh attacks. The area of operation of these terrorists today extends far beyond the confines of Jammu & Kashmir and covers all parts of our country…In dealing with the terrorist challenge we need to be prepared for encountering more sophisticated technologies and enhanced capabilities.”

    - PM’s speech at CM’s conference on internal security, 17 August 2009

    Periodic reiteration of the continuing threat to India helps consolidate the security sector reforms that were initiated in the wake of 26/11. In surveying the period since, the Home Minister observes that the record has been a ‘mixed one’, with the balance sheet as under: “Our best achievements have been in the reiteration of our determination to fight terror; in the sharing of intelligence; in the unanimous support for new laws and new instruments; and in acknowledging that police reforms have been neglected for too long. On the other hand, there are still critical deficiencies in budget allocations for the police, recruitment, training, procurement of equipment, introduction of technology, and personnel management.”

    The threat of terror attacks of the magnitude of 26/11 continues to exist despite the deterrence value of the security upgrades in place in India. This owes to the instability obtaining in Pakistan. At the Yekaterinberg meeting with Dr. Manmohan Singh, Pakistan’s President Zardari had asked for time to dismantle the terror infrastructure in Pakistan. At the time Pakistan’s Army was in the midst of operations against the spread of Talibanisation in Swat. Presently, it is involved in rolling back the Taliban in Waziristan area of FATA in concert with US operations in Afghanistan. It would perhaps not like to open an internal front against the anti-India jihadi elements. This explains to an extent its reluctance and limited action against the handlers of perpetrators of the Mumbai terrorist outrage.

    Prudently, India, in keeping with the dictum ‘trust but verify’, voiced by the PM in his address to the Lok Sabha clarifying the Sharm el Sheikh Joint Statement, has limited the opening up to Pakistan, restricting it to meetings of the foreign secretaries on the extent Pakistan has complied with its obligations under international law against terror and in its commitment to the landmark Islamabad Joint Statement of Janurary 2004. India’s strategy is to ‘wait and watch’ if Pakistan delivers on curbing the reliance of its Army and its intelligence agency, the ISI, on terror as a ‘strategic tool’ against India.

    Under either circumstances of action against jihadi forces or inaction, the likelihood of terror attacks exists. In fact, in the unlikely case of Pakistani rolling back of terror infrastructure, the likelihood heightens owing to the jihadis wanting to set off a diversionary crisis or conflict between the two neighbours. Clearly, then, India requires thinking through its response strategy before the event itself. What would be the parameters of such a response?

    Firstly, India needs to consider the military option seriously. This would not only enhance the deterrence in place against such attacks, but would ensure that the state-jihadi nexus is constricted. The state element would likely be more sensitive to the likely hurt that India could inflict militarily and therefore exercise restraint over jihadi impulses. Secondly, any such consideration would enable execution of the military operation better and integrate it with the political and diplomatic prongs of the strategy that would likely unfold in real time. Actions and mechanisms necessary for limitation can then either be pre-planned or pre-positioned. Thirdly, India would require monitoring the levels of state-non-state complicity in Pakistan. The extent the state is complicit would impact the energy India brings to its response. While ‘plausible deniability’ is a screen Pakistan has consistently exploited, proving links to state structures, if any, next time round would enhance India’s hand.

    In particular, getting the Pakistanis to acquiesce to a robust Indian response, one with a military component, could also be broached directly. Though innovative, this idea is based on the understanding that the extent of state complicity in dastardly terror attacks such as Mumbai 26/11 is finite and likely limited to rogue elements. Pakistan has earlier been the origin of terror attacks on the legislative assembly in Kashmir, the Indian parliament and on commuter trains in Mumbai. It is aware that not only has India run out of tolerance but also of response options. In exercising restraint in each of the earlier instances, India has acquired the political capital and moral high ground for executing a more vigorous response in case of a future attack. Indeed, in case India is to apply the extended definition of self-defence against an armed attack as Israel does, then it is already entitled to military recourse at a time and place of its own choosing. Though discredited, the Bush doctrine of ‘preemption’ also exists in case India wishes to further cover its diplomatic flanks. Public anger may require purging through cathartic violence. Aware of the likely Indian political predicament in the wake of another attack, Pakistan cannot expect to get away lightly as earlier. In these circumstances, getting Pakistan on board so as to influence its reaction in favour of limitation makes for strategic sense.

    The argument is that a robust, albeit restricted, military response may help Pakistan take a U-turn against the jihadis. This is reminiscent of the pressure put on Musharraf and Mahmood, the then ISI chief, by Bush and Armitage respectively in the wake of 9/11. The outcome was in Pakistan curtailing its support for the Taliban, leading to its defeat in the opening stages of the GWOT. Likewise, Indian pressure forced by the circumstance of another terror attack could result in an awakening, if a belated and a rude one, in Pakistan’s Army. Those privileging Pakistan’s interests over that of the narrower jihadi aims would be willing to snap the jihadi link. As it is Pakistan is reeling from the ‘blow back’. Zardari has admitted to Pakistan having nurtured terrorists and has even likened jihadis in Kashmir to terrorists. This is not entirely posturing as part of information warfare. It also reflects a certain disdain towards jihadi aims and methods not only in a section of the political establishment but also civil society at large. The extent to which the Pakistani Army has revised its view of jihadis is uncertain. But that there exists a rational-secular segment in the Army and a dominant one at that is known. This segment can be relied upon to take the internal debate as to the appropriate reaction to India’s military response in a rational direction.

    In any case a military response, even one negotiated prior with Pakistan, would require a heightened state of military alert in India. This should not amount to partial moblisation since that would be escalatory. Central to such a response is limitation and inducement of limitation in Pakistan’s reaction. Limitation could be in terms of areas addressed, targets hit, duration of operation and weapons employed. Surgical strikes with stand off weapons relying on accurate intelligence fit the bill best. Even as these are being executed, diplomacy would require going into high gear for amplifying Indian limited aims. For this, direct and continuing interface with Pakistan is necessary. The three hotlines between the two states must be fully used along with back channels, Track Two contacts and the good offices of the US. Obviously, the media is not the conduit for such parleys. For this the Indian security establishment must rely on only one spokesperson. Information warriors should be wary of the underside of media induced and fanned passions.

    Pakistani reciprocity is not impossible to imagine, since limitation carries with it definite advantages. Escalation would only worsen its internal stability and economy. The US would not subsidise any conflict with India. This would render Pakistan vulnerable to right wing forces within, an unpalatable prospect for both the Army and the elite. While chastened, Pakistan may prefer to allow India to blow off steam.

    That such a strategy would require networking the US alongside is inevitable. Presently, greater demands on and scrutiny of Pakistani action under the Af-Pak policy has led to Pakistani compliance. Its action has been biased in favour of US interest in Afghanistan as against Indian demands. In case of US accommodating an exasperated Indian response, Indian national security interest would also be addressed through the GWOT. The follow-up would of course be heightened US pressure for India to concede ground on Kashmir. This could be met by a simultaneous offer by India of fast tracking the composite dialogue process, that includes Kashmir. The twin prongs – military and diplomatic – of the strategy would thus be sensitive to both US and Pakistani aims.

    A military response option is not out of sync with India’s long standing strategic posture of restraint. Indeed, restraint requires that this option remains menacingly on the table. Restraint is implicit even in its exercise.