India needs to create a range of options against Pakistan.
In a spectacular operation deep inside Pakistani territory, described by Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, as “a perfect fusion of intelligence collection, intelligence analysis and military operations”, US special forces eliminated Osama bin Laden. This incident has again raised questions about India’s inability to destroy terror camps inside Pakistan or eliminate terrorist leaders like Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, who continue to incite violence against India from Pakistani soil.
Why is India not able to undertake a similar strike inside Pakistan? The most common answer to that question is: “lack of political will”. While Indian governments may have given an impression—from the Vajpayee government after a terror attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 to the current UPA government after the Mumbai terror strikes of 2008—that they are diffident to act militarily against Pakistan, their decisions have been based on a realistic appraisal of facts.
While a government can promptly order a military strike to placate the clamour of public opinion, it can scarcely control the escalatory ladder triggered by such an operation. Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons and its undefined red lines for unleashing them against India have always been at the back of the mind of decision makers in Delhi. Notwithstanding the assurance that Pakistan will be completely annihilated by Indian retaliatory strikes, the holocaust of a single nuclear strike even on a mid-sized Indian town is not something Indian leadership wants to risk. The US Navy SEALs raid was a military operation, and a similar raid by India would be assumed by Pakistan as an act of Indian military aggression, setting into motion a sequence of events which India, or for that matter Pakistan, can scarcely control.
Even beyond the political will, this military operation will need high quality intelligence, and technically equipped and tactically capable teams of the special forces. Of these, India can generate the tactically capable and well-trained teams to conduct a raid inside Pakistan in an immediate time-frame but cultivation of intelligence and acquisition of technical capacity will need a sustained travail over a longer time.
Currently, each of the three Indian defence services has its own special forces—which are force multipliers at a tactical level during a conventional war. To convert them into strategic assets requires fusing them into a unitary force, with its own integral assets and dedicated linkage to intelligence sources and analysis. This special forces unit, which can then be equipped with the state of the art equipment, should be part of the tri-service Strategic Forces Command, and ideally operate directly under the Cabinet Secretariat. Free of service affiliations, this unit will have the capacity to seamlessly operate from naval, aerial and land-based platforms, and have the advantage of real-time intelligence support. The command and control structure can be patterned on the successful example of National Security Guards, but mandated only for Out of Area operations of strategic value.
Even though India might be constrained to refrain from a military raid by its special forces inside Pakistan, creating such capacity means that India has expands its options. This strengthens India’s diplomatic position while dealing with Pakistan.
If India can’t conduct a military raid inside Pakistan, does it then mean that India is destined to interminably suffer from jihadi terror, unleashed under the protection of the Pakistani nuclear umbrella?
No. A military raid by a restructured special forces unit is just one of the options. India must simultaneously develop its capacity to conduct clandestine operations against high value targets on Pakistani soil. They can be either undertaken by undercover teams or by local assets cultivated by Indian agencies. India’s covert action capabilities inside Pakistan were discontinued by the Gujral government in 1997 and none of his successors have since chosen to revive that capacity.
Clandestine operations provide India the advantage of plausible deniability, thereby mitigating the danger of an escalatory military ladder. Moreover, unlike Mr bin Laden, who was hidden in a safe house, anti-India jihadi leaders like Mr Saeed move around openly in Pakistan. By cultivating assets either within local security agencies, or in rival jihadi groups or by using disgruntled elements within the same tanzeem, India can minimise the fallouts of targeting the jihadi leadership inside Pakistan.
There is a downside to this plausible deniability. It does not allow India to send a public message to deter other Pakistan-based jihadi leaders. Moreover, keeping such operations under the radar doesn’t allow the Indian political leadership to take its advantage electorally, which disincentivises the government from pursuing such a course of action.
Whether conducted as a military raid or as a clandestine operation, the uncertainty of intelligence, the consequences of an operation going bad and the risk to lives involved would still remain the determinants of political decision-making. More critically, these operations might set into action events that are beyond anyone’s control: not only if the operation fails, but even if it succeeds. Dealing with a nuclear armed neighbour, India will have to ensure that the sub-conventional conflict never escalates into the conventional. India will thus need to prepare itself beforehand for containing the fallout of such operations—by diplomatic manoeuvres, enhanced military preparedness and buttressed internal security.
The United States has done inside Pakistan what it perceives to be in its best interests. India does not need to suffer from a “me too” syndrome. It has to choose a course of action that best suits its peculiar situation with respect to Pakistan.
The status quo, however, cannot and should not be an option. India must have more arrows in the quiver. It will take some time to build that range of capacities but the time to commence doing so is now. Not only will this allow India to hit the perpetrators of terror on Pakistani soil while continuing to talk to Pakistan, it shall also give India the luxury of talking to Pakistan from a position of greater strength even without actually undertaking any such operations.