In the period since 26/11, the overly bureaucratized Indian state has reacted characteristically. Not by initiating programmes to enlarge and improve the skill sets of the Special Action Group—the commando element of the National Security Guard—and to equip it with sophisticated wherewithal such as thermal imaging goggles, helmet-mounted communications paraphernalia and super sniper scope rifles with infra-red sights for distant kills to surgically disable the urban guerilla terrorist in the dark and in confined spaces, but by creating new organizations. Instead, it has created new posts, and new establishments. This has added to the layer of bureaucracy, multiplied the potential for failure, and ensured that future crises will end in the usual manner.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
The government has been found wanting in other respects as well. It squandered the opportunity of limited but immediate reprisal by swift aerial attack on Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) camps and supply depots in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Such action was eminently doable, would have been perceived as legitimate, met the standard of “proportionality”, reassured the people that New Delhi is on the ball, and signalled to Pakistan that the days of terrorism as a no-cost instrument of state policy are over.
Instead, New Delhi has chosen to talk tough (“all options are open”) but leave it to the US to investigate and put the squeeze on Pakistan. The policy of relying on Washington for decisive action is incredibly naïve, based on the mistaken belief that (1) India now rates higher in the US’s scale of geostrategic utility and political-military value than Pakistan—the proven Cold War pivot of the US Central Asia policy and the prime enabler of the current proactive American strategy in Afghanistan, and (2) general headquarters, Rawalpindi, can be pressured by the withdrawal of trade and touring dance troupes to voluntarily surrender the leverage of asymmetric warfare that is seen to have, if not levelled the strategic playing field, then kept India, the larger, immensely stronger, neighbour, unsettled. Worse, approaching outside powers has legitimized the US’ role as mediator (prepare for Richard Holbrooke’s New Delhi-Islamabad shuttle diplomacy with a bit of arm-twisting of both sides on the cards), adjudicator and balancer and China’s desire to be a seminal player in the subcontinent. One thing aspiring great powers never do is outsource security for any reason and in any way.
It is easy to infer from New Delhi’s tip-toeing around the military option that it fears the situation spiralling out of control and into a nuclear exchange, whence Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s categorical assertion that there would be no war. This reading of the situation that Islamabad encourages ignores the cost of nuclear war for Pakistan. Should nuclear weapons use ever be initiated, the one certainty is that Pakistan cannot survive repeated Indian nuclear strikes. In the event, Islamabad has every incentive to avoid hostilities. It confers an advantage India has been loath to capitalize on. Islamabad has cannily used the overblown threat of nuclear conflagration, which is pumped up by the Western propaganda about “nuclear flashpoint”, to keep New Delhi in the throes of indecision and on the defensive.
Most political leaders and their advisers in the highest reaches of the government having bought into such alarmist nonsense have urged caution, leading the 1999 Kargil conflict onwards to India’s passivity and inaction in the face of even extreme provocation. What has been swallowed whole is US thesis that because India and Pakistan are both nuclear-armed states, Pakistan can safely fuel the insurgency in Kashmir and facilitate terrorism in India because its nuclear arsenal will deter India from retaliating with its superior conventional military forces. But this argument holds only if India does not respond in kind.
Terrorism cannot any longer be permitted to remain a cost-free option for Islamabad. Paying the Pakistani army and its creature, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), back in their own coin is the answer. This will require targeted intelligence operations to destabilize the brittle Pakistani polity. Support for sub-nationalist movements in Baluchistan, Baltistan and Sindh, stoking the anti-Punjab sentiment, and exacerbating the Sunni-Shia rift and, in parallel, for Indian special forces and the military to render live the Line of Control and the international border. In a short time, fissiparous forces will begin to tear that country apart and the sustained low-key military tension with India will sap the energy of the army and convince it that terrorism against India is not worth the consequences to Pakistan.
But here’s the rub. Such a strategy demands that the Indian government show guts, an attribute the ISI, LeT, and Washington know it cannot boast of. On the contrary, as the record shows, in a crisis the first casualty is the political will to take hard decisions. It is a debilitating weakness that inclines the Indian government to always play the victim, bleat incessantly about Pakistan doing this and that, grab at straws of supportive statements emanating from Washington, but otherwise to do nothing. The US, alas, is in a different game, one of doggedly shielding the ISI and the Pakistani army, whose culpability is sought to be minimized by inventing degrees of separation between them and their terrorist sword arm, the LeT.
Bharat Karnad is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org