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Can the terrorists strike again?

Can the terrorists strike again?
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First Published: Mon, Dec 15 2008. 10 34 PM IST

Updated: Mon, Dec 15 2008. 10 34 PM IST
I had put forth a hypothesis post 26/11, that the beneficiaries of Mumbai attacks were elements caught between the pincer of the US and the Pakistani armies in the north-west region of Pakistan. They needed to find a gap in the Pakistani army cutting off their retreat from Afghanistan into Pakistan and the only way that could occur was to get Indian Army to mobilize and hope for a skirmish between the two nuclear enemies. If that happened, the Pakistani divisions would have to be rushed to the Indian borders with the strong possibility of keeping them engaged for some time to come.
While intense pressure is being brought on Pakistan to deliver some tangible results, it is unlikely that anyone believes they will be able to dismantle an apparatus that they had built over two decades, first to fight the Soviets and then to engage in a proxy war with India—within a short time—if at all.
International pressure will force Pakistan to crack down on extremist elements but it is not just an issue of will, but one of capability. Observers who believe that it is just the former would do well to be reminded of similar problems we face in tackling the Naxalites or insurgency in the North-East. They should also remember that Al Qaeda comes from a pedigree that had waged a guerilla war and beaten back a superpower in 1989 and has only grown in strength since then.
So what options does Pakistan have really? Its internal turbulence and deep mistrust of India will not allow Pakistan to focus solely on its western front. Raids against the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) or Al Qaeda camps are meaningless superficialities. These elements had survived raids by the cream of Soviet shock troops supported by helicopter gunships and sprung back. Weeding them out will need relentless momentum which the Pakistani army simply does not have the capability to launch and sustain. Pakistan will probably go through the motions of a few crackdowns and offer some prized bounties to the world community. Beyond that, a mix of resource limitation, tribal pride, and national dignity will not allow the Pakistani military (which is the only institution that has the capability to do something significant) to appear to bend backward. If they do that, they will be seen to suffer the ignominy of (yet another) surrender to India. And considering the geopolitical realities as its neighbour, India should probably not force them into such a situation.
The Indian leadership will possibly hope for a few high-profile catches such as the D Company leadership (Dawood Ibrahim and members of his gang who are wanted india for several crimes including the 1993 bombings in Mumbai) or ideological leaders of the LeT. And, of course, they will be counting on the legendary ability of the Indian masses to forget the Mumbai terror attacks and move on. After all, we have had sufficient provocation in the past 10 years and yet the average Indian will be hard-pressed to remember the dates of even the attack on Indian sovereign territory in Kargil (by the way it happened in the summer of 1999).
Which brings us back to the question: Will the terrorists strike again? The answer lies in the textbooks of military warfare. Raids into enemy territory have four stages: planning, insertion of assets, activation of mission(s) and extrication.
Getting two nations to go to war is a complex business, so even during the planning stage, there will be realization that one mission alone, may not tip the scale. It could be argued that the complexity of Mumbai attacks would have exhausted capabilities of the perpetrators, but one should realize that the planning and insertion overheads remain largely the same—whether it is a unit of 10 assets or 30.
Also, the planners are fully cognizant that once a subunit of the assets has been activated, it will be difficult to insert another batch until the alerts come back to normal. Essentially, this means that more assets would possibly have been inserted into India. If the initial hypothesis is correct, then India has been outraged but has not really acted belligerently. This in itself is the best option, but one that does not suit the perpetrators of this event. So, there is a possibility that they will act again.
So what are the probable targets?
Hotels and sensitive locations such as consulates and airports are on high alert and though the attackers will undoubtedly be suicide squads, chances are, they will not risk an operation which is unlikely to get off the ground. There are other soft targets which provide higher chance of success and equal visibility. Schools for instance, or crowded market places, malls and business centres or business districts. Though security has been beefed up in all of these places, none of them can really withstand military grade attacks. One more incident will be the last straw and all logic will be blown out of the negotiating tables. Hawks will prevail (if that seems far-fetched, be advised that 26/11 seemed equally unbelievable on 25/11).
So, while all efforts are on to leash Al Qaeda and Co., it is a desperate battle for them as well. The lives of several thousand LeT and Al Qaeda men are at stake and if one more mission can tip the scale they only stand to again.
Which only reinforces the need for Indian security agencies to remain on an alert, for the Indian leadership to continue applying unrelenting international pressure, and for Indians to realize that exercising a military option against Pakistan may be exactly what the terrorists want us to do.
Raghu Raman is chief executive of Mahindra Special Services Group, India’s leading corporate risk consulting firm that advises companies and organizations on threat assessments and risk mitigation strategies. Respond to this column at feedback@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Dec 15 2008. 10 34 PM IST