Why India didn’t attack Pakistan after 26/11 Mumbai attacks
An insider account by the former foreign secretary on the restraints shown by the UPA government towards Pakistan after the terror attacks
I am often asked, “Why did India not attack Pakistan after the 26/11 attack on Mumbai?” Why did India not use overt force against Pakistan for its support of terrorism? I myself pressed at that time for immediate visible retaliation of some sort, either against the LeT in Muridke, in Pakistan’s Punjab province, or their camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, or against the ISI, which was clearly complicit. To have done so would have been emotionally satisfying and gone some way toward erasing the shame of the incompetence that India’s police and security agencies displayed in the glare of the world’s television lights for three full days.
During and after the attack, a series of informal discussions and meetings in government took place that considered our responses. The then national security adviser, M.K. Narayanan, organized the review of our military and other kinetic options with the political leadership, and the military chiefs outlined their views to the prime minister. As foreign secretary, I saw my task as one of assessing the external and other implications and urged both external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that we should retaliate, and be seen to retaliate, to deter further attacks, for reasons of international credibility and to assuage public sentiment.
For me, Pakistan had crossed a line, and that action demanded more than a standard response. My preference was for overt action against LeT headquarters in Muridke or the LeT camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and covert action against their sponsors, the ISI. Mukherjee seemed to agree with me and spoke publicly of all our options being open. In these discussions we considered our options, the likely Pakistani response, and the escalation that could occur.
But on sober reflection and in hindsight, I now believe that the decision not to retaliate militarily and to concentrate on diplomatic, covert, and other means was the right one for that time and place...
The choice of restraint
The simple answer to why India did not immediately attack Pakistan is that after examining the options at the highest levels of government, the decision makers concluded that more was to be gained from not attacking Pakistan than from attacking it.
Let’s consider what might have happened had India attacked Pakistan. Most immediately, the fact of a terrorist attack from Pakistan on India with official involvement on the Pakistan side would have been obscured. Instead, as far as the world was concerned, the incident would have become just another India-Pakistan dispute. India had some experience with this ho-hum reaction when it took Pakistani aggression by so-called tribal raiders in Kashmir in 1947 to the UN Security Council. The evidence clearly showed the involvement of the Pakistan Army in the invasion, but the UN Security Council chose to play politics and to treat aggressor and victim similarly, and imposed a cease-fire. Ultimately the UN Security Council’s intervention only made finding a solution, and eliminating aggression, more complicated. Faced with a dispute between two traditional rivals, the world’s default response is to call for peace and to split the blame and credit 50:50 in the name of fairness or even-handedness. This was just what the Pakistan Army wanted. Its first reaction during the attack itself was to approach the United States and the United Kingdom asking that India be restrained from launching a war between two nuclear weapon states (NWS).
An Indian attack on Pakistan would have united Pakistan behind the Pakistan Army, which was in increasing domestic disrepute, disagreed on India policy with the civilian elected government under President Asif Zardari, and was half-heartedly acting against only those terrorist groups in Pakistan that attacked it. An attack on Pakistan would also have weakened the civilian government in Pakistan, which had just been elected to power and which sought a much better relationship with India than the Pakistan Army was willing to consider. Zardari’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, was actually visiting Delhi on the night the attack began. The Pakistan minister of information, Sherry Rehman, who admitted publicly that Kasab was a Pakistani, soon lost her job under pressure from the army. In fact, the Pakistan Army mobilized troops and moved them to the India-Pakistan border immediately before the attack began, then cried wolf about an Indian mobilization. Once again, a war scare, and maybe even a war itself, was exactly what the Pakistan Army wanted to buttress its internal position, which had been weakened after Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s last few disastrous years as president.
A limited strike on selected terrorist targets—say, the LeT headquarters in Muridke or the LeT camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir—would have had limited practical utility and hardly any effect on the organization, as U.S. missile strikes on al Qaeda in Khost, Afghanistan, in August 1998 in retaliation for the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania had shown. The LeT camps were tin sheds and huts, which could be rebuilt easily. Collateral civilian damage was almost certain since the camps, and particularly the LeT buildings in Muridke, had deliberately been sited near or beside hospitals and schools. Even if there were no civilian casualties from Indian actions, casualties could nonetheless be alleged and produced by the ISI. The real problem was the official and social support that terrorist groups in Pakistan such as the LeT were receiving, and that was not likely to stop because of such a limited strike.
Official support also meant that the prospect of bringing the perpetrators of the attack in Pakistan to justice were near zero, and would be even lower once an Indian attack took place. So this consideration was really irrelevant to the decision.
And a war, even a successful war, would have imposed costs and set back the progress of the Indian economy just when the world economy in November 2008 was in an unprecedented financial crisis that seemed likely to lead to another Great Depression.
Now let’s consider what did occur when India chose not to attack Pakistan. By not attacking Pakistan, India was free to pursue all legal and covert means to achieve its goals of bringing the perpetrators to justice, uniting the international community to force consequences on Pakistan for its behaviour and to strengthen the likelihood that such an attack would not take place again. The international community could not ignore the attack and fail to respond, however half-heartedly, in the name of keeping the peace between two NWS. The UN Security Council put senior LeT members involved in the attack on sanctions lists as terrorists.
Pakistan itself did as little as it could against the perpetrators. The terrorists had been motivated and briefed personally by Hafiz Saeed, the head of LeT (which had renamed itself Jamaat-ud-Dawa) and were trained by Pakistan Army officers. The immediate Pakistani reaction to international and Indian pressure was to show Pakistani police officers locking Jamaat-ud-Dawa offices and to briefly place Hafiz Saeed under house arrest. But he was released in early June 2009 and is now treated by the Pakistani authorities and media as a respected social and political leader. David Coleman Headley, the U.S. national of Pakistani origin who, by his own account, undertook seven reconnaissance visits to Mumbai for the ISI and LeT, has given testimony to an Indian court about two previous failed attempts by the LeT that same year to attack Mumbai, and of the direct involvement of the ISI in planning the reconnaissance, choosing the targets, and training and equipping the attackers. In May 2009, we were given a report by the Pakistan Federal Investigation Agency that acknowledged that the Mumbai attack was mounted from inside Pakistan by the “defunct LeT.” Despite this, after India presented Pakistan with undeniable evidence, evidence that the Indian Supreme Court found sufficiently credible to sentence Kasab to death, the Pakistanis still prevaricated, raised questions, sought clarifications, and finally arrested only seven lower-level members of the LeT. The seniormost detainee was Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the military operations head of the LeT, but he was allowed to carry on his business from inside the jail, using a cell phone and receiving visitors. On January 9, 2015, he was even granted bail of U.S. $3,100 by a High Court. The other masterminds remain at large in Pakistan. Lists of 37 people in Pakistan involved in the attack have been given to Pakistan. The LeT simply carries on its deadly business under its changed name of Jamaat-ud-Dawa. The perpetrators of the Mumbai attack have yet to face justice in Pakistan, despite serial promises, including some made by National Security Adviser Sartaj Aziz to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2014, that they would be sentenced in two to three months.
We have had much greater success dealing with those connected with the attacks when they traveled outside Pakistan, and with those in Spain, Italy, and elsewhere who helped equip them with communications and other equipment. According to media reports, Sheikh Abdul Khwaja, handler of the 26/11 attack and Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI) chief of operations for India, was subsequently picked up in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and brought to Hyderabad and formally arrested in January 2010. Zaibuddin Ansari (aka Abu Hamza, aka Abu Jundal) was arrested at the Delhi airport on June 25, 2012, after he was deported from Saudi Arabia. But the list of those responsible is long. India originally named 37 suspects, including two Pakistan Army officers in the case, to which the names of David Headley and Rana were subsequently added.
The real success was in organizing the international community, in isolating Pakistan, and in making counterterrorism cooperation against the LeT effective. India began to get unprecedented cooperation from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf countries, and China, too, began to respond to requests for information on these groups. Equally, success could be measured in dogs that did not bark in the night, in avoiding the outcomes that would have resulted from a decision to attack Pakistani targets and the high probability of war ensuing from such a decision.
Internally, there was clearly a need to tighten laws and build institutions against terrorism. The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act was passed unanimously in December 2008, the National Investigation Agency was established, and a national counterterrorism center was proposed, which is still to be created. Other steps to ensure coordinated use of intelligence and counterterrorism actions were also taken.
Interestingly, the attack united India as no other event except a war had done. Sensing this, the political parties did not make the attack and India’s response an issue in the general election campaign that followed within a few months, and the center-left United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was voted back into power in May 2009.
All the same, should another such attack be mounted from Pakistan, with or without visible support from the ISI or the Pakistan Army, it would be virtually impossible for any government of India to make the same choice again. Pakistan’s prevarications in bringing the perpetrators to justice and its continued use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy after 26/11 have ensured this. In fact, I personally consider some public retribution and a military response inevitable. The circumstances of November 2008 no longer exist and are unlikely to be replicated in the future.
Excerpted from Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy (256 pages, Rs 599) by Shivshankar Menon, with permission from Penguin Random House.
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