Pranab Dhal Samanta Posted online: Fri Nov 26 2010, 10:07 hrs
New Delhi : The last of the 26/11 terrorists had been killed only a few hours back when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh presided over an urgently called meeting of the country’s security top brass. Present at that meeting on November 29, 2008, were Defence Minister A K Antony, the then National Security Advisor M K Narayanan, heads of both intelligence agencies and the three service chiefs — the Army was represented by its Vice-Chief Lt Gen M L Naidu as Army Chief Gen Deepak Kapoor was overseas — among other high-ranking officials. The key issue on the agenda — India’s response.
By then, there was no doubt among any of those present at this meeting, which lasted for over two hours at the PM’s residence, that the entire attack had been controlled, coordinated and plotted by the Lashkar-e-Toiba and its handlers in Pakistan. An undeniable body of evidence had already piled up from the calls monitored between the terrorists and their handlers in the course of the attack. More evidence was pouring in by the hour. There was no way any government in New Delhi could drag its feet — the Prime Minister knew he had to ask the dreaded question to all those responsible for the defence of India.
He started with the words that the people of India “will not forgive us” for what had happened and that the government had indeed failed them. This was not an empty comment. About 10 days before, US intelligence had intercepted a phone call from “somewhere in the Arabian Sea” to Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir. The input with coordinates of the boat’s position had been passed on to Indian agencies and then disseminated but not with the immediacy and urgency it deserved. Coast Guard authorities carried out reconnaissance sorties but by then it was too late. They found nothing on those coordinates except for scores of fishing boats that looked alike. The boat had obviously moved on. The Coast Guard filed a report that it needed the latest coordinates. And that’s where matters lay until the night of November 26 when the 10 terrorists surfaced in the heart of Mumbai.
Yet, the Prime Minister kept his calm and turned to the three service chiefs. He asked them whether they had any options in mind. In the same breath, he preemptively made it clear that he did not favour another Operation Parakram. That option was off the table from day one, recall sources. The then Navy Chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta chose to remain quiet. After all, the Navy was carrying out exercises in the area when the 10 terrorists slipped in without raising an alarm. The Army Vice-Chief wanted to wait for Gen Kapoor to return before they could crystallise their thoughts.
It was Air Chief Marshal Fali Major who eventually spoke up and suggested striking terror camps in PoK. The Air Chief was sure that his planes and pilots could do the job but the intelligence agencies would have to provide the coordinates. There was no further discussion on the subject that day, but it was also not the last conversation.
So, how close did India and Pakistan come to war? The views range from “very close” to “fleetingly close” but the fact which all key players confirm is that the military option was indeed on the table. It was subsumed by only a larger question of how would Pakistan react?
In the days that followed, the military top brass went aboutnworking on the options. The Air Force, in particular, did go into the finer aspects of conducting a limited air strike in PoK but the political decision-making never moved any further.
However, the Defence Minister did hold a meeting with the three service chiefs after the PM’s first meet. At that point, the Army Chief was asked whether limited ground strikes could be carried out. Gen Kapoor is said to have responded that an operation was possible but he would need a week’s notice and that it would be a “highly risky” affair. He is said to have added that any political approval on this must include flexibility for the Army to respond anywhere along the LoC or for that matter, even the international border. In the Army’s assessment, any strike would definitely lead to an escalated military conflict and the government ought to prepared for it. The Air Force agreed that a strong Pakistani reaction was certain but was not willing to predict the levels of escalation.
While this continued, the Army proposed that it would like to prolong the stay of two of its brigades involved in a scheduled peacetime military exercise on the Rajasthan border. The go-ahead was given and the two brigades overstayed for about two weeks.
Much later, in early January, when then Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon, who is now the National Security Advisor, visited the US, his eloquent assertion in all his meetings about how India had not provoked Pakistan was only once challenged. Gen David Petraeus is learnt to have told him that this was not true because Indian troops had overstayed after finishing their military exercise. To Pakistan, he felt, this was a provocation to which it gave a disproportionate response by placing troops on alert and moving its fighters closer to the border.
There was also another incident about an Indian plane violating Pakistan airspace which apparently led to a F-16 scramble on the Pakistan side. Islamabad lodged a strong diplomatic protest. India denied with equal conviction. But at the same time the Air Force was asked to carry out an investigation.
The result was that there was indeed some violation by a reconnaissance plane of the Aviation Research Centre, RAW’s air wing, that was conducting a sortie along the LoC. This aircraft, perhaps, went too close to the LoC, violating the rule that both sides will not send their aircraft that near.
A few days later, a meeting was held in the nuclear bunker where the top leadership of the government is to be rushed in case of a nuclear strike. This was not provoked by 26/11. It was scheduled much before the attacks with the objective of familiarising the PM and other ministers of the emergency drill. But in the backdrop of the Mumbai attacks, the meeting could not have ignored the security environment of the day.
The PM is believed to have asked how would one distinguish a nuclear strike from any other non-nuclear, yet devastating attack. This was important because like many in the bunker, he too wanted to be sure that sufficient safeguards were in place to prevent a mistaken response. A long explanation was given. The PM then wanted to know if there was a chance Pakistan could misjudge a conventional strike by India and trigger a nuclear response.
There was near silence. Pakistan, by then, had already created “war hysteria” which many felt was unprovoked. The larger consensus was that you could not be sure about Pakistan’s response. It’s reliably learnt that it was this uncertainty which halted Indian strategists from fully backing any military response.
Under considerable pressure to show some response, the Prime Minister had independently tasked Menon to draw up a list of India’s options. Menon did carry out the exercise like a professional and gave an unsigned note that started with extreme measures like a limited military strike to less effective but dramatic steps like scaling down diplomatic relations, stopping cricketing ties, visa restrictions among others. He and Narayanan met regularly, at the PM’s instructions, to discuss the question of options in the days and weeks after the attacks.
In the wake of all the uncertainty over how Pakistan would respond, there was also talk about the “deniable option”. One which would involve covert operatives carrying out a sensational strike in Pakistan or in PoK. It’s learnt that RAW and the Army were specifically asked this question. RAW’s response to the NSA stunned all except, perhaps, Narayanan himself who is among the doyens of Indian intelligence. India’s premier external intelligence agency admitted that it had no assets in Pakistan to carry out such an action. It was explained that India lost all the meagre local support it had in pockets of Pakistan after the Babri Masjid attack and what little was left, was shut down by a prime ministerial diktat during I K Gujral’s tenure.
The Army said it had the ability to carry out commando operations but the government had to be clear what would be the approach if anyone was apprehended. Also, the Army let it be known that it was not sure how Pakistan would react if it found out.
This discussion headed nowhere after this because the ground realities were clear that India had consciously not cultivated this option. Some others felt it was pointless to discuss the “deniable option” because the whole idea of a response should be that the “other side” should know who did it.
Just as Singh deliberated these issues here, on November 29 itself, then US President George W Bush held a meeting with his security advisors and also on the video link with his missions in India and Pakistan. He told them that the last time something like this happened in the United States, “we went to war”. Prime Minister Singh, he added, was also under immense pressure and that the United States must do all it can to help him so that he does not go to war.
That eased matters a bit as Bush made it clear to Pakistan that it needed to “roll up and crush” the terror outfit behind the attack. US assistance was unprecedented, forcing Pakistan to accept that the attack was carried out from its soil.
But when the dust settled, all agreed that the unpredictability on the Pakistan side and the fear that its decision makers could opt for a disproportionate response, including the nuclear option, stymied any possible chance of military action on India’s behalf after 26/11.
After the first two weeks following the attack, the question that overtook everyone’s mind was what if there is another terror strike? Would India be able to hold back then?
Two years later, when asked if that phase is now over, a high-ranking security official remarked: “I can’t say, but I think that the question is still as serious. Can we keep quiet if there is another Mumbai? No, this question is still relevant.”
26/11: How India debated a war with Pakistan that November