The success of the covert US operation resulting in killing of the world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden has evoked interesting questions that seem to echo a popular eagerness in India to be more decisive in our response to terrorist attacks. If the US can launch such an audacious raid deep inside Pakistan, can’t India do so to deal with the likes of Daud and others accused for crimes against India? The Indian Army and Air Force Chiefs, General VK Singh and Air Chief Marshal PV Naik had to confirm in reply to questions from the media that Indian Defence Forces do have the capabilities to conduct similar operations. The dithering attitude of the Indian government, however, contradicts this martial confidence for reasons never fully explained as has been witnessed by the world so far.
The history of our responses to terror attacks has been peculiar. When it became clear that the terror attack on the Parliament House in New Delhi had its origin in Pakistan, the government ordered the Indian Army, second largest in the world, to rise to the occasion. The whole Indo-Pak border from Siachen (J&K) to Kutch (Gujarat) became active and hot with opposing armies deployed and fuming at each other. A lot of polemics and flexing of military muscle from India but little else. After a year long deployment, the Indian Army was ordered back to barracks even as Pakistan remained unmoved on all counts. Subsequent to the Mumbai terror attack (fashionably called ‘26/11’ to liken it to the 9/11 WTC devastation in New York), investigations in India and the US confirmed that it was an operation planned and executed under ISI supervision by an all-Pakistani team. We immediately snapped peace talks with Pakistan and issued ultimatum to that country: 'arrest and hand over to India the originators of the crime or else…uh…'! Nothing shook Pakistan. The Samjhauta Express train was suspended and resumed without much change in commitments from the other side. Such blow-hot blow-cold behaviour has only exposed India’s inability to retaliate.
A sovereign nation must possess a credible deterrence to pursue and protect its vital national interests, which essentially means its power to discourage another power from acting against its interests and, if necessary, to coerce a potential enemy to abandon hostile options and cooperate. India’s position in this aspect has been curiously strange. In spite of having dismembered and defeated Pakistan repeatedly in four wars since 1947, India has proved its military superiority beyond doubt. Sadly yet, it has unwittingly compromised its credibility to retaliate by failing to deliver a decisive retaliatory blow in response to some most damaging terrorist attacks. Further, its self-proclaimed nuclear doctrine of ‘no first use policy’ has much to soothe rather than deter Pakistan, which gives no such undertaking and has kept its nuclear options open – a credible deterrence that has not only restrained India but has often brought in pressure from the international community to persuade India against escalating military tensions with Pakistan. A curious feature of this scenario in South Asia is that while everybody in the world trusts India will behave with due responsibility and restraint, few would trust Pakistan to abide by such norms of self-restraint in times of severe threat or adversity. Obviously, this has betrayed the meaninglessness of our noises and emboldened the terror nurseries in Pakistan to roll out more proxies to bleed India. A case of deterrence working in reverse order!
Countries have built in deterrence in their military options and made it abundantly credible through their prompt punitive actions. Having risen as a power in the midst of hostile nations, Israel spells awe because of its devastating response to any hostile activity. ‘Operation Thunderbolt’ (4 July 1976), a daring raid on Entebbe airport to rescue 103 Israeli hostages kept at the Ugandan airport by Palestinian militants was launched without awaiting approval of the UN or US even though the hijacked Boeing 737 belonged to Air France. What a resounding success it was! Al Wazir, a high-ranking Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader, who was suspected for his role in the Black September massacre of Israeli sportsmen, was killed in his safe house in Tunis in April 1988 in a covertly executed Israeli raid. Special forces like the German GSG-9 and the British SAS Regiment have also carried out a number of successful covert raids across borders with astounding results. India’s own Elite forces like Special Action Groups of the National Security Guard, Army Special Forces commandos and Special Group have carried out a number of successful anti-hijack missions, hostage rescue missions including an overseas ‘Operation Cactus’ that thwarted a coup attempt by Tamil militants and restored Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s government in Maldives in November 1988. There is enough for every Indian to feel proud and confident of India’s military capabilities.
The world saw President Barrak Obama closeted with the military officers in their Operations Room watching the operation live and giving on the spot decisions during the raid against Osama bin Laden. Involvement of political decision makers with their military commanders is a state necessity and a boon to the functionaries. But our leaders and the South Block mandarins have been somewhat shy to get closer to the military. We know how an ostrich digs and buries its head in the sand to avoid danger; but is that the way to avoid danger? Unlike the US Pentagon staff, the Indian Defence Ministry officials are all non-military babus who rarely, if ever, interact with Army/Navy/Air Force officers. Little wonder that in their view guerrilla is the same as gorilla; mortar may be a masonry substance and ‘Wilco’ may be just another name in the MNCs list like Telco, Nelco, Tisco etc. A minister was invited to an artillery unit’s raising day function in Delhi Cantt. At the equipment display, as the minister seemed curious about the equipment before him, an officer offered to acquaint him with the equipment and weapon systems. “It’s Howitzer”, the officer said. Prompt came the minister’s appreciation, “Nice, but what’s it called?” “Howitzer”, the officer repeated, a little louder this time. “I said it’s fine, but what is the damn thing called.” Having never seen or heard a howitzer, the minister got it the best he could – ‘How’s-it-Sir’! It is through military power that a nation asserts its political will and gives meaning to diplomacy. Indian leaders and bureaucrats need to know more about their military and do everything to keep it best maintained at all times to lend credence to India’s global aspirations.
Whether India will ever carry out covert operations to capture or kill and destroy individuals and establishments hostile to India kept in safe havens in Pakistan is a different matter. What is most essential is that India must revive and re-establish its credibility as a power that can resort to swift offensive actions to safeguard its vital interests and to punish its offenders irrespective of their location. The minimum that India must do is to act in a manner that shall convince Pakistan that India can retaliate with ferocity and inflict unacceptable damage if peaceful overtures do not pay up within a stated period.
What should be noted, however, is that secret commando missions can also end up in fiascos even if it is a US mission like ‘Operation Eagle Claw’ – a covert mission launched to rescue its Embassy staff held hostage in Tehran in April 1980. The entire operation ended up in a disaster and had to be aborted. President Jimmy Carter paid the price for this failure as he was defeated in his bid for a second term. Indian leaders are wiser, though!
Col Karan Kharb (Retd)
The writer is a defence veteran and a social activist having authored two bestselling books on leadership development.