Launch covert action

Only covert action by Indian intelligence agencies can neutralise terrorist organisations like LeT and JeM in the long run.

Ajmal Kasab has finally been hanged, but he was only a foot soldier of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a fundamentalist organisation that continues to launch acts of terror on Indian soil. Despite the voluminous evidence presented to Pakistan, president Zardari’s government has failed to satisfactorily meet India’s demands for either effectively trying the masterminds of the Mumbai terror strikes of November 26, 2008 or handing them over to face justice in India.

Peace is undeniably important but not if the cost is a continuing proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir and terrorism in other parts of India being sponsored from across the border by organisations over which the Pakistan government claims it has no control.

Since all other options have been exhausted, the government of India must consider viable military and covert options to send a strong message to the Pakistan army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate that India’s threshold of tolerance has been crossed and that enough is enough, especially if a similar incident recurs.

However, hard military options have only a transitory impact unless these are sustained over a long period of time. The use of kinetic force also causes inevitable collateral damage, runs the risk of escalating into a larger war with attendant nuclear dangers and has adverse international ramifications. In order to achieve a lasting impact and ensure that the actual perpetrators of terrorism are targeted, it is necessary to employ covert capabilities to neutralise the leadership of terrorist organisations.

Clandestine operations can be methodically planned and stealthily executed at an opportune moment. These are not time critical responses and also have an element of ‘plausible deniability’ built into them. Other advantages include relatively low political, economic and military cost and low risk of casualties to own operatives as local personnel – who harbour grudges against the targeted organisations – can often be used.

After Independence, Indian intelligence agencies had virtually no covert capabilities available while Pakistan launched irregular warfare against India in Jammu and Kashmir and sustained it over the next few decades. After the 1962 war with China, India’s newly-established external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), received help from the CIA to establish capabilities for clandestine operations across India’s borders. When the ISI intervened to provide ‘political, diplomatic and moral’ support to the protagonists of Khalistan in Punjab in the 1980s, India is reported to have retaliated in Sind and Balochistan. Soon after the Brass Tacks IV crisis in 1987, RAW chief A K Verma and ISI chief Lt Gen Hamid Gul (now on India’s wanted list) reportedly agreed to stop launching covert operations against each other. 

Supporting militancy

Pakistan did not keep its part of the bargain in Kashmir on the specious plea that it is disputed territory and went flat out to support militancy in Jammu and Kashmir. Since then, Pakistan has often accused India of clandestine interference in its internal affairs but has failed to corroborate its claims with hard evidence. B Raman, a well known intelligence analyst and former additional secretary in cabinet secretariat, has written: “The RAW imposed heavy costs on Pakistan for supporting the Khalistanis and should be able to do so now for its support to the LeT and other jihadi terrorist organisations.”

According to the intelligence grapevine, India’s covert capabilities in Pakistan were wound down on the orders of then prime minister in 1997 so as to promote reconciliation. If that is true, a great deal of effort will be necessary to establish these capabilities again. Young operatives will have to be selected and trained – first in the rudiments of intelligence gathering and after being given some in-country experience, in the complexities of high-risk special operations in a hostile foreign environment. 

They will also need to be imparted specialised instructions in selecting, training and motivating local agents to carry out pre-planned and opportunity strikes against nominated targets. 

It takes at least three to five years to put in place basic capabilities for covert operations in Pakistan as both the terrorist organisations and their handlers like the ISI have to be penetrated and it is to be hoped that permission has been given to RAW to revive its earlier capabilities. Targets should include the leaders of fundamentalist terrorist organisations in Pakistan who are sponsoring terrorist strikes in India, their ISI handlers – particularly those who are renegade or rogue elements. Masterminds like Hafiz Saeed and Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi must be neutralised if Pakistan will not act against them. 

Fugitives from Indian justice like Dawood Ibrahim should be secretly apprehended from his hideout in Karachi and brought back alive to India to face public trial. In a later phase, when a network of operatives is in place and sufficient experience has been gained, logistics installations of the army like ammunition dumps should be destroyed.

In this age of realpolitik adherence to ahimsa will not pay dividends and India will remain at the mercy of terrorist organisations. Such organisations will always have the initiative as they can choose the time and place of the next attack. The RAW must be given the wherewithal necessary to undertake sustained covert operations in Pakistan to eliminate the leadership of organisations inimical to India. The flames of fundamentalist terrorism in India are still being fanned by the Pakistan army and the ISI though on a reduced scale. The time to debate this issue on moral and legal grounds has long since passed.