Policy Options for Trans-border Covert Operations

Surgical Strikes across the India-Myanmar Border

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said at a function in New Delhi on May 21, 2016 that pro-active options must be exercised to meet threats and challenges to national security. A few weeks later, four days after the convoy of an infantry battalion was ambushed in Manipur close to the border with Myanmar, the Indian army launched the first of two trans-border surgical strikes to neutralise the Naga and Manipuri extremists responsible for the attack. The bases of insurgents belonging to SS Khaplang’s NSCN (K) and the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL), a Meitei outfit, were targeted in the Sagaing division of Myanmar.


Mounted by India’s elite Special Forces, the retaliatory counter-attacks were based on hard intelligence obtained from multiple humint and electronic surveillance sources. Two of the operating bases of the extremists were successfully destroyed. The extremists suffered “significant” casualties and were dealt a crushing blow. However, there are a number of other militant camps across the border in Myanmar and additional strikes will be necessary.


The Indian and the Myanmarese armies have been cooperating for over two decades in conducting joint counter-insurgency operations. Several Indian insurgent groups (NSCN, ULFA and Manipur rebels among others) have been operating out of bases in the weakly-controlled areas across the borders of the Indian states of Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. The members of some Myanmarese rebel groups have often taken shelter on the Indian side.


In April-May 1995, Operation Golden Bird was undertaken as a joint trans-border operation to destroy insurgent bases on the Myanmar side of the border. While the Myanmar army blocked the escape routes, Indian troops acted as the hammer. Approximately 40 insurgents were killed by the Indian army and a huge cache of arms was recovered. In November 2001, the Myanmar army had raided several Manipuri rebel bases, rounded up almost 200 rebels and recovered 1,500 guns. Again, in January 2006, joint operations were undertaken successfully by the two armies.


Hot Pursuit: International Experience


‘Hot pursuit’ operations across international borders were commonplace during the Cold War. The South African Defence Force (SADF) had made trans-border raids part of its operational doctrine. The SADF repeatedly conducted hot pursuit operations into Angola against members of the People’s Army of Namibia (PLAN, armed wing of SWAPO) and the MPLA. The MPLA supported SWAPO and provided bases to PLAN, while the SADF supported UNITA, an Angolan rebel group. Similarly, Israel has always claimed the ‘right of hot pursuit’ and such operations against Palestinian rebels suspected of violent attacks are part and parcel of the operational planning of the Israeli Defence Forces. Retribution is usually swift and sometimes disproportionate.


Closer home, the Indian army and the army of Bhutan had launched joint operations against ULFA and Bodo extremists who were operating from 30 bases inside Bhutan. The King of Bhutan sought time to prepare his forces and then personally led the charge during Operation All Clear in December 2003. Over 600 extremists were reported to have been neutralised.


Trans-LoC Covert Operations


A nation’s policy for trans-border hot pursuit operations depends on the state of relations, the combat capabilities of its forces, the type of border management forces deployed by the adversary on the border, their state of operational readiness and the nature of the terrain in the sector. It also depends on the international ramifications of a nation’s actions and whether it has strong strategic partners and friends in the international community who will support it. Alternatively, the nation must have the gumption to go it alone – in complete disregard of international opinion.


Following the Special Forces (SF) raids into Myanmar, some political leaders and analysts very vocally advocated that India should declare a policy of launching hot pursuit military operations to counter Pakistani terrorist groups launching strikes on Indian territory. While the operations conducted by India’s Special Forces inside Myanmar sent a strong message to the Pakistan army and the ISI, a ‘gung-ho’ approach is not necessarily the best.


Despite the voluminous evidence presented to Pakistan, its 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 terrorist organisations controlled by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate.


Since all other options have been exhausted, the Government of India must consider viable overt military measures (the destruction of the Pakistan army’s posts on the LoC and its logistics installations in POK by heavy doses of artillery fire and the precision bombing of selected targets by the Indian Air Force). 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.


The Indian security forces can break out from the present impasse in Kashmir only if the deployment of SF units is substantially enhanced and they are effectively utilised for trans-LoC operations. 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. Covert operations will send a strong message to the Pakistan army and the ISI that India’s threshold of tolerance has been crossed and that enough is enough.


SF units must be employed on a regular basis to raid known ISI terrorist training camps and launch pads for infiltration. They should be utilised to launch clandestine attacks on the leadership and training camps of the LeT, the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) and to destroy logistics installations and infrastructure in POK such as ammunition and FOL (fuel, oil and lubricants) dumps, bridges, radio-relay communications towers and battalion and brigade headquarters. The covert employment of SF for trans-LoC operations provides a viable option to hurt Pakistani army personnel and ultimately break their will to fight a senseless limited war. Such hit-and-run attacks in the rear areas in POK will substantially degrade the Pakistan army’s potential to sustain a long drawn out campaign to infiltrate trained terrorists into Kashmir. The objective should be to raise Pakistan’s cost of waging a proxy war against India.


Trans-International Boundary Covert Operations


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 (R&AW), 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, R&AW 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.


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, Cabinet Secretariat, has written: “The R&AW 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.”


In a difficult to comprehend development, according to the intelligence community grapevine, India’s covert capabilities in Pakistan were wound down on the orders of Prime Minister Inder Gujral in 1997 so as to promote reconciliation. B Raman has written that Gujral “ordered… the operations for covert action to be closed since he felt that such a gesture might facilitate his efforts to improve relations with Pakistan under the so-called Gujral Doctrine.” According to him, Prime Minister Vajpayee declined to reverse the order and the effort put in over many years was wasted. It is not known whether the Manmohan Singh government gave permission to R&AW to revive its earlier capabilities, or what the policy of the Modi government is on this issue.


A great deal of effort is necessary to establish these capabilities from scratch. Young operatives 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 have 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 as both the terrorist organisations and their handlers like the ISI have to be penetrated.


Targets should include the leaders of fundamentalist terrorist organisations in Pakistan that are launching terrorist strikes in India, their ISI handlers – particularly those who are so-called rogue elements. Masterminds like Hafiz Saeed and Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi must be brought to justice if Pakistan will not act against them. Fugitives from Indian justice like Dawood Ibrahim must be hounded out. In fact, Dawood 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 Pakistan army like ammunition dumps should be suitably targeted.


Need for Enhanced Special Forces Capabilities


The US-led coalition campaign against the ISIS in Iraq vividly highlights the wide range of employment possibilities that the Special Forces (SF) provide to a theatre commander. The Indian Army’s SF battalions have several notable achievements to their credit during both conventional operations and sub-conventional conflict. However, their numbers, capabilities, organisational and ancillary support structures, the quality of their leadership, the training standards of their personnel and the weapons and equipment held by them need to be substantially enhanced for their optimal exploitation in support of current and future national security objectives.


The 2003 Iraq War and the ongoing operations against the Islamic State are good pointers to the type of role that should be assigned to the SF in conventional operations. While strategic reconnaissance will remain a primary responsibility, the SF must be employed more aggressively to cause disruption behind enemy lines, to seize an airhead or a bridgehead across an obstacle in depth through heli-landings and to establish a forward operating base for attack helicopters during break out operations with armoured divisions. They are the force that is best equipped to raid destroy the enemy’s nuclear warhead storage sites for battlefield nuclear weapons, missile bases, rocket launcher hides, medium guns, tank transporter vehicles in harbours and waiting areas, communications nodes, logistics installations and headquarters, among other such high value targets. In the mountains the employment of SF units has to be more nuanced. During the 1999 Kargil conflict, some of them were employed as super-infantry to launch attacks that were foredoomed to failure and were later criticised for not succeeding. Such temptations to hasten the speed and tempo of operations must be curbed.


The exact number of SF battalions required for future operations can be assessed only after a holistic appraisal of India’s national security objectives and the military strategy necessary to achieve those objectives. Though the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) had carried out a Strategic Defence Review after the Kargil cnflct, its recommendations have not been made public. The SF battalions that India has at present (1 SF, 2 SF, 9 SF, 10 SF and 21 SF) are inadequate for future responsibilities. Bharat Karnad of the Centre for Policy Research has consistently recommended a 10,000 strong SF component, “rising to perhaps division strength in due course.” Only the most ill-informed would quibble with this number. Calls for the raising of a Special Forces Command on the US pattern are justified along with graduating to a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) with integrated theatre commands. At the same time, the ad hoc raising of SF units by various security forces by obtaining government sanction on a case-by-case basis must cease as such accretions lack synergy and are a national waste.


Concluding Observations


It needs to be appreciated by India’s policy planners that in many situations when war has not yet commenced and it is not possible to employ ground forces overtly, Special Forces can be launched covertly to achieve important military objectives with inherent deniability. In Kandahar-type situations they provide the only viable military option. However, they can act with assurance only if they have been well organised, well equipped and well trained for the multifarious tasks that they may be called upon to perform. It must be noted that Indian SF units can undertake an operation like Neptune Spear but only when the risk of escalation to large-scale conventional conflict has been vectored into the calculations.


The flames of fundamentalist terrorism in India are still being fanned by the Pakistan army. In this age of realpolitik adherence to lofty principles like ahimsa will not pay dividends with adversaries like Pakistan 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 R&AW must be given the wherewithal necessary to undertake sustained covert operations in Pakistan to eliminate the leadership of organisations inimical to India. A good option would be to undertake targeted covert operations against the leadership of the terrorist groups inimical to Indian security, and to systematically destroy purely military targets across the LoC through covert means so as to raise Pakistan’s cost for waging its proxy war.


The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.