India’s rusted fangs need urgent repair
Modi has to address arguably the toughest strategic problem any leader of a nuclear-armed state has faced: hit another nuclear-weapon state to deter it from patronising terrorism.
Early one summer morning in 2008, a battered Toyota turned into the street leading to the Indian embassy in Kabul, metamorphosing into a giant wave of searing, white light. Fifty-eight people were killed and 141 injured. Inside hours, Western intelligence services were listening in as Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate officers inside Pakistan congratulated the perpetrators. “Talk-talk is better than fight-fight,” national security adviser M.K. Narayanan said, “but it hasn’t worked. I think we need to pay back in the same coin.”
The Research and Analysis Wing began a quiet dialogue with Afghanistan’s Riyasat-e Amniyat-e Milli, or the National Directorate of Security, on building assets to target Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed. Fearing bomb-for-bomb strikes would escalate terrorism, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government shot down the idea.
“Keep your hands in your pockets,” a senior R&AW official stationed in Kabul recalls being told — and that was that.
Four years ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi rode to power, in part, on the back of growing outrage over India’s inability to punish terrorism. “They did nothing,” he said, assailing Manmohan Singh’s flabby response to the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks. “Indians died, and they did nothing.” “Talk to Pakistan in Pakistan’s language,” he went on, “because it won’t learn lessons until then.”
In 2016, Modi delivered on the promise, launching across-Line of Control strikes to punish the killings of Indian soldiers in Uri. Last month, though, amid escalating violence in Kashmir, Modi warned it would be “a big mistake” to imagine Pakistan would now “start behaving”— a warning that turned out to be prophetic.
The Prime Minister now has to address arguably the toughest strategic problem any leader of a nuclear-armed state has faced: hit another nuclear-weapon state to deter it from patronising terrorism, knowing that missteps could spark an economically-devastating war, even an apocalyptic nuclear showdown.
Led by the dour career intelligence officer R Kumar, R&AW’s offensive operations against Pakistan have expanded in recent years and have grown in scale under Modi. From the assassination of Lashkar chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed’s security boss, Khalid Bashar, in 2013, R&AW is believed to have penetrated several Jaish-e-Mohammed’s cross-border attack plans, and escalated the tit-for-tat arming of Baloch nationalists.
National security adviser Ajit Doval, earlier an intelligence officer, publicly made the case for covert warfare before he assumed office. But India’s capacities are nowhere near the levels that might deter Pakistan’s intelligence services and their jihadist allies. Unlike Israel’s Mossad or the Central Intelligence Agency, R&AW has never succeeded in assassinating a single jihadist leader.
Institutional anaemia has corroded the capacities of India’s intelligence services. Though no official data is available, two officials told Firstpost the organisation was an estimated 5,000 people short of sanctioned strength—130 at key executive positions such as under secretaries and deputy secretaries.
In March 2013, minister of state for home R.P.N. Singh told Parliament the Intelligence Bureau had 18,795 personnel on its rolls against a sanctioned strength of 26,867. Even though additional hiring has been sanctioned, IB’s New Delhi training facility can handle only 700 personnel a year, barely covering attrition from retirement.
Hiring into R&AW’s organic cadre, the Research and Analysis Service, was frozen from 2004-2005 to 2009-2010. Bulk recruitment is needed but a debate rages on whether these should be through Union Public Service Commission-run examinations or campus recruitment.
Faced with allegations of corruption in hiring from the 1980s, R&AW also retreated into a bureaucratic shell, denying itself the services of the armies of regional and language experts on whom intelligence services heavily depend.
In recent years, R&AW has had to position personnel with no language experience to stations in West Asia and Afghanistan. It has no station in Istanbul, the transit hub for jihadists heading to Syria.
Large-scale inflows of mid-career Indian Police Service officers, many with no intelligence or language expertise, have degraded the organisation further. Even worse, they laid the ground for bruising battles between the IPS and the RAS.
Since 2014, at least 13 senior officials who held operational posts have been removed from R&AW—all from the RAS. In one controversial 2018 case, Ashwini Sharma, responsible for bringing back fugitive Lashkar jihadist Abdul Karim ‘Tunda’, was removed from service “in the interest of the security of the state” in spite of having been awarded India’s highest intelligence medal.
R&AW’s rise and fall
R&AW wasn’t always like this. In 1971, it was the key to India’s triumph—equipping and training insurgents; working with fractious allies. Establishment 22, operating under the command of Maj Gen Surjit Singh Uban, carried out a secret war in what is now Bangladesh, using Tibetan troops trained by the CIA to fight the US-equipped Pakistani forces. Later, Establishment 22 personnel aided Sikkim’s accession to India, trained Tamil terrorists, and even armed rebels operating against the pro-China regime in Myanmar.
From the early 1980s, Khalistan terrorists began receiving weapons and arms from the ISI. Rajiv Gandhi ordered retaliation. R&AW set up two covert groups, charged with hitting back at Khalistani terror attack on India’s cities in Lahore or Karachi. “The role of our covert action capability in putting an end to the ISI’s interference in Punjab,” former R&AW officer B. Raman wrote in 2002, “by making such interference prohibitively costly is little known.”
R&AW also served as a channel for crisis resolution. After the 1987 India-Pakistan crisis, chief A.N. Verma and ISI Director-General Hamid Gul met to discuss limitations for Pakistan’s support for Khalistani groups, a negotiation brokered by the then-Jordanian Crown Prince, Hasan bin-Talal.
Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, though, ended R&AW’s offensive operations against Pakistan—arguing tit-for-tat terrorism locked India into an unproductive cycle of violence. His predecessor, P.V. Narasimha Rao, wound up R&AW’s eastern operations, concerned with the risks for the China-India relationship.
The informal war
India’s lack of covert muscle isn’t new. In 1947, imperial Britain stripped the assets of India’s covert arsenal as it left. The senior-most British Indian police officer in the Intelligence Bureau, Qurban Ali Khan, left for Pakistan with some sensitive files departing British officials had neglected to destroy. The Intelligence Bureau, Lieutenant-General L.P. Sen recorded, was reduced to a “tragicomic state of helplessness”, possessing nothing but “empty racks and cupboards.”
The Military Intelligence Directorate in Delhi didn’t even have a map of J&K to make sense of the first radio intercepts signalling the beginning of the war of 1947-48.
Faced with a larger and infinitely better-resourced neighbour, Pakistan knew it could not compete in conventional military terms. From 1947, Pakistan engaged India in what prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru called “an informal war” — sponsoring terrorist groups in both Kashmir and the Northeast.
Kashmir was, from the outset, a key stage for Pakistan’s efforts. Major-General Akbar Khan, the officer who commanded Pakistan’s offensive operations in 1947-1948, provided plans for a 500-man covert force to target “unguarded bridges, isolated wires and unprotected transport”. Khan’s memoirs claim Malik Feroz Khan Noon, who took over as Pakistan’s prime minister in 1957, made these plans under the command of a police officer, Mian Anwar Ali.
In 1951, a covert group was held on charges of carrying out multiple attacks across the street. The group, police records allege, was commanded by Abbas Ali Shah, the superintendent of police in charge of the Criminal Investigation Department in Rawalpindi and Major Asghar Ali Shah, a military officer based in Pakistan-administered Kashmir’s Hillan.
Then in 1964, it threw its weight behind what came to be known to Indian counter-intelligence as the Master Cell, a covert group founded by Mian Ghulam Sarwar, Bashir Ahmad Kitchloo and Zafar-ul-Islam. Their activities seem familiar even today: one key operative, Hayat Mir, tried and executed a woman for her supposed promiscuity, the first instance of a jihadi court being held in Jammu and Kashmir.
India, secure in the belief of its conventional military superiority, did little to develop retaliatory covert capacities. It wasn’t until the country’s humiliating defeat by China in 1962 that the need for a professional foreign intelligence service was appreciated—and inside three decades, the lessons were forgotten.
Failing to rebuild India’s covert forces now could have serious consequences. Pakistan’s military—key to the US’ exit-strategy from Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia’s efforts to contain Iran—believe they have the international heft to be safe from Indian retaliation. That means more terrorism in, and outside, Kashmir but the use of conventional military tools to deter it is expensive, and fraught with risk.
“Landing one blow, or two, will achieve nothing,” says a senior R&AW official. “We need a sustained policy to secure deterrence that will have to run for years, across governments.”
Modi, like his predecessor back in 2008, has a weapon at hand that ought be able to do just that but, for decades, it’s been allowed to rust, perhaps to a point that is beyond repair.
The Calculus of Revenge
Twitter ‘experts’ have been baying for blood, but meting out retribution on Pakistan is not as simple as they make it out to be
PM Narendra Modi’s 2016 surgical strikes expanded on an Indian Army practice of hitting back across the Line of Control after terrorist attacks. Perhaps more important, they were for the first time made public. But now, the strategy faces several problems. First, the Line of Control is snowbound—making quick in-and-out infantry operations hard. Second, the snow means there will be few terrorist targets near the LoC until late spring. Third, the Pakistan Army now anticipates such strikes. Fourth, and most important, the 2016 strikes were a tactical success but a strategic failure: Pakistan pushed in numbers of fidayeen into Kashmir right after.
Air & Missile Strikes
The government could use the air force assets or missiles. The Indian Air Force is confident it can deliver—but counter-terrorism experts are sceptical. In 1998, the US fired missiles into Afghanistan, seeking to avenge bombings that killed 224 people. In all, 75 missiles, priced at $1.5 million each, killed a mere six jihadists. Moreover, Pakistan could hit back at Indian infrastructure in range of the border that is much more expensive than tent-and-donkey-cart training camps. Large-scale collateral damage is also likely.
Conventional Military Strikes
Wars are won with cash, not just lives. India has long shied away from war, which would set back its real strategic goal: sustaining economic growth fast enough to counter China. Ever since 1987, there has also been a fear of nuclear escalation. India’s 150-odd nuclear warheads would obliterate Pakistan—but its similar-sized arsenal would kill a 100 million Indians, and leave large parts of the country uninhabitable.
Moreover, the Indian Army just doesn’t have the teeth — in terms of weapons — to ensure a quick victory.
Low Grade Attrition
Following the 2001 Jaish-e-Mohammed strike on India’s Parliament, Indian forces stayed mobilised on the borders for months, in what most commentators have described as a fiasco. Except, it wasn’t: in 2002, a ceasefire went into force on the Line of Control, and Pakistan quietly shut off the terror tap. In Kashmir, fatalities and gunfights fell to near-zero levels by 2010. Why? Operation Parakram, as it was called, involved huge costs: 1,874 military casualties, and around $3 billion, without an actual war. But the crisis was also expensive for Pakistan—and General Pervez Musharraf was persuaded he couldn’t afford the bill. It worked, for a while.
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