US eliminates IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: Can India take out Hafiz Saeed or Masood Azhar? If not, what are our options?

  • The United States has taken out Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the elusive founder of the Islamic State, in a dangerous and daring nighttime operation

  • Indians might be forgiven for feeling a pang of jealousy at the way US has been able to neutralise its prime target

  • It is pertinent to remember that the elimination of al-Baghdadi might not mean the end of the threat posed by Islamic State

The United States has taken out Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the elusive founder of the Islamic State, in a “dangerous and daring nighttime operation” according to words used by President Donald Trump at a media briefing while announcing the development.

 US eliminates IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: Can India take out Hafiz Saeed or Masood Azhar? If not, what are our options?

File image of Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Reuters

Indians, long sufferers of terrorism unleashed by Pakistan which drains our resources and imposes unacceptable military, financial, logistical and social costs on our State, might be forgiven for feeling a pang of jealousy at the way US has been able to neutralise its prime target through years of careful planning, meticulous intelligence gathering and finally a show of geopolitical, strategic and military might.

And not for the first time. Osama bin Laden was eliminated by US Special Forces in Pakistan’s garrison town Abbottabad, right under the nose of Pakistan’s generals who were furious at having been kept in the dark.

Trump couldn’t resist bragging on Sunday hours after the operation was carried out by US Special Forces in Idlib, a volatile region in northwest Syria, when he talked about a “whimpering, crying and screaming” al-Baghdadi scampering like a rat into one of the tunnels beneath his compound chased by American military dogs.

The Islamic State chief, who reportedly detonated a suicide vest after getting trapped in a “dead-end tunnel” causing three of his six children to die along with him, was killed “like a dog and a coward”, declared Trump.

Rhetoric aside, the larger message would have gone to the rest of the world that not even the world’s most elusive, hyper-cautious terrorist, who apparently never used an electronic device in the past 10 years for fears of being tracked, could not elude the world’s most powerful nation and its sophisticated intelligence-gathering machinery.

As a report in The Wall Street Journal pointed out, “The story of Baghdadi’s final moments is also one of American intelligence gathering, military force and astonishing warfare technology. The special operations forces who landed in Barisha, Syria, already knew the tunnels under Baghdadi’s compound were mostly dead-ends. Troops brought robotic military equipment to help chase him through the tunnels, but didn’t need it, the president said. And Mr Trump said he and his national security team watched much of the evening unfold via video streamed into the White House Situation Room.”

This sounds almost like one of those reality shows made for voyeuristic streaming where characters are thrown in impossible situations. Except that this was real, and in real time. In a world where terrorism has become a global threat and increasingly borderless, the ability to carry out these operations to not only achieve national security objectives but also to send the right message to hostile operators (both individuals and nation-states) is imperative and invaluable.

India, forced to watch helplessly from the sidelines as the United Nations Security Council allowed UN-designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed (the Lashkar-e-Taiba chief, mastermind of 26/11 terror attacks on Mumbai, and a constant threat to India’s national security) to access his bank account and withdraw monthly pension on an appeal from Pakistan, would know where the shoe pinches.

Nobody expects New Delhi to carry out such operations in foreign land to eliminate terrorists it considers as national security threats and prime targets. The surgical strikes across Line of Control and airstrikes in Balakot were fashioned more as signals of India’s intent of meeting the threat of Pakistan’s sub-conventional warfare under the atomic umbrella than any special operation targeted towards eliminating a specific terrorist threat.

But even as we lack the hard power to achieve those military objectives, we have shown a singular disability to even move towards such an objective in the long run. The sad state of affairs in India is reflected by the fact that after even 70 years of Independence, and despite living in a tough neighborhood amid hostile nuclear-armed States inimical to India’s interests, we still haven’t been able to develop a coherent national security strategy.

Professor Happymon Jacob from JNU, who teaches on national security, wrote in The Hindu that “National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) had formulated draft national security strategy documents on four different occasions and presented them to successive governments, but the political class wouldn’t bite. There has been a lingering worry in the minds of the politicians about a potential commitment trap if a national security strategy were to be put on paper.”

This is alarming. It is only in 2019 that India finally formulated an anti-terror law that declared Mumbai terror attack accused Zaki-ur-Rehman-Lakhvi, D-company gangster and Mumbai blasts mastermind Dawood Ibrahim, Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar and LeT founder Hafiz Saeed as “individual terrorists”.

When even designating prime national security threats as terrorists takes this ling — at least the Narendra Modi government has finally moved in this direction — it is evident that formulating a national security strategy would take longer. Yet India doesn’t have the luxury of time.

As Harsh Pant and Kartik Bommakanti of Observer Research Foundation wrote on India’s national security challenge, “The combination of relentless sub-conventional violence from Pakistan and boundary tensions with China has triggered concerns within the Indian military and political establishment about a two-front war with both Pakistan and China. At present, the Indian conventional war-fighting doctrine and posture, with its time-consuming mobilisation, cannot adequately respond to the terrorism unleashed by Pakistan.”

It is pertinent to remember that al-Baghdadi’s elimination might not mean the end of the threat posed by the Islamic State. It is possible that the terrorist organisation might regroup and even join hands with Al-Qaeda to renew its ‘jihad’ against the West and modern civilisation. However, no matter what his critics say, Trump’s achievement is significant, not merely because al-Baghdadi was a notorious terrorist who at the peak of his powers controlled a territory roughly the size of Great Britain across Iraq and Syria and unleashed the most brutal terrorist organisation on the world backed by an army, sophisticated military equipment and resources to sustain and propagate its revanchism and poisonous ideology.

His death also underscores the fact that enemies of State who use terror and violence to meet political objectives must be punished, or else it forms a viable model for parties to emulate globally. India, as has already been noted, is some distance away from developing the hard power that may make such operations possible, but in the short term they may follow the Israeli model whose national security challenges in a volatile region mirrors India’s and whose military and intelligence gathering prowess are among the world’s best.

As scholars Gadi Eisenkot and Gabi Sibon tell us in the treatise on Israel’s National Security Strategy, Israel’s complex security challenges have “required the nation’s leaders to articulate fundamental national security principles and formulate responses based on the national security strategy first defined by Israel’s founding leader, David Ben-Gurion. Their validity has withstood the test of time, while specific responses have been adapted and adjusted to meet Israel’s present and future challenges.”

Once again, it is pointless to suggest that we can emulate Israel and its unique set of challenges, but the nation offers a more trackable model compared to America’s. At the end of the day, however, it is about having clear goals and achieving them, and setting national security high on the list of priorities.

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Updated Date: Oct 28, 2019 16:59:08 IST