India, Pakistan and covert operations. All in the family?

December 18, 2008

Do read this piece by Gurmeet Kanwal, the head of the Indian Army’s Centre for Land Warfare Studies, about how India should respond to the Mumbai attacks with covert operations against Pakistan.

He says that ”hard military options will have only a transitory impact unless sustained over a long period. These will also cause inevitable collateral damage, run the risk of escalating into a larger war with attendant nuclear dangers and have adverse international ramifications. 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.”

But he also argues that India’s covert capabilities in Pakistan were wound down on the orders of the 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 from scratch. It will take 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 will have to be penetrated. The R&AW must be suitably restructured immediately to undertake sustained covert operations in Pakistan. The time to debate this issue on moral and legal grounds has long passed.”

Pakistan has long accused India of supporting militants in its Baluchistan province, among other places, in retaliation for what New Delhi sees as Pakistani support for separatist movements in Punjab, the north-east, and in Kashmir. But for a democratic government, the value of covert operations is limited. India’s Congress-led government is under pressure now to show it is standing firm against the Mumbai attacks and (leaving aside ethical questions) you can’t achieve electoral popularity with covert operations.  That’s why it’s particularly interesting that someone like Gurmeet Kanwal would suggest them.

B. Raman, a former head of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) made similar points in an article he wrote in May 2002 in response to the attack on an Indian Army camp in Kaluchak.

The situation we face today is due to the long neglect of the need for a carefully worked out counter proxy war doctrine to be implemented consistently, intelligently and with determination,” he wrote. ”Now is the time for formulating such a doctrine and implementing it — more covertly than overtly. A counter proxy war doctrine would provide space for both overt, correct state-to-state relations and simultaneously, covert undermining of the wielder of terrorism.”

I am not entirely sure what to make of this talk of covert operations rising above the surface. Does it imply there will be more covert operations? According to Gurmeet, India’s ability to run covert operations in Pakistan is hopelessly rusty, suggesting that Pakistan’s own accusations of Indian interference in Balochistan may be exaggerated. But then again, and to the credit of both India and Pakistan, few other countries in the world debate covert operations against each other so openly. 

My own experience – and this of course is limited to one person’s view – is that India and Pakistan understand each other rather better than appears to be the case, and certainly better than most countries outside South Asia understand either of them. So does that mean we are going to see more and more “messages” delivered to either side, in the form of covert operations, which only those inside the South Asian family can decipher?

(Reuters file photo of Indian troops on Siachen/Pawel Kopzynski)  




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