India’s Own Operation Geronimo?

By Ashok K Mehta for The Wall Street Journal

Every time there is a Pakistan-sourced terrorist attack in India, the reaction in the world’s largest democracy is predictable. Demands range from “hot pursuit” of the terrorists across the border to cries for all-out war. In the last decade, analysts have proposed other alternatives: surgical air strikes, a limited armored offensive and covert operations. The latter option seems especially inviting after U.S. special forces took out Osama bin Laden last Sunday.

These demands for strong action are in stark contrast with the way the Indian government has responded to these attacks: pursuing bland diplomacy. The starker this contrast gets, the more complicated it will be for New Delhi to implement a foreign policy that is assertive, yet careful and deterrent, in the future. Instead, if the government displays the requisite will and capabilities for a targeted strike today, it can avoid the need for an actual strike later.

History offers some perspective. After the Pakistani-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed attacked New Delhi’s Parliament in December 2001, the U.S. had to step in quickly to prevent armed clashes between the arch rivals. In May 2002, following yet another terrorist attack and after months of coercive diplomacy by both New Delhi and Washington, Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf offered a very strong assurance that his country’s territory would not be used to host attacks against India. This assurance was conveyed to New Delhi by then-U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who said that terrorism emanating from Pakistan would end “permanently, irreversibly, visibly and to the satisfaction of India.”

New Delhi bought that assurance and started to reach out to Islamabad diplomatically. Yet its pattern of responses since 2002 has led to six more terrorist attacks originating in Pakistan. All Islamabad has done is give similar reassurances.

After the attack on Mumbai in November 2008, India found itself in the same trap. It issued the usual protests accompanied by vague threats of retaliation and called off the dialogue that had started a few years ago. But Islamabad denied any state complicity. At that point, India’s strategic-affairs and military community noted that New Delhi had to raise Pakistan’s costs of encouraging cross-border terrorism.

However, by 2009, the Manmohan Singh government’s energies were focused on sending dossiers of evidence to Islamabad, pointing to proof of LeT’s hand in the Mumbai attacks. Pakistan’s civilian government stalled on them. Still, Mr. Singh staked his reputation on trying to start a dialogue. Earlier this year it began, most visibly at the sidelines of the cricket world cup.

These diplomatic back-and-forths have not yielded results. Despite playing nice, Islamabad has snubbed its neighbor’s friendliness. Last week, Pakistan’s government called India’s demand for the Mumbai 2008 suspects “familiar and outdated.”

What should New Delhi do then? Even with the world’s fourth largest military, India has failed to deter Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism. Now, the success of America’s Operation Geronimo in killing bin Laden has whetted its appetite to do more. Last week, when asked if India could pull off a similar mission, India’s armed service chiefs replied in the affirmative.

This could well be bravado on the chiefs’ part, because India suffers from fundamental deficiencies. For one, India’s political leadership has been risk-averse. Even before the two sides fought a limited war in Kashmir in 1999, New Delhi had already announced that it would never cross the Line of Control, the de facto border. This tied the Indian army’s hands when Pakistan crossed this amorphous line and claimed Indian soil as its down. More broadly, India has a history of strategic restraint, which means its diplomatic and military strategy hasn’t been focused on assertively achieving select goals.

As a result, India has invested in neither the legal architecture nor the physical capabilities to pull off an Operation Geronimo. For instance, U.S. counterterrorism policy declares that terrorists in breach of U.S. laws who are harbored by any state will be brought back for prosecution through “induced cooperation” and, when necessary, force. India needs something like this. Such laws would give its counterterror operators legal cover as well as set the ground for dealing with other gray legalities in the war on terror.

Then there’s the question of what intelligence and arms India can put on the ground. Its human intelligence across the border and experience in foreign clandestine operations is weak. Unlike the U.S.—which probably maintains an estimated 3,000-4,000 intelligence operatives in Pakistan—India has been scaling back its intelligence infrastructure inside that country for the past 15 years. In the late 1990s, then-Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral consciously dismantled this infrastructure as part of a new doctrine for peace, a grave strategic error.

Equipment- and training-wise, too, India falls short. Indian commandos freed the Mumbai hostages with much clumsiness over a prolonged 72-hour operation in November 2008, making some wonder how they would operate in alien environments.

None of this is to suggest that India should prosecute an operation similar to Geronimo in coming months. But being ready for one is necessary. It sends a strong psychological deterrent to those in Pakistan’s intelligence services who may sympathize with and assist the likes of LeT—just like possessing more tanks and fighter jets deters a conventional military threat. It suggests to Islamabad that New Delhi has the necessary political will.

Preparing for such small operations can prevent larger debacles in the future. Unless Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex is completely dismantled, it can still pose a threat to India. And the more that threat looms large and the less India prepares to stay ahead of it, there could come a day when a big terrorist attack makes India’s electorate—infuriated with its government’s bland version of diplomacy—scream for blood.

Political pressure could then compel an Indian prime minister to hurriedly send in a team of commandos without any direction. Worse, it could hurl the subcontinent into full-scale war.

Mr. Mehta is a retired major general of the Indian Army and founder member of India’s Defence Planning Staff.

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  1. May 9th, 2011

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