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The Post 26/11 Regional Strategic Predicament

Ali Ahmed was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • December 03, 2008

    Evidence gathered in the aftermath of by far the most deadly terrorist attack in Mumbai indicates conclusively that the attack was planned by the Pakistan based Lashkar-e-Toiba. The attack on Mumbai was executed by a well trained and indoctrinated suicide squad comprising of ten Pakistani terrorists. This testifies to the long gestation planning and preparation that can only have been made possible by the resources of a well established terrorist organization. The recruitment was from Punjab, training was in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and maritime training was conducted in Karachi. A physical reconnaissance of the target area was then conducted, and after an aborted attempt to carry out the attack during Diwali, the terrorists were launched by the Lashkar operative, Zaki ur Rahman, from Karachi on November 23, 2008.

    To have an organization with such capability within a country means that there has been an abdication of internal policing by the state and a loss of monopoly over force – a primary characteristic of statehood. This is an index of Pakistan’s slide to failing state status. And given the growing extent of ungoverned spaces in FATA and NWFP, Pakistan is poised on the brink of state failure. Given the Pakistan Army’s inability to tackle the neo-Taliban in these areas and the government’s approach to the IMF for a bail out make it apparent that Pakistan does not have the capacity to cope with the internal challenges confronting it. It may therefore not be prudent for India to rely on Pakistan for rolling back the Islamist threat emanating from within its borders.

    India’s demarche has required Pakistan to act and be seen as acting against terrorist groups within its territory. India is in a strong position to press the issue since it has been at the receiving end of a proxy war for about two decades in Jammu & Kashmir. Terrorism sponsored by the ISI has been witnessed since the Mumbai bombings of March 1993. Lately these have increased in number and spatial spread to various parts of the country as well as the Indian embassy in Kabul. There is a case for all these attacks being taken cumulatively as amounting to an ‘armed attack’. India is thus in a position to legitimately undertake appropriate actions in self-defence to include military measures. In case Pakistan’s response against terrorists based in its territory is not adequately firm, India could then up the ante by unilateral military action. For additional legitimacy it could approach the UN Security Council to apprise it of the threat to international peace and security originating in Pakistan and which Pakistan is was unwilling or unable to do anything about.

    India’s demarche demanding the handing over of those involved in anti-India terrorism has not been received well in Pakistan. While the civilian government appears willing, it does not have control over the country’s India and security policies and is therefore unable to deliver on its promises. In the earlier case of Operation Parakram, despite mobilization of troops India was unable to coerce Pakistan to hand over the twenty terrorists demanded. It is possible that prevarication would greet India this time around as well, with Pakistan blackmailing the United States with the threat that it would divert its attention from ongoing anti-Taliban operations towards its eastern front. India would require instead to put pressure on the US to have Pakistan deliver on its demands. The visit of Condoleezza Rice would be an opportunity to get the US onboard.

    The approach should be one of convincing the US and, indeed, Pakistan also, on the long term threat posed by the Islamists to Pakistan. The awareness about this threat within Pakistan is apparently fairly high. That is why Pakistan has been avoiding a confrontation and is likely to continue to do so even in the face of Indian pressure. Its fear is that this may result in a civil war. Should this threat stay Pakistan’s hand, then India may require to determinedly convince Islamabad of Indian support in such a confrontation. Besides, Pakistan would be assured of the support of the international community in such an event. This would strengthen its hands against Islamists and hardliners in the state apparatus such as in the Army and the ISI. The outcome therefore would be along the lines as obtained in Algeria in the 1990s. Most Islamic states have successfully resorted to force of varying levels against Islamists. Since these negative forces have to be eventually confronted in any case, seizing this opportunity to do so would be in Pakistan’s interest.

    Thus far Pakistan has been circumspect in its fight against Islamism both in the form of home grown Islamists or the neo-Taliban. This policy has had the rationale that Pakistan should not sacrifice its strategic interests in Afghanistan and Kashmir in what is popularly seen as someone else’s war. This position is a carry over from the Musharraf era. The democratic dispensation and the new Army leadership have since been more assertive in operations against Taliban elements. There has also been appreciable restraint in infiltrating terrorists into Kashmir to disrupt the polls there, even though there have been more violations of the ceasefire this year, testifying to attempts at infiltration being foiled by alert Indian forces on the Line of Control.

    However, the Islamist threat within Pakistan, of which anti-India terrorism is an expression, has not been addressed. The logic is perhaps that opening up an internal front to tackle these elements amidst the ongoing turmoil to the North West may not be prudent. Pakistan may not be able to see the necessity of opening up this front for it has not itself been subject to attack. Instead it has managed to direct the Islamist anger outwards and may consider that it has found, in such action, a strategic instrument to cut a growing India down to its own troubled size. This could well be how the ISI, and the Army, may be tempted to interpret the outcome in Mumbai.

    The alternative approach is Indian military action. The argument in this respect could be that unless forceful action is taken against anti-Indian Islamists, terrorist attacks on India in future cannot be ruled out. The perception of success in the Mumbai attacks is likely to spur these groups to greater adventurism. Future attacks are thus a probability, particularly if the reaction of India or of the Pakistani authorities proves to be weak. This would make it politically impossible for the Indian government to remain inert against the mounting public anger. Such reasoning could eventuate in a limited retributive military action on Pakistani territory, which could assume the form of attacks against known Islamist strongholds such a Muridke and/or other terrorist facilities in POK. This could well provoke Islamist reaction against the Pakistani state, thus triggering a civil war. Indian military action could be even more implacable in the form of the Limited War strategy called Cold Start. Since both military approaches have escalatory potential, it would be well if Pakistan were to be responsive to India’s concerns and forcibly restrain the Islamists through a long term policy course correction.

    Military means are available but useful only in so far as they are not used. Their ready availability is a useful tool to focus the attention of the United States and Pakistan on the necessity of taking visible and tangible action in accordance with Indian demands. Indian restraint in the face of provocation has buttressed its case politically and diplomatically. It could in the interim think through the spectrum of military options available to it, which could be in line with the aims of the international community in the ongoing and overarching global war on terror. This may be in the form of air and missile attacks on select Islamist targets such as camps. These attacks should be launched after informing Pakistan and as a form of overt signalling of Indian resolve, and should seek to avoid collateral damage. This would degrade any escalatory potential and provide Pakistan the incentive to take action against the Islamists in the name of a ‘Pakistan first’ strategy.

    From the Mumbai attack it would appear that an aim sought by the Islamists was to profit by setting off a regional crisis. The idea was perhaps that such a crisis would push Pakistan finally over the brink and make the Islamist agenda appear as the only feasible alternative for the hapless people of Pakistan. Such a plot line would require great political sagacity on the part of India to navigate through the crisis. India has in the past repeatedly demonstrated its strategic wisdom, even in the face of internal criticism. This time it has a more difficult situation on hand, with not only Pakistan requiring to be addressed but also the United States and, more importantly, the angered Indian nation. The necessary defensive measures such as a new investigation agency, additional NSG hubs, guarding of the sea front and improved policing have rightly been announced and are already underway. Of the offensive measures, the preferred option for India is to work patiently through a collaborative strategy with even a reluctant Pakistan on board. Even if the Indian response were to involve military force, this should eventuate in bold Pakistani action against its home grown Islamists. The other two options of unilateral action, and worse, of inaction, in the current regional strategic and internal political context amount to being non-options.