Every time any country carries out a successful covert military operation against a terrorist target, the question inevitably arises in India as to why it cannot do the same. On the face of it, there are sound arguments as to why this option should be part of the country’s counter-terrorism strategy.
India regularly gets listed as among the world’s worst affected countries when it comes to terrorism — and is probably number one or number two when it comes to the cross-border variety. Pakistan, which tolerates if not facilitates the actions of the militant groups responsible, has made it clear it sees terrorism as a means to extract concessions from India in the arena of normal statecraft.
New Delhi’s seeming lack of a proactive military policy against terrorism is detrimental to its own attempts to project India as a rising power and a safe investment destination.
But this not a simple decision of blood and guts. A number of larger issues come into play. The least significant is the issue of capacity. Countries like Israel, smaller and with less resources, have been able to create fear-inspiring covert military capabilities. India almost certainly lacks the capacity today, but the ability can be created if there is political will and public pressure to do so.
Probably the most difficult facet of covert military actions is creating an intelligence system that can provide actionable information. This would require a root-and-branch reform of what India has at present. There will inevitably be questions about the legality of such action. International law has a large corpus on the permissible use of force.
Organisations like the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba are about as public and brazen as non-State actors can be in declaring their view that they are at war with India. What India could do, however, is to set up some sort of tribunal or judicial panel authorising such acts if it ever decides to walk that path.
This would provide some legal oversight to an otherwise executive decision.
The most problematic issue is whether such actions would be politically feasible in the kind of environment that exists in South Asia. Pakistan is happy to allow terrorist attacks on India because it is unconcerned about international opinion and, in fact, encourages the world to see the subcontinent as an unstable and dangerous place.
India wishes to do the opposite and has the additional ambition to be seen as a responsible global player. Then there is the issue of nuclear weapons. Covert military strikes have the potential for escalation. And in a nuclearised environment, escalation is a four letter word. Nonetheless, there is a growing case for India to at least develop this sort of option.
Pakistan may be a difficult target, but terror threats against India are visible in places as far off as Somalia and Yemen. What the US did in Abbottabad is now a policy option that New Delhi can no longer not afford to have in its kitty.