The ‘confinement’ of Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) chief Masood Azhar and the arrest of the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba’s (LeT) chief commander Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi suggest that the Pakistan government is cracking down on terrorist outfits on Pakistani soil. At the same time, President Asif Ali Zardari has rejected India’s demand of handing them and others accused of fomenting cross-border terror over to New Delhi. In this situation, several viable military options are available to India to send a strong message to the Pakistani army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate that India’s threshold of tolerance has been crossed.
So what are these military options? They include trans-Line of Control raids on LeT, JeM and Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) camps by Special Forces; the destruction of Pakistani army posts on the LoC and its logistics installations in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir by heavy doses of artillery fire, and air-to-ground bombing of selected targets by the Indian Air Force.
However, 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.
Clandestine operations can be methodically planned and stealthily executed at an opportune moment. These are not time-critical responses and also have an element of ‘plausible deniability’ built into them. Other advantages include relatively low political, economic and military costs and low risk of casualties to own operatives as local personnel — who harbour grudges against the targeted organisations — can often be used.
After 1947, covert capabilities available to Indian intelligence agencies were non-existent. Pakistan, on the other hand, launched irregular warfare against India in Kashmir and sustained it over the next few decades. After the 1962 war with China, India’s newly-established external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), received help from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to establish capabilities for clandestine operations across India's borders. When the ISI intervened in favour of the protagonists of Khalistan in Punjab in the 1980s, and later supported militancy in J&K, India retaliated in Sind and Balochistan. Soon after the Brass Tacks IV crisis in 1987, R&AW chief A.K. Verma and ISI chief Hamid Gul (now on India’s wanted list) reportedly agreed to stop launching covert operations against each other.
However, Pakistan did not keep its part of the bargain in Kashmir on the specious plea that it is disputed territory. Since then, Pakistan has often accused India of clandestine interference in its internal affairs but has failed to corroborate its claims with hard evidence.
According to the intelligence grapevine, 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.
Gurmeet Kanwal is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi