Can India say “Don’t Mess with us”?

The significant thing about the successful effort to locate and kill Osama bin Laden, the global symbol of Islamic extremism and head of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization, is its doggedness. Stretching out over three Administrations and some ten years, this hunting down of Osama suggests the resolute will of the US Government to mete out condign punishment to the chief ideologue and planner of the 9/11 terrorist spectacular – two hijacked American passenger aircraft slamming into the twin Trade Towers in New York.  The subsequent US military intervention in Afghanistan dislodged the al-Qaeda friendly Taliban regime in Kabul but, through acts of omission, failed to take out Osama  in the campaign in the Tora-bora mountains. The important thing to note is that Osama ultimately paid with his life for his terrorist excesses and the message it has telegraphed to jihadis everywhere is the same as that sent out by Israeli special forces actions in assassinating hizbollah leaders, namely: Don’t mess with us.

The Indian Government will be pleased that its own intelligence, communicated to the US agencies through the intelligence-sharing  mechanisms in place, that the Pakistan Army and its Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence were directly involved in protecting Osama and his cohort, and further that the ISI perceived the al-Qaeda leaders as providing Pakistan a cashable policy leverage against Washington, was on the mark. But that was unlikely to have been a great revelation to the US Central Intelligence. But, there is no reason for Delhi to gloat because it would be silly to assume Washington knew nothing about any of this, or that ISI had no hand in harbouring bin Laden. The latter story of ISI being as unaware of Osama in the cantonment town of Abbotabad as the US but intent on helping American Special Forces to carry out the operation, is too pat and won’t wash, considering Osama was housed in some luxury, surrounded by sixteen foot high walls and protected 24/7 by ISI minders, in close proximity to premier Pakistan Army installations, among them, the Pakistan Military Academy and the Pakistan Army Training Centre!

In this situation, it will be foolish indeed for the Manmohan Singh regime to expect that a more enthused Washington will do what Delhi has wanted it to do all along but so far has resisted doing: Pressure the Pakistan Army and ISI into closing down their terrorist-support structures, and handing over to India the likes of Mahmood Azhar of the Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT)’s Hafiz Saeed implicated in the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. The Obama Administration has already weakened the Pakistan Army by making it complicit in the covert anti-Osama operation and, thereby, cleverly closing the option of the ISI publicly disavowing any role in, first, keeping Osama safe, and then, under pressure, standing aside as he was killed.  But it is not going to imperil its own position, interests, and leverage it has gained, nor further alienate Pakistani Army and state by demanding  Islamabad help India out on the terrorism front.

In other words, India will have to do the hard anti-terrorist work by itself.  The trouble is: Does the Congress Party coalition government, encouraged by the successful action to finish off Osama, have the guts, gumption, but mostly the will to rethink its “kya phark painda hai”– (who cares, what difference will it make) attitude, when it comes to doing what any self-respecting country would do when under terrorist threat – bump off those responsible in a major way for terrorist strikes within India? It is the sort of targeted intelligence operations I have been advocating for over a decade now as the only response rather than uselessly mobilizing the field army for war and getting everybody’s dander up (as happened with the 2002 Op Parakram).  Surely, Muridke – headquarters of LeT, is not all that inaccessible.

The far greater covert operations challenge is posed by the absconding Mumbai gangster Dawood Ibrahim and his so-called D-Company, under ISI protection and ensconced in a posh bungalow in the tony Clifton area of Karachi, virtually thumbing his nose at India. Almost all the underworld activity on the western seaboard – from smuggling arms and RDX, running extortion and hawala rackets, black money laundering, loan-sharking, to facilitating LeT actions, such as the ones in Mumbai, is attributed to this man’s network. Instead of setting a priority agenda of having a sustained coordinated intelligence operation, powered by the absolute determination to go it alone if need be, Delhi habitually pleads with Washington to do something.  “Soft” help can be solicited from Israel’s Mossad, the US Central Intelligence, and whoever else may be willing, but Delhi cannot bank on any assistance. No other country is going to do the heavy lifting for India.

True, the “Gujral Doctrine” of the mid-1990s, requiring RAW to cease and desist from all involvement inside Pakistan, especially in the then ongoing “civil war” in Karachi, defanged RAW (Research and Analysis Wing). Two generations worth of carefully cultivated intelligence assets were lost. But the shared South Asian social fabric is such, humint (human intelligence) assets can be relatively easily procured. This won’t be easy, because it involves winning back trust of potential local collaborators. But it can be done. Together with the country’s elint (electronic intelligence) capabilities, repeated missions can be mounted to remove Dawood Ibrahim and Company permanently from the scene. And India need never own up publicly to any such action (unlike what Obama has done vis a vis bin Laden).  Imagine, however, the message it will send out to the aspiring Dawoods of the Indian underworld: You can hide for a time, you can run for a while, but finally we’ll get you, you WILL pay! Or, to the Hafiz Saeeds of the jihadi fraternity: Send your boys across the border at your personal peril!

But instilling such dread in terrorists and other Pakistan-based no-gooders seems beyond the ken of the Indian government in general and, in particular, Dr. Manmohan Singh — a Prime Minister trapped between doing little and doing nothing on almost every issue.

[Published in ‘The Asian Age’& ‘The Deccan Chronicle’, May 3, 2011, at‘don’t-mess-with-us’-577 ]

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Great Power imperatives, India's Pakistan Policy, Indian Politics, Internal Security. Bookmark the permalink.

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