Post the Pulwama car-bombing of February 14 and IAF airstrikes on Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) terror camps inside Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) and Pakistan on February 27, the media exploded with strategists and super specialists discussing military options on TV. Articles even theorized nuclear exchange. This phenomenon has been seen earlier too, but this time publications showed no arrows of Strike Corps penetrating the borders, as was done after the attack on Parliament, 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks and Operation ‘Parakaram’. Yet, maps and models were put up in some TV channels, with anchors flourishing pointers in simulated operations rooms, glowing in the feel of operational commanders directing the regional war. If there was addition of so many new Hindi and English news channels, there were that many strategists flooding every channel. Made one wonder why Late K Subrahmanyam had kept telling the government through his life that India lacked strategic sense!
With regard to Special Forces and special operations, there are so many specialists than the Special Forces themselves. Post the JeM terrorist attack at the Uri army base in September 2016; our Special Forces attacked multiple terror launch pads in POK in the same month. Following this, the then Defence Minister told a public gathering, “Indian troops were like Hanuman who did not quite know their prowess before the surgical strikes. The surgical strikes gave our forces an idea of what they were capable of doing”. How very noble of the minister to have educated the forces who didn’t even know their own capabilities. Mercifully he did not claim he tied flame throwers to the backs of the soldiers because Hanuman had burned down Lanka with his tail on fire. These words could be a pun in modern day parody of Ram Lila, but certainly not suited to a defence minister’s narration.
On February 27, 2019, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley attending an event organized by the Ministry of Water Resources and Ganga Rejuvenation, suggested that India is capable of carrying out an operation similar to the US Seal Team Six raid in Abbottabad to kill Osama bin-Laden in 2011. Having been defence minister, Jaitley should realize the US raid in Abbottabad was no ‘Hanuman-like’ action either. But on a more serious note, there appears complete lack of understanding what this raid involved; decade of intelligence gathering; dedicated satellite monitoring for days; target analysis and the options, wherein bombing was also considered and ruled out; assessment of enemy reaction; suppression of Pakistani air defence and communications; backup to fight if surprise was lost, to name a few. Incidentally, this question was also raised in Indian media in immediate aftermath of the US raid in 2011.
The reply is very simple; if Indian Special Forces could be landed and extracted from the spot where the USSF had landed in Osama’s compound, then yes they could do it. But does the nation have that capability, and if not then whose fault is it – certainly not of Special Forces, who don’t even have dedicated air support for insertion extraction. Former Naval Chief, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat had recommended integrated set up for Special Forces of Army, Navy and Air Force in 1995. The Kargil Review Committee (KRC) and the follow up Group of Minister’s reports post the 1999 Kargil Conflict had recommended setting up of Integrated Functional Commands. Recommendations of the August 2012 Naresh Chandra Committee Report included setting up of a Special Operations Command. 24 years after Admiral Bhagwat’s recommendation, there is some movement to establish a Special Operations Division, albeit in what shape and time frame it will come and most importantly what manner it will be employed remains unclear.
For the hierarchy making politically bawdy statements about special operations, Osama-type included, the approach should be to outline the requirement and let the specialists examine how it can or cannot be done with existing resources, and what additional resources are required to enable doing it. The nature of special operations requires tying up very many intricate details, leaving no scope of error. We may talk of the abovementioned US raid, but target for our Special Forces would be in entirely different setting; no two situations being similar. Such planning is quite different from working on the GST for two years, launching it in midnight Parliament session, and its haphazard implementation, which was partly responsible for BJP’s loss in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
MK Narayanan, former NSA and former Governor of West Bengal, in his recent article, ‘Lines Being Crossed’, has stated that India lacks the kind of Special Forces it needs to hit back at sub-conventional warfare. Narayanan has talked off the Pulwama car bombing the biggest terror attack. But was Pakistan’s focus on terror-attacking India any less with Parliament attacked in 2001? During the tenure of Narayanan as NSA (2005-2010), didn’t major attacks take place like the July 2006 Mumbai train serial blasts killing 209 including 22 foreigners and injuring 700 plus, and the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks killing at least 174 and injuring 300 plus?
Didn’t Narayanan’s tenure as NSA see numerous other terror attacks, including: 2005 – Ram Janam Bhoomi attack, Jaunpur train bombing, three Delhi bombings in October and Indian Institute of Science shooting; 2006 – Varanasi bombings (Shri Sankatmochan Mandir, Varanasi Cantonment Railway Station) and Malegaon bombings; 2007 – Hyderabad bombings (Lumbini Park and Gokul Chat), Ludhina movie theatre blast, and explosions in court complexes in Lucknow, Varanasi and Faizabad; 2008 – LeT attack on CRPF camp in Rampur (UP), Jaipur bombings at six places, Bangalore serial blasts, 17 serial bomb blasts in Ahmedabad, five bomb blasts in Delhi markets, two bomb blasts in Merauli and Delhi flower market, Western India bombings killing 10 and injuring 80, and bombings in Agartala, Imphal, Assam, Mumnai; 2009 – bombings in Guwahati and Assam; 2010 – bombings in Pune and Silda camp, Janeshwari Express derailment and Varanasi bombing?
Referring to Pulwama suicide bomber in his abovementioned article, Narayanan writes, “Preparing a suicide bomber to carry out an attack entails a great deal of psychological training, which is conducted over a considerable length of time (this pattern was seen in the case of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and of suicide bomber Dhanu responsible for Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination)”. Interestingly, TV coverage of Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991, showed Narayanan and Dhanu in the same frame before Dhanu approached Rajiv Gandhi to assassinate him, which was seen across the country. Had Narayanan, then heading the Intelligence Bureau, not quietly have that frame removed, his rise to NSA and later Governor may have been jeopardised.
Above notwithstanding, the question is what did Narayanan do in his five year tenure as NSA to build India’s Special Forces capability in order to respond to Pakistan’s sub-conventional warfare? Wasn’t it his responsibility to build the strategic capability of our Special Forces, and advise Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that this was an imperative with so many terror attacks? Why did he not initiate action to set up an integrated special operations setup? On the contrary, our Special Forces during the UPA II era instead of consolidating, equipping, modernizing and integrating, expanded rapidly, diluting their capability in the process, defying basic truths of Special Forces recognized globally: humans are more important than hardware; quality is better than quantity; Special Forces cannot be mass produced, and, competent Special Forces cannot be created after emergencies arise. Narayanan also perhaps was straight-jacketed in the belief, like most Indian leadership that Special Forces tasks and special operations are only limited to direct type of actions, whereas there is much more they can do to advance a country’s national interests.
India is generally referred to as the ‘elephant’ but in terms of defence and national security continues is slower than the tortoise. We are the only country in the world where the Ministry of Defence is manned exclusively by bureaucrats. No NSA has rectified this anomaly. Establishment of Chief of Defence Staff recommended by the Kargil Review Committee remains in cold storage. There is considerable Special Forces potential in the country. However, how it will be optimized and employed only the future will tell. Hopefully, the Special Operations Division once raised will not be held back, only for responding to Pakistan’s thousand cuts.