“Hard power yields obedience, while soft power yields acquiescence. The former is the foundation of state strength, but the latter helps consolidate that strength. History suggests that synergistic use of both forms of power allows a state to gain global influence.”
En route to becoming a superpower, India shall at some point have to consider partially shedding its soft image in order to earn the respect due to a strong nation. Hitherto, its strategic restraint against Pakistan-based terrorists has been lauded by foreign governments. Such praise however, has also restricted India’s policy options – a situation which is now starting to show diminishing returns, as strategic experts overseas question whether India can ever demonstrate the muscle and the will needed to qualify as a real super power.1
To avoid being categorized as a superpower wannabe, India needs to develop a politically, diplomatically and operationally sustainable response to cross-border terrorism. It needs to balance multiple considerations, such as protecting its citizens from terrorist attacks, promoting secularism domestically, preserving international goodwill and strengthening peace lobbies in Pakistan. Within these parameters, the order of priorities must be understood – the safety of Indian nationals and the preservation of domestic stability through secularism come first. Achieving these higher priorities without prejudice to the other two may require exemplary yet covert use of force against Pakistan-based terrorists.
“¦strategic restraint against Pakistan-based terrorists has been lauded by foreign governments. Such praise however, has also restricted Indias policy options”¦
Counter-terrorism experience of Western democracies suggests that decapitation strikes can greatly damage terrorist groups psychologically as well as operationally. For instance: in May 1980, Arab terrorists occupied the Iranian embassy in London, taking several hostages. After initially attempting to negotiate, the British government ordered Special Forces to storm the building. What happened next was controversial: eyewitnesses say that once the hostages were freed, the rescue force killed the terrorists in cold blood.2 Although hard evidence of a ‘no-prisoners’ directive never surfaced, media speculation was rife. Apparently, such speculation itself acted as a deterrent – no further incidents of political hostage-taking occurred in Britain.
Similarly, the February 2008 death of Hezbollah mastermind Imad Mughniyeh, probably orchestrated by Israeli Intelligence, severely undermined that group’s attack capability. Mughniyeh had personally planned many acts of terrorism against Israel and the United States, and had pioneered the use of vehicle and suicide bombs in the Middle East. His elimination could be interpreted both as an act of vengeance (or justice, depending on one’s point of view) as well as pre-emptive self-defence by the countries that he had long targeted.3
This essay argues that India should adopt a comparable approach to foreign-based terrorists: one of ‘silent signaling’. Indian Special Forces should relentlessly eliminate terrorists in their safe havens, even as New Delhi pursues symbolic peace talks with Islamabad. To become a superpower, India needs to project a benign international image without being seen as weak or indecisive vis-à-vis an insignificant adversary such as Pakistan. The latter has already been labeled by a 2008 United States Army report as being at risk of state failure.4 Instead of attracting international hostility and further destabilizing the already weak Pakistani state through a military offensive (although that remains an option if all else fails), India should first try fighting cross-border terrorists through covert usage of hard power.
Hard and Soft Power: A Delicate Balance
Power is the ability to influence the behavior of others in a manner favourable to oneself. When exercised through tangible means such as threats and bribes, it is described as ‘hard’. When exercised through non-material incentives, it is described as ‘soft’. Hard power yields obedience, while soft power yields acquiescence. The former is the foundation of state strength, but the latter helps consolidate that strength. History suggests that synergistic use of both forms of power allows a state to gain global influence.
Britain for instance, constructed a ‘civilizing’ discourse to legitimize its colonial conquests in the Indian subcontinent. Advocates of the imperial project argued that it was bringing the benefits of Western science to a barbaric Asiatic people. Yet, whenever it faced a serious challenge, as in 1857, the Empire fought back with a savagery that matched and even exceeded that of its enemies. Soft power was used to mask the devastation caused by hard power. In turn, it was sustained by the political and economic stability that hard power created. The two forms of power, when combined, created a superpower.
Between 1947 and 1964, the Nehru Doctrine cost India sovereignty over Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and suzerainty over Tibet. “¦also left India open to betrayals such as 1962.
An even stronger example is that of the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries. On the one hand, it propagated enlightened and universally respected values, such as societal egalitarianism and political liberty. In defence of these principles, it set an inspirational example by fighting a civil war to free black Americans from slavery. Through adopting the cause of ‘freedom’ as its own, it built up moral authority and formidable soft power globally.
On the other hand, the US also followed the logic of realpolitik, systematically eliminating challenges to its dominance of the Western hemisphere. It began by promulgating the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, declaring Latin America off-limits to European colonialism. Between 1846 and 1848, it fought a war with Mexico that ended with the conquest of more than half the latter’s territory. Having attained strategic depth, it then expelled French influence from Mexico and Spanish influence from Cuba, ensuring that no major military power could ever gain a foothold near its borders.
After World War II, the United States encouraged the trend towards decolonization, quietly undermining the old Europe-centric world order and replacing it with an America-centric one.5 This power shift became obvious during the 1956 Suez Crisis, when Washington used its economic might to force Britain into ceasing its attack on Egypt. By exercising hard power – against an ally, no less – the US demonstrated that it had become the undisputed master of the Western world. This phenomenal achievement in empire-building would not have been possible but for the combined accumulation of hard and soft power over many decades.
As independent India seeks to establish itself in the global arena, it needs to learn the lessons of history and exploit the benefits of both kinds of power. The examples of authoritarian states such as the Soviet Union and Maoist China suggest that open and unrestrained use of hard power triggers the formation of a balancing coalition against a rising state. At the same time, no country has ever gained international respect just for being peace-loving and projecting a benign image of itself. Preserving the goodwill currently generated by Indian soft power while retaining the strategic autonomy provided by hard power is therefore, a key challenge for New Delhi. This is especially true of relations with Pakistan.
The (Mostly) Soft Indian State
Through its independent existence, India has largely been a soft state, committed to rising through a non-militaristic foreign policy. It has sought to propound principles of peaceful co-existence, only to find these rebuffed by more pragmatic neighbours. Between 1947 and 1964, the Nehru Doctrine cost India sovereignty over Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and suzerainty over Tibet. With its deep faith in the binding nature of gentlemen’s agreements and international law, it also left India open to betrayals such as 1962.
The Indira Doctrine demonstrated the limits of what hard power could achieve by itself. Despite the best efforts of New Delhi, extra-regional forces intervened in South Asian affairs, to Indias detriment.
The Chinese invasion of 1962 and Pakistani invasion of 1965 led to a stronger emphasis on hard power. Under the Indira Doctrine (late 1960s-80s), New Delhi set out to establish India as the South Asian hegemon. Indian forces speedily repulsed an opportunistic Chinese probe in 1967 and paid Pakistan back for its past transgressions in 1971. The more confrontational tone of Indian security policy however, caused disquiet in foreign capitals, prompting some Western and Arab states, as well as China, to bandwagon with Pakistan.
The Indira Doctrine demonstrated the limits of what hard power could achieve by itself. Despite the best efforts of New Delhi, extra-regional forces intervened in South Asian affairs, to India’s detriment. From the 1970s onwards, China provided extensive help to the Pakistani nuclear program. The Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan in 1979, prompting the United States enter into a covert alliance with Pakistan. During the 1980s, a convergence of these two vectors (acquisition of nuclear weapons and growing expertise in covert action), provided Islamabad with the means and self-confidence to launch a proxy war against India.
Faced with limited options for responding overtly, New Delhi fumbled. By 1997 it had shifted once again to relying primarily on soft power. That year, it adopted the Gujral Doctrine, proclaiming willingness to improve relations with all South Asian states by making disproportionate concessions.6 Since then, relations have improved markedly with countries that were once suspicious of Indian influence, such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. With respect to Pakistan however, the Gujral Doctrine has allowed hardliners to free ride on peace processes while continuing to target Indian interests. Therein lies the basic quandary of present Indian counter-terrorist policy: how to prevent terrorists and their protectors from strengthening their bargaining position through Mumbai-type attacks?
Need for Offensive Counterterrorism
One possible answer is provided by recent empirical studies which suggest that terrorist groups are highly vulnerable to strategic disequilibrium. Such groups are good at absorbing losses that they have anticipated, but poor at reconciling to losses that they are unprepared for. In structural terms, this means that terrorists are vulnerable to leadership decapitation, because their assessment of likely government counter-strategies often does not factor in the likelihood of top bosses being eliminated. Thus, like the Peruvian group Sendero Luminoso, they can adjust to the deaths several thousand junior cadres, but the neutralization of a single high-ranking leader greatly weakens their cohesion.7
“¦terrorists are vulnerable to leadership decapitation, because their assessment of likely government counter-strategies often does not factor in the likelihood of top bosses being eliminated.
So far, New Delhi’s unwillingness to actively target Pakistan-based jihadis has emboldened them, while creating political tensions within India. The rise of Hindu vigilante terrorism (often called Hindtuva or ‘saffron’ terrorism) can be attributed in part to public anger at official inaction against Pakistan.8 Resentment that should legitimately be directed at jihadis groups across the border is instead being perversely acted out against innocent fellow-Indians. Although Hindu-Muslim communal violence did not erupt in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, the same cannot be guaranteed if more such attacks were to occur.
Another outrage by Pakistani terrorists, if left unpunished, would play into the hands of Hindutva terrorists within India and weaken the country’s secular fabric, which forms the basis for its existence as an inclusive and pluralistic nation-state. Secularism, like democracy, is integral to India’s global soft power appeal. Protecting it requires ruthlessly eliminating those elements, both Hindu and Muslim, who seek to undermine it. While the former group of extremists can be severely dealt with under Indian law, being based within the country, the latter have to be dealt with through both legal processes and extraordinary measures. There is thus an urgent need to develop capabilities for an offensive cross-border response to future attacks by Pakistani jihadis.
Such a response would have to avoid undermining other Indian strategic objectives, which includes continued economic growth, attainment of a UN Security Council seat, overseas commercial expansion and fostering South Asian regional stability. Indian soft power is presently serving most of these objectives well. Several Western governments have grown comfortable dealing with India, having realized that it is a responsible state committed to rising peacefully. They welcome its rise and urge it to take a more active role in international affairs. Sacrificing their goodwill for the sake of openly settling scores with Islamabad would be a mistake.9 That is, assuming in the first place that Islamabad is still influencing the activities of anti-Indian terrorist groups to the degree that it was during the 1990s.
Legitimizing Active Self-Defence
At the same time, some Western governments have shown marked indifference to India’s domestic imperatives for a systemic response to cross-border terrorism. It appears likely that, notwithstanding the escalation control mechanisms built into the Cold Start Doctrine, they shall continue urging restraint upon India in the event of another Mumbai-style terrorist provocation.10 By flooding New Delhi with condolences and fulsome praise for past restraint, Western policymakers shall attempt to flatter it into inaction. If these ploys do not work, they shall issue travel advisories as a pressure tactic. The unfortunate reality is, the West naturally prioritizes its own counter-terrorist interests over those of India, and such interests are vulnerable to Pakistani whims.
The United States is a prime example. At one level, it has been very sympathetic to India, and has even occasionally confronted Pakistan over sponsorship of terrorism. The case of the July 2008 Kabul embassy bombing, when US agencies produced evidence directly implicating the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), illustrates the point. However, persistent American pressure to compromise with Islamabad, which stems largely from NATO’s difficulties in Afghanistan, is currently testing the outer limits of Indian goodwill for Washington. Circumventing such pressure would require New Delhi to adopt the same principle of statecraft that the medieval Italian city-state of Ragusa used with stronger powers: be polite, not sincere.11
Even if one were to assume that its inaction stems from inability rather than unwillingness, there is still no logical reason why countries such as Afghanistan and India should pay the human cost of the Pakistani states infirmity.
India should hold sporadic peace talks with Islamabad, but understand that nothing will emerge from them. It should convey to the US that it considers the very act of talking with Pakistan a favour being done to Washington – a gesture intended to strengthen the growing momentum in Indo-US relations. By thus creating a sense of obligation, India can free up political space in the international arena for covert action. It can thereafter openly leverage the benefits of appearing soft while secretly protecting its interests through hard power.
Under what legal grounds can India justify such covert action? Article 51 of the United Nations Charter permits member states to act in self-defence if attacked. However, with regard to terrorism this clause has limited value because of the inadvisability of waiting for a terrorist act to occur before taking action to defend one’s own citizenry.12 Therefore, scholars have lately pointed out that under international law, an anticipatory attack can also be justified if three preconditions are met.
Known collectively as the Caroline Doctrine, these preconditions are: imminence, necessity and proportionality. Together, they require that a state acting in anticipatory self-defence should be facing an imminent threat, be left with no option but to take pre-emptive action against the threat, and be able to demonstrate the proportionality of the action.13 The last requirement rules out causing collateral damage to civilians and mandates that offensive action be aimed only at neutralizing the danger posed by another state, or a non-state actor.
To combat Pakistani jihadis under the Caroline Doctrine, India would have to massively upgrade its intelligence collection capabilities. At a strategic level, these would have to confirm the existence of a continuing terrorist threat to Indian citizens, thereby negating any doubts about the need for offensive action. At a tactical level, they would have to provide the detailed informational support which would allow that threat to be surgically neutralized.
Covert operations against jihadi groups would be justified so long as they do not target the Pakistani state as a whole or its citizens, focusing merely on those elements within Pakistan who threaten South Asian regional stability. Islamabad has had nearly a decade since 9/11 to clamp down on jihadi groups that it had long supported. It has failed to do so despite repeated requests from its neighbours and the larger international community. Even if one were to assume that its inaction stems from inability rather than unwillingness, there is still no logical reason why countries such as Afghanistan and India should pay the human cost of the Pakistani state’s infirmity. If Islamabad cannot fulfill its international obligations to combat jihadis terrorism, then other powers must assist it in doing so, if only out of self-interest.
A Grey Area for Covert Action?
The real difficulty lies not in justifying covert action, but in finding enough legitimate targets for it. Here, a possible solution is provided by an overlap between Indian and Western assessments of the Pakistani jihadis threat. Although such assessments differ on whether attacks such as Mumbai 2008 can be labeled ‘state sponsored terrorism’, they basically agree that jihadis enjoy a measure of support from sections of the Pakistani military and ISI.14
In order to stabilize Pakistan as well as safeguard its own citizens, the Indian government should give serious thought to neutralizing rogue ISI operatives through covert operations.
This shared assessment can form the basis of Indian covert operations. Their targets need not be confined only to terrorist leaders, and can also extend to anyone who actively assists the latter in planning and conducting cross-border attacks, such as rogue intelligence personnel. These personnel have in the past, also been implicated in attacks against moderate Pakistani leaders. The late Benazir Bhutto for instance, often expressed worry that elements within the Pakistani Army and ISI would assassinate her, using jihadi proxies. A UN investigation into her death recommended that Pakistani authorities probe the possibility of high-ranking officials within these two organizations being involved, whether directly or indirectly.15
In order to stabilize Pakistan as well as safeguard its own citizens, the Indian government should give serious thought to neutralizing rogue ISI operatives through covert operations. Such acts of active self-defence would have a respectable precedent: in August 1998, the United States killed several ISI officials when it bombed Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.16 With its drone strikes in Pakistan, Washington is currently in no position to object to Indian covert operations aimed at furthering common Indo-American counterterrorist objectives. As long as these operations take care to avoid destabilizing the Pakistani state or harming Western interests, New Delhi should not hesitate to authorize them.
Targeting the masterminds of jihadi attacks would be an unexpected move and thus, would have a greater chilling effect than merely focusing on trainers and triggermen. At the same time, given the vast pool of potential targets that could be hit should violence escalate, it would force the terrorists and rogue officials assisting them to consider whether they have the long-term capacity to absorb such retaliation. Basically, such a signaling process would convey to Pakistani jihadis that plotting mass murder is not a risk-free enterprise.
On this point, academic research on 19th century Corsican feuds offers an interesting insight. It suggests that violence in ‘dirty wars’ can often be regulated through a system of strict reciprocity. An attack on one side’s supporters prompts immediate retaliation upon the supporters of the aggressor. At the same time, so long as the supporters themselves do not participate in an act of aggression and are prepared to explicitly distance themselves from it, they are left alone.17 The same rules can be applied to the subcontinent, in order to split the nexus between Pakistani terrorist groups and their secret supporters in the state machinery.
The sheer size of the Indian economy would not only allow Indian goods to dominate the Pakistani market, but it would also raise the opportunity cost of not cooperating against terrorism.
The latter are, in Clausewitzian terms, the jihadi center of gravity in South Asia. Their interference in official Pakistani counterterrorism investigations ensures that even if Islamabad were serious about combating terrorism, its efforts would be frustrated. Removing such elements from the scene, through covert special operations, would weaken the jihadi infrastructure in Pakistan. It would thus enhance Pakistani security as much as Indian security, and also strengthen the long-term prospects for a durable reconciliation between the two countries. Eventually, peace in South Asia is desirable, but it will not and cannot be realized under the shadow of terrorist blackmail by radical Islamists and their faceless patrons.
Iron Fist in a Velvet Glove
While conducting covert operations against jihadis, India should consider simultaneously granting Pakistan’s demand that peace talks be delinked from terrorism. This would allow New Delhi to endlessly target terrorist groups, while holding an open-ended dialogue with Islamabad. The peace process can actually be turned to the benefit of both countries, by strengthening moderates and isolating extremists. Pakistani peace activists and civilian businessmen for instance, could be mobilized to lobby for greater bilateral trade. At a purely superficial level, such a move would appear de-escalatory and therefore be welcomed by foreign governments.
In actuality however, it would allow New Delhi to develop an economic stranglehold over the Pakistani decision-making elite, many of whom persist in maintaining an ambiguous view towards jihadi groups. The sheer size of the Indian economy would not only allow Indian goods to dominate the Pakistani market, but it would also raise the opportunity cost of not cooperating against terrorism. One of the reasons why Libya stopped supporting anti-Western terrorism was its dependence on Western oil refining equipment. Without acquiring more such equipment, the Libyan economy risked stagnation and the regime would have faced domestic unrest.18 India needs to leverage its soft power to push a similar degree of economic dependence upon Pakistan and thereby co-opt it in the fight against jihadism. At the same time, it must covertly exercise hard power to inflict intolerable pain upon Pakistani terrorists and those individual state officials who continue assisting them.
India has to put its own security apparatus in order before it can gain international recognition as a superpower. Such recognition would automatically flow when the country proves capable of defending its legitimate interests in an effective yet non-inflammatory manner. For this, it needs to mount an ideological offensive against religious bigotry by promoting secularism through educational and cultural programmes. Hindu and Muslim extremists within the country’s borders should be aggressively prosecuted in the courts. By refusing to get provoked into conceptualizing terrorism in religion-specific terms, India can add to its soft power and set a splendid example to the rest of the world. However, Pakistani jihadis who think they are beyond the reach of the law still need to be dealt with quietly, through hard power.
- John Lee, ‘Unrealized Potential: India’s ‘Soft Power’ Ambition in Asia’, Center for Independent Studies, Foreign Policy Analysis No. 4, 30 June 2010, accessed online at http://www.hudson.org/files/publications/Unrealised%20Potential%20-%20India’s%20Soft%20Power%20Ambition%20in%20Asia.pdf, on 5 December 2010.
- Andrew Billen, ‘The day Maggie won the 1980s’, The New Statesman, 29 July 2002, accessed online at http://www.newstatesman.com/200207290034, on 5 December 2010.
- B. Raman, ‘Nemesis Catches up With Father of Mass Casualty Terrorism & Mentor of LTTE - International Terrorism Monitor: Paper No. 369’, South Asia Analysis Group, 15 February 2008, accessed online at http://southasiaanalysis.org/papers26/paper2588.html, on 5 December 2010.
- The JOE 2008: Challenges and Implications for the Future Joint Force, p. 36. Accessed at http://www.jfcom.mil/newslink/storyarchive/2008/JOE2008.pdf, on 11 November 2010.
- Jacques E.C. Hymans, `India’s Soft Power and Vulnerability’, India Review, Vol. 8, No. 3 (2009), p. 246.
- Christian Wagner, `From Hard Power to Soft Power?’, South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg, Working Paper No. 26, March 2005, accessed online at http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/volltextserver/volltexte/2005/5436/pdf/hpsacp26.pdf, on 5 December 2010.
- Ajit Doval, `Need for Discovering New Paradigms to Fight Terrorism’, Eternal India, Vol. 1, No. 1 (2008), pp. 26-28.
- S. Kalyanaraman, `India and the Challenge of Terrorism in the Hinterland’, Strategic Analysis, Vol. 34, No. 5 (2010), p. 712.
- Thomas Matussek, ‘The Shy Superpower: India’s cautious role in a multipolar world’, Internationale Politik (Global edition), 11 November 2010, accessed online at http://www.ip-global.org/2010/11/11/the-shy-superpower/, on 5 December 2010.
- It appears from the writings of some American scholars that the Cold Start Doctrine is viewed with considerable concern in the West. Evidently, these writers are more worried about preventing an Indian retaliatory offensive against Pakistan than about the effect that another jihadist attack could have upon inter-communal harmony within India. Quinn J. Rhodes, ‘Limited War Under the Nuclear Umbrella: An Analysis of India’s Cold Start Doctrine and its Implications for Stability on the Subcontinent’, US Naval Postgraduate School, June 2010, accessed online at http://edocs.nps.edu/npspubs/scholarly/theses/2010/Jun/10Jun_Rhodes.pdf, on 5 December 2010.
- Stevan Dedijer, ‘Ragusa Intelligence and Security (1301-1806): A Model for the Twenty-First Century?’, International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, Vol. 15, No. 1 (2002), p. 110.
- Amos Guinora, ‘Targeted Killing as Active Self-Defense’, Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Vol. 36 (2004), pp. 323-324.
- Om M. Jahagirdar, `Targeted killing, not assassination: the legal case for the United States to kill terrorist leaders’, Journal of Islamic Law and Culture, Vol. 10, No. 2 (2008), pp. 243-244.
- Author’s conversations with Western officials and academics, 2008-2010.
- Report of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry into the facts and circumstances of the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, accessed online at http://www.un.org/News/dh/infocus/Pakistan/UN_Bhutto_Report_15April2010.pdf, on 5 December 2010.
- Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos: How the war against Islamic extremism is being lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia (London: Penguin, 2008), p. 16.
- Peter Mascini, ‘Can the Violent Jihad Do without Sympathizers’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Vol. 29, No. 4 (2006), pp. 345-346.
- Ray Takeyh, `The Rogue Who Came in From the Cold‘, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 80, No. 3 (2001), p. 64.