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.