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.