Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The next attack

India has had peace not only because of luck and vigilance at its end but also because somebody has chosen to put their foot on the valve at the other end.

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Responding to an IPS probationer’s question as to what was the reason we had been able to prevent any terror attacks in the year after 26/11, Home Minister P. Chidambaram, in his somewhat game-changing speech at the annual conference of the Intelligence Bureau last month, had said with such honesty: Luck, pure luck.” We, he said, had to be lucky every day, while the terrorist had to be lucky just once. Of course, he added, the government had been able to avert at least a dozen attacks without giving any further details, as you would expect.

But, is that all there is to probably the longest period of respite in a long time? Could mere luck and coincidence, and better preparedness, have been responsible for this? It is important to raise and debate these questions now, when an intriguing mood is evident in the security and political establishment a strange mix of complacence and a growing apprehension of the inevitable next attack.

When you are dealing with an enemy who has by now emerged as a master practitioner of the idea of strategic patience, which means he has the patience to wait long enough for the target to ease up on the vigil before striking again, you need to keep thinking hard in the periods of relative peace.

While luck and better preparedness have made a huge difference, a question to be asked is, could this lull indeed be because the Pakistanis, particularly their military-ISI establishment, have really seen the downside in another attack so soon and put the clamps on India-specific groups? There are many arguments and some evidence to support this theory. First, the pressure from the Americans and the global community by and large has been immense. The capture of Kasab and now the Headley revelations have left no fig leaf or plausible deniability for Pakistan. In this environment nobody buys even the root causes” or non-state actors beyond our control” theory. If anything, developments and revelations over the past year have demonstrated that groups that target India are fundamentally distinct from those that fight the Americans in Afghanistan and the Pakistanis in their own tribal regions. These networks are almost entirely located deep inside Pakistan’s mainland, mostly Punjab and therefore the Pakistan establishment has much greater connection, if not always control, over them than over the groups further west.

The implication is that even if they no longer fully control the anti-India jihadis, the Pakistanis still retain the capability of being able to exercise restraint over them, either through better vigilance or persuasion or a bit of both. In fact, as Steve Coll, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former managing editor of The Washington Post and author of landmark Af-Pak books like The Ghost Wars and The Bin Laden Family, told me on NDTV’s Walk the Talk to be telecast later on Saturday evening, if the ISI is really determined to make sure the Lashkars are not able to carry out another major attack in India, they can most likely do so.

The Pakistanis may do it for now. But what will their thinking be as months pass? Evidence from that region comes mainly through local and Western media reports which are usually more reliable than Western diplomatic sources. You can pick bits and pieces to draw up a fairly convincing picture of the Pakistani strategy, at least in the short and medium term.

For simplicity you can call it the strategy of double nuancing the war on terror. Pakistan sees terrorists it confronts as three distinct groups. It by now has a distinctly nuanced way of dealing with each. Two of these function on or beyond its western peripheries: the Pakistani and the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan is willing to fight its own, indigenous Taliban like a clear enemy. They threaten the Pakistani state, and even more specifically, its army. Almost all attacks within Pakistan, particularly against military targets, have been carried out by this group. So it is being fought by the Pakistani army with all its might.

Also read: The exact moment when Ajmal Kasab was caught at Marine Drive

The first nuance lies in how the Pakistanis deal with the Afghan Taliban. They are seen as only half an enemy, and most likely, as half an opportunity. Enemy because of their tangled linkages with the more indigenous Pakistani jihad industry, and an opportunity because their resistance now holds the promise of being able to line out the Americans to a stage where Obama may look to get out after declaring some sort of a victory. Of course that can only be arranged through the ISI’s good offices. They can broker some kind of a peace accord between friendly Taliban factions and the Americans to install a government in Kabul that promises to keep Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan and is generally controlled by the Pakistanis. That, an Afghanistan under their own sway, is the Pakistani military-strategic establishment’s old fantasy. Obama’s perceived lack of spine will persuade the votaries of that old strategic depth theory to believe their opportunity has arrived.

The second nuance is actually more stark and unambiguous. It is the line the Pakistani establishment draws between the two Taliban groups on the one hand and its own India-specific jihadi groups on the other. These groups have in the past been raised, nurtured and controlled by the ISI and, in some ways, have functioned like a regiment of the Pakistan army in mufti.

For 15 years now, the Pakistani military has seen them as a strategic asset, a force multiplier to put India off-balance in the event of war breaking out. So while they are conscious of the downside of another attack on India they will be loath to dismantle them. There is too much invested there, and to a short-sighted, tactical, military intelligence mind driven more by hatred of India rather than Pakistan’s long-term national interest, it looks as if they have delivered value for all investment.

That is why we have to view the current phase of respite with a great deal of caution and sobriety. This is no time for smug complacency or laziness. We have had peace not only because of luck and vigilance at our end but also because somebody has chosen to put his foot on the valve at the other end. When he may feel persuaded to lift that foot is a factor that must figure in our own calculations.

By my reckoning it could be when and if the Americans seem to be getting military success in Afghanistan and the Afghan Taliban start escaping into Pakistani territories and American pressure there increases, through more drone attacks or hot pursuit. We have no time to waste, or occasion to celebrate yet.

At such a strategic turning point trust us educated Indians to get all tangled up in issues of such profound significance as the quality of drafting a mere joint statement. My view on that may not matter but I can tell you a story. Two decades ago I landed in Beijing to cover the Tiananmen Square massacre. I had been parachuted into Beijing almost directly from Peshawar where I was doing a story on the then good jihadis”, among them one Hamid Karzai, staff officer to Afghan Revolutionary Provisional Government” President Sibghatullah Mojaddidi. The world media was full of alarmist stories on the Chinese government having lost control and of the many army units having revolted and some even marching on Beijing. That was also the buzz in Jianguomenwai, the foreigners ghetto” where most diplomats and foreign correspondents lived.

Until I met the deputy chief of mission at the Indian Embassy. He told me to ignore all this as sensationalist rubbish. This is all over already, he said, in a day or so they will be washing the roads and there will no sign left of what happened. No army is in revolt. He seemed in a minority of one among the so-called China experts at that time and don’t we know how right he turned out to be. His name is Shivshankar Menon; he takes over as National Security Advisor in what we can describe in a twisted Chinese metaphor as the most interesting of times. Watch what he does in this job to judge his skills as a diplomat and a strategist, not where a comma or period was placed on a certain joint declaration.

Also read: Modi on 26/11 anniversary — ‘We can never forget wounds inflicted by terrorists from Pakistan’


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