Much has been written about what the killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2 can mean for Pakistan-US relations. A less noticed impact of the event on ever-tenuous India-Pakistan ties, however, may matter more to the prospect of peace in South Asia, the only region in the world witnessing a nuclear arms race today.
One of the very first questions raised in India by the US Navy Sea, Air and Land (SEAL) team was whether this was or was not an example for this country to emulate. “Yes,” said India's extreme right and the security “experts” that give its rhetoric some respectability. They continue their campaign for a similar operation or series of operations from New Delhi to eliminate sources of anti-India terrorism seen to be harbored on Pakistani soil.
The demand is not entirely new. It was only a sequel to the call for emulating the US that emanated from the same “experts” when former President George W. Bush and former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee set about forging a “strategic partnership.” The question that the Bush-ordered aggression on Iraq (trumpeted as a war on terror) provoked was: should not India, too, support “pre-emptive” strikes against terrorist targets in Pakistan and the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir?
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In 2002, then-Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani, a dominant figure of the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), declared, “Pakistan is a fit case for a pre-emptive strike; the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan) is the most dangerous outfit in the world and Pakistan should be declared a terrorist state.” Washington, of course, was not ready to extend to India the right it claimed and reserved for itself as the world's sole superpower: the disdainful disregard of international law. This hardly prevented India's hawks from keeping up the clamor for such big-power-like behavior.
The difference between the invasion of Iraq and the raid on Osama's Pakistani hideout, of course, is obvious. The first was a declared offensive, and the second a stealthy and secret action. What the far right and its friends of India now admire particularly and consider worthy of emulation is the clever covertness of the US operation, for which Obama has paid kudos to the patriotic Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Actually, India's “security”-mongers have long advocated covert operations, envisaging larger casualties than symbolic individuals. Some have also proudly recalled past operations of this kind that have figured in these columns before – for example, in “South Asia Awaits Another Secret War,” July 19, 2008, written after the blast in India's embassy in Kabul. The article quoted a pro-covert-action propagandist as saying, “If a Pakistan-based terrorist group carries out strikes against civilians in Mumbai (as in the terrorist strike of November 26, 2008) … India must be able to assassinate its leaders and their financiers.” Don't the words sound eerily like someone speaking from the White House in early May?
The article went on to cite former officers of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) or the external intelligence arm of India's External Affairs Ministry, boasting of the secret war they had waged inside Pakistani territory, especially in the eighties, in retaliation against the ISI operations in the India-administered State of Jammu and Kashmir. Among the laudable RAW exploits recalled was a 'low-grade, but steady campaign, of bombings in major Pakistani cities, notably Karachi and Lahore.” The recapitulation was done without any mention of the number of civilian lives lost in the process and without much thought for the political and diplomatic impact of the stories of derring-do.
A similar unconcern for reactions and consequences marks the campaign for covert actions. Bharat Karnad of New Delhi's Center for Policy Research, formerly a member of the National Security Advisory Board as well as the Nuclear Doctrine Drafting Group of the government, provides an illustration. In a newspaper article of June 9, he says, “… India will have to do the hard anti-terrorist work by itself. The trouble is: Does the … government, encouraged by the successful action to finish off Osama, have the guts, gumption, but mostly the will, to rethink its … attitude, when it comes to doing what any self-respecting country would do when under terrorist threat – bump off those responsible in a major way for terrorist strikes within India?”
Karnad adds, “It is the sort of targeted intelligence operations I have been advocating for over a decade now as the only response rather than uselessly mobilising the field army for war … Surely, Muridke (a commercial area near Lahore in Pakistan), headquarters of LeT (Lashkar-e-Toiba of anti-India militants), is not all that inaccessible.”
Another illustration comes from well-known security analyst and columnist Bahukutumbi Raman, former head of the RAW's counterterrorism division. In an article written on the morrow of Osama killing, he asks Indians not to “indulge in pathetic talk of what the US should do for us,” and says, “The dramatic US success was made possible by a dramatic improvement in the US HUMINT (human intelligence) capability and by its spectacular covert action capability. We have neither. Our HUMINT capability is average, but not extraordinary. Our covert action capability has been non-existent since 1997. Let us revamp both – urgently and visibly.”
Striking a personal and emotive note, he adds, “I proudly contributed to the building up of India's covert action capability. I proudly headed it for some years till my retirement in August 1994. I cry every day when I see the way it has been wound up for 14 years now and our citizens continue to be slaughtered here, there and everywhere by the jihadi terrorists.”
The BJP could not be far behind all those calling for blitzkriegs of the covert kind. In a statement of May 6, senior party leader and former External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha proclaimed, “India should reserve the right of surgical strikes and hot pursuit against Pakistan irrespective of the consequences. As and when considered necessary, India should not hesitate to carry out such an attack,” He fumed, “India has always been considered a soft state and it is time we shed this image.”
We can only hope that sections in the secret establishment of India have not started planning action on these prescriptions for a perilous escalation in the existing strains between South Asia's nuclear-armed neighbors.