Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC correspondent and author of 'Insurgent Crossfire' and 'Troubled Periphery' . He is a former Queen Elizabeth House Fellow at Oxford University and an Eurasian Fellow at Frankfurt University.
The surgical commando strike that killed Osama Bin Laden at his Abbotabad mansion has demonstrated that the US is prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve its key objectives in the war against terror. Apart from destroying the most dangerous icon of 21st century terrorism, the US forces have also returned from the swift raid with huge information of great intelligence value. More than anything else," Operation Blackjack " has demonstrated the value of precise covert operations in the war against terror. The fact that the American counter-terrorism czars ruled out high altitude bombing or a drone attack to avoid collateral damage and settled for a helicopter-borne attack proves that what counts in the fight against terror is precise quality intelligence and the capability for a quick and sharp focussed attack with highly skilled and motivated special forces. If one has to take out high value targets like Laden and be sure of success, B2s and drones are less than useful compared to a Navy Seal squadron. Not only because of possible collateral damage but because a high intensity bombing may destroy the target in a way that the evidence of its destruction is no longer available.
"Blackjack" has several lessons for India -- and offers many opportunities as well. Though it is rather unfortunate that Indian army chief General V K Singh had no reason to trigger a furore in Pakistan by suggesting that India has the kind of covert strike capability that the US has demonstrated in the Abbottabad strike. For a country which cannot find the crash site of a chief minister's helicopter in four days to claim it can launch an Abbottabad type precision strike sounds an empty boast. Moreover, the fear of failure dominates our political establishment and General Singh is unlikely to get clearance for an Abbottabad type strike that carries the risk of escalation into a full fledged war. It is also not advisable to put the enemy wise even if India had the capability for such a strike. Pakistan's reactions to General Singh's reaction is expected -- and the army chief needs to realise the success of a covert operation lies in the surprise and the suddenness and that surprise can never be achieved if the enemy realises India can try such an option. It is always advisable to talk peace and carry forward the Mohali spirit but plan and attempt a covert operation using Pakistani surrogates which has total deniability and deception about itself.
If the US shares with India even a reasonable bit of what it is likely to gain from the recoveries made at Laden's Abbottabad mansions, India will surely benefit from the intelligence windfall. Laden's computers are likely to contain details of his India network -- specially the groups like LeT and JeM, who along with similar regional terror groups, make the Al Qaeda such a dangerous terror conglomerate. The huge embarrassment for Pakistan following the revelations that Laden was taken out deep inside Pakistan -- how could he live in a cantonment town without the knowledge of the Pakistan army and ISI -- offers India a fresh chance to mobilise global opinion against Pakistan and help build pressure to terrorists responsible for big incidents like the Kandahar hijack and the Bombay attacks. It can build pressure on the US to push Pakistan to bring the destroyers of Bombay to book. But more importantly, it gives India the moral right to initiate appropriate and sustained covert operations against terrorist elements sheltered in Pakistan-- with or without US cooperation. Either the US helps India in pushing Pakistan to hand over the Hafiz Saeeds and Masood Azhars -- or India starts doing an Abbottabad or two on its own. But not by trying a strike with Indian commandos -- it is much finding Pakistani surrogates.
If the US continues with its double standards and does not pressurise Pakistan to hand over the LeT and JeM leaders , India will be well within its rights to initiate covert operations to neutralise its own select list of targets. Otherwise,why should India continue with its evolving "strategic relationship" with the US, that has upset the Chinese and made them more bellicose. India must weigh its cost-benefit when evaluating its "strategic relationship" with the US. Joint training and equipment sharing is meaningless unless the US shares real time intelligence with India on terrorism-related issues and pressurises Pakistan, a failed state with a rogue army and intelligence, to play ball. It is inconceivable that "Blackjack" was pulled off without discreet Pakistan help and support, though both the US and Pakistan have good reasons to play that down. But the fact that the hit on Laden could only occur after the tough talk by Admiral Mike Mullen surely holds up the value of "arm-twisting" in dealing with Pakistan.
India has no reasons to pretend it is Gandhian nation where covert operations will not fit into our "non-violent ethos". Indian intelligence agencies from the days of Jawaharlal Nehru to his grandson Rajiv Gandhi have armed and trained Tibetan, Bangladeshi, Chakma, Tamil, Sindhi, Mohajir and Baluchi rebels to score a point or two with troublesome neighbours. The Tibetans were armed and trained jointly with the US agencies -- the rest wholly on India's own initiative. Until Devegowda and specially "peacenik" I K Gujral stopped the RAW's offensive operations in the neighbourhood to make way for his "parantha diplomacy" with Nawaz Sharif, Indian intelligence had considerable "offensive intelligence assets" in the neighbourhood, specially Pakistan. Neither Atal Behari Vajpayee nor Manmohan Singh, despite their occasional brave talk ,have done anything to revive the covert operations capability of the Indian intelligence in the neighbourhood. Vajpayee after Kargil did threaten that "a nation that has broken up once can break again" -- but both he and Manmohan Singh did nothing to develop teeth for covert operations. Manmohan did a further disservice at Sharm al Sheikh when he allowed Balochistan to be dragged into a joint communique alongside Kashmir, as if India was reciprocating in Balochistan for Pakistan's role in Kashmir in equal measure.
Many Indians would wish that happened -- but it is a fact that relations between the Balochnationalists and Indian agencies rarely crosses the level of "probing engagements for long term assessments". This is a far cry from the days of Rajiv Gandhi when the RAW was retaliating Pakistan's "thousand cuts" , bullet for bullet , bomb for bomb. Former RAW official B.Raman admits in his last book (Kaoboys of RAW) that if Rajiv Gandhi had remained prime minister for some more time, Pakistan would have been on its knees. Mr Raman has obvious compulsions not to describe the covert operations in details but alludes significantly enough to their effectiveness.
Ever since the Indian political class has fought shy of fighting Pakistani terror with something similar, the image of a growing economic and military power failing to use its teeth against a rogue neighbour has sat uneasy with India's aspirations of becoming a permanent member of the Security Council and joining the select club. To achieve those aspirations, India needs to first resolve its conflicts back home through sustained dialogue and political settlements and avoid an overkill like the unforgivable assassination of Cherikuri Rajkumar alias Azad who was specifically assigned by the Maoist leadership to carry forward the peace process. On the other hand, India must develop and use the covert action capability in the neighborhood
specially in Pakistan to be taken seriously. Don't kill an Azad when he is coming forward to hold a dialogue -- that does not do any good to India. Better use that gun and the killer to knock out Hafiz Saeed when he is extorting young Pakistanis to join the jihad in Kashmir on the streets of Lahore or Karachi. A decisive edge in India's nuclear or conventional war capability is no good in the war against terror because it cannot be used owing to global, specially US, intervention in retaliation to a terror strike. The BJP government made a fool of itself by mobilising the Indian army (Operation Parakram) on its western borders after the attack on the Indian parliament. Only to demobilised it under huge US pressure built up to avoid a conflict with potential for nuclear escalation. The Congress government has made a fool of itself by leading the nation to believe that the US is the best bet for bringing the perpetrators of the Bombay attack to book. This is like leaving your friend to keep your wife happy.
If Manmohan Singh and his security czar P Chidambaram look back at India's long history of covert operations and the success of Operation Blackjack, can they miss the obvious value of this low-cost offensive option? Conducted with total deniability and characteristic doublespeak, a successful covert operation can help India fight terror within the country and in the neighborhood much more effectively. After all, India's enemies like Saeed and Azhar dont live in Abbottabad mansions -- they address public rallies in Lahore and Karachi and that is when and where they are most vulnerable to a long sight telescopic rifle in the hands of a motivated Indian agent or a hired Western mercenary. And to achieve total deniability, Indian psyops machinery can credit the kill to the US and pander a persisting public stereotype.
Indian agencies have claimed they have adequate covert operations capability in the neighbourhood but have not been able to exercise it due to lack of political will at the top. In a democracy, fear of failure haunts political governments. But US presidents from Clinton to Bush to Obama have demonstrated they have the spunk to take the hard option despite a series of failures and faux pas. India's discredited politicians have a lesson to learn from Blackjack. The successful strike on Laden has -- and will -- doubtlessly revived Obama's dropping popularity ratings and may actually help the cause of his re-election. If Manmohan Singh can authorise a succesful covert strike against Hafeez Saeed and if that works, he may find a way out of the drubbing his image -- and that of his party -- has taken. A gullible nation may then forgive him for the season of scams and rejoice in the undoing of successive national humiliations.