Crossing an uncertain Rubicon

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Old hands at the Intelligence Bureau (IB) have a riveting narrative, and even if parts of it are apocryphal, it’s still telling. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee knew that if the attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001 went unchallenged, it would send out wrong signals and engender other attacks. The evening of the attack, he got a briefing with a view to strike targets in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir; the IB had selected 12 targets and the Air Force was ready. The strikes would be punitive, short, sharp, one-off. After that, the terrorists and their backers would no longer launch attack after taunting attack on India without fear of reprisal. Mr. Vajpayee was evidently interested.

The Intelligence Bureau’s plan

Those days, the Air Force was sourcing satellite images of one metre resolution from IKONOS of military targets in Pakistan. Using these images, the Air Force generated three-dimensional models of the terrain and fed them into a flight simulator. And pilots would simulate bombing runs, releasing laser-guided bombs on the targets, which they would reach by contour flying. Mr. Vajpayee was told the Air Force could hit targets as small as 10 metres by 10 metres. The hit would be so precise that the surrounding structures would still be standing afterwards. Critically, there were no schools, hospitals, or places of worship near the prospective targets. In 15 minutes it would be all over, the planes would be out and back on the tarmac, whether they flew from Srinagar or Avantipur.

The next morning the IB briefed Mr. Vajpayee. Four of the targets were big buildings Lashkars operated from, sprawled over five acres in the outskirts of Muzaffarabad, where 200 terrorists were reportedly being trained. There were some Al-Badr camps, a Hizbul Mujahideen camp inside the town, and a building where the Jaish-e-Mohammed ran a guest house. In fact, only the previous week, a trusted agent had confirmed the operational details as well, both on the map as well as on the three-dimensional mock-up. The IB didn’t want to be lured into attacking targets that were emptied of terrorists at the last minute and replaced with innocent civilians; dirty tricks are part of the intelligence game.

All Mr. Vajpayee had to do was to call in the strike. The timing looked right, the provocation couldn’t be graver. Americans would have winked. After the World Trade Centre had been brought down, the U.S. was in the middle of a massive military campaign swarming Afghanistan. U.S. President George W. Bush had briefed Mr. Vajpayee on this when they met on November 9, 2001, in the Oval Office. Mr. Vajpayee had taken the opportunity to point out that there were in Afghanistan many terrorist camps in which groups inimical to India were being trained and indoctrinated to carry out attacks against India.

In the event, on December 14, Mr. Vajpayee hesitated, and did not cross the Rubicon. Perhaps it is not right to compare the scale of what would have been achieved if Mr. Vajpayee had decided to strike then with what happened on September 28-29. It certainly doesn’t look as though a single night’s extremely modest military exertions have fixed the terrorism problem with Pakistan, as is being witnessed in Baramulla. Over many years, the U.S. and the coalition of the willing threw all they had and more into Afghanistan and Iraq, and look what they have left us. And Pakistan is not Afghanistan, it has an endless capacity to innovate on such matters.

Breaching the threshold of tolerance

Pakistan has seen worse, far worse. For example, when the Indian Army was kept mobilised, revved up, and on the start line for 10 long months during Operation Parakram, did it achieve what the policymakers started out to do? Not one in India’s list of ‘most wanted’, which we brandished daily, did Pakistan give up. It is unclear if massing 5,00,000 troops even brought down infiltrations.

Consider the evidence.The Kaluchak attack of May 2002, when terrorists stopped a bus and shot and killed 31 people, came even as the troops had been mobilised, a sort of dare that could not possibly get more provocative. A couple of months later, on July 13, terrorists walked into Qasim Nagar in Jammu, lobbed grenades and shot 29 people dead. Nine Amarnath Yatra pilgrims were shot while they were asleep near Pahalgam in August that year. It wasn’t until October that India finally ordered demobilisation. Never once did Pakistan breach India’s threshold of tolerance.

Had Mr. Vajpayee gone ahead and struck at Muzaffarabad, Pakistan would have by now have made sure that in and around every terror training camp there are schools, hospitals and places of worship to ward off such adventurism; that launch pads move farther from the Line of Control and merge seamlessly with the more dense civilian habitations. The “surgical strikes” consequently won’t goad the Pakistan military into announcing a VRS for its terrorists. Pakistan has demonstrated a capacity to hit at even heavily fortified targets with troubling ease — Pathankot, for instance. It won’t take much for them to recalibrate and range further afield. Will New Delhi be able to manage the consequences of anything it starts? That has always been the question.

The Article First Appeared In The Hindu

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