Pak attacks, India huffs, puffs and debates

If you believed the news channels then the horrific beheading of one of our soldiers on the India-Pakistan border came out of nowhere. In fact, Indian and Pakistani troops have been battling each other in that area after Pakistan protested about the Indian army’s construction of observation posts in October.

There have been skirmishes before. Both sides have lost soldiers and tensions run high. So the incident did not emerge out of nothing. It merely marked a new turn in hostilities that have been going on for over three months.

Even so, the beheading of an Indian soldier marks a new and barbaric turn in this conflict. So we must ask ourselves what this descent into barbarism signifies.

There are three possible explanations. The first is the one offered by some army officers on both sides of the border. This suggests that the beheading was carried out by an elite Pakistani commando group. The Pakistanis have been seething at what they see as India’s intransigence. They say that the construction of the observation towers is specifically prohibited under the terms of the ceasefire. And at ground level, Pakistani soldiers have got angrier and angrier as skirmishes between the two sides have resulted in reverses for Pakistanis and the deaths of their soldiers.

So, one explanation is that the barbarism emerged out of the anger and frustration of Pakistani soldiers. They had no authority or sanction to behead the Indian soldier. But they did it anyway to send a message back to the Indians. If this explanation is valid, then it suggests that India must demand strict action against the barbarians who carried out this attack and that Pakistan must immediately comply if the two armies are to abide by the Geneva Convention.

On the other hand, this explanation also suggests that we should not read too much into the incident or blame it on the evil designs of General Kayani, Asif Ali Zardari, Hafiz Saeed or anyone else.

The second explanation is the one offered by Pakistani defence specialists. It is a familiar story. Even after 26/11, the Pakistanis had claimed that terrorist outfits were trying to provoke India. Once India was provoked, it would increase troop concentrations on the border with Pakistan and threaten war. Once that happened, Pakistan would have no choice but to move troops from its border with Afghanistan to the Indian border. This was the ultimate aim of the terrorists who wanted free passage between Pakistan and Afghanistan and were being hampered by the strong Pakistani army presence in that region.

Sure enough, the same explanation has been trotted out again. The beheading may have been the work of terrorists eager to provoke India, say the Pakistanis. Now that there is so much outrage within India, New Delhi may have to bow to public pressure and threaten war with Pakistan. This would lead to an increase in the Pakistani army presence on the Indian border and the resulting reduction in troops in the Afghan section. Moreover, it would also annoy the Americans, who want the Pakistanis to concentrate their forces on the Afghan border and regard the India-Pakistan conflict as no more than a troubling irrelevance compared to their own Afghan operation.

There is certain logicality to this explanation. But it is also full of holes. First of all, we know that skirmishes between Indian and Pakistani regulars have been occurring in that sector since October. Till now, nobody has spotted any terrorists who are also operating in that region. To suddenly invent a jihadi beheading squad that did all the dirty work in the absence of any supporting evidence seems too much of a stretch.

Moreover, to get to the Indian border, the terrorists would have to cross Pakistani positions. So, if a jihadi hit squad did manage to enter Indian territory and attack our soldiers, this could only be possible with the connivance of the Pakistani military.

So, the explanation offered by the Pakistanis does not really stand up to scrutiny. It is convenient to blame non-state actors. But the truth is that when it comes to attacks on India, these actors can only function with the backing of some elements of the Pakistani state.

That leaves a third explanation. Perhaps the escalation in violence is due to a policy change within Pakistan. Perhaps General Kayani and his friends in the army have lost interest in the peace process. They know that the Americans, obsessed as they are with the Afghan operation, will not let India and Pakistan go to war. So, with no real threat of full-scale retaliation, why not continue with a low-intensity conflict against India. This will annoy the Indians and wound them with no risk of any damage to Pakistan. Moreover, it will also keep the morale of the Pakistani army – battered in recent months by the impunity with which American forces and drones operate within Pakistan territory – soaring. There is nothing that a Pakistani soldier enjoys more than the opportunity to harm and humiliate India.

My own instinct is that the third explanation is far more logical than the excuses offered by Pakistani experts. The reality of the Pakistani state is that there is no one state but multiple centres of power. Kargil showed us how the Pakistani army could launch a full-scale war against India while keeping the country’s Prime Minister in the dark. So what is there to stop the army and the ISI from stepping up attacks on India without involving the political establishment?

The answer offered by many hawks on the Indian side – that we should impose sanctions on Pakistan – is counter-productive. If we stop people-to-people contacts, stop issuing visas, curtail the dialogue process, and reduce our engagement with the civilian establishment, it will make no difference to the Pakistani army. They have no respect for the politicians and the civilians anyway and they don’t give a damn what India does to them.

What then should India do? Well, first of all we should make sure that this was not just a case of troops on the grounds trying to escalate an existing conflict by resorting to barbarism. If we do find evidence that the latest skirmishes have the approval of the Pakistani army, then it is the army and its pals in the terrorist establishment that we must target.

One of America’s greatest successes during the first Obama administration has been the decision to move away from conventional warfare and to engage in covert action. Putting troops on the ground is a painful and messy business. It is much more effective to plan surgical strikes on selected targets. For instance, American drones have taken out much of Al Qaeda’s top leadership by launching attacks on Pakistani soil. American commando teams have attacked high-value Pakistani targets and eliminated them.

This has had two consequences. First of all, Al Qaeda has been virtually destroyed and other terrorist organisations have been prevented from launching attacks on America and Americans. Secondly, Pakistani military figures now live in terror of America. Offer shelter to the likes of Bin Laden and you never know when a commando team will land in your back garden and attack your house. Plot against American interests and the next sound you hear may be a drone whizzing above your head as it prepares to kill you.

Sadly, we in India are unable to think out of the box. We think that there are only two options: diplomatic and military. We do not realise that the world has changed and that the Americans have shown us that there is a third, much more effective, option: targeted covert action. If Hafiz Saeed or Dawood Ibrahim had operated against America, both men would be dead by now, struck down by a surgical drone attack.

In India, however, all we can do is huff, puff, talk and debate. Even while the future of warfare is staring us in the face we refuse to consider the covert action option. Instead, we waste our time in debate and threaten military action that Pakistan knows we will never take.

And even as we huff and puff, Indians are murdered and beheaded.

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