The most important thing about launching covert operations across the border in Pakistan is figuring out what our aims and objectives are. Are they to destabilise and dismember Pakistan? Or merely to pressure Islamabad to abandon its use of jihadi proxies to attack India.
As far as Pakistan is concerned, they already assume that India carries out a range of covert ops, ranging from support to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Baloch separatists and the MQM in Karachi.
Covert Ops Should Have Well-Defined Goals
When we speak of covert, we should mean precisely that — operations and actions which India can plausibly deny that it is carrying out. So we are not talking of cross-border military strikes by commandos and other kinetic strikes. Neither are we talking about mere public statements supporting this or that cause, but could involve the funding, arming and training of groups, either directly or indirectly to act against terrorists and their supporters in Pakistan.
Pakistan has many religious and societal fractures, so accentuating them is not likely to be difficult, but we must be clear about our aims. To echo General Colin Powell’s warning to George W Bush on Iraq, “If you break it, you own it.” This common phrase, often seen in shops in the US, has come back to haunt the United States.
Targeting Terror Havens
Likewise a Pakistan, broken by an Indian covert campaign will, in the ultimate analysis, be India’s headache, if not responsibility. Whatever we do must be clearly thought through, else we may be condemned to repeat our Sri Lankan experience.
Covert ops with a view of pressuring Pakistan to ease off on supporting terrorists may require a more sophisticated and subtle approach, involving targeted assassination of terrorist leaders, as well as their support structure in the form of financiers, bankers, friends and well-wishers, as well as military officers who handle them.
The idea is, to turn the issue inside out, and to terrorise the machine that supports the terrorists.
Do We Have the Expertise?
Clearly, this is not something that can be done overnight and is certainly not easy. It will require years of patiently building up a network of agents to do the needful. If India is to be seen as a principled state, it cannot be seen to be undertaking such actions.
So, it may require a double-game of convincing the agents that they are working for another power — Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia or the Americans. Back in the 1950s, the CIA played such a game in India and created confusion in the Communist movement by injecting an agent, allegedly sent by Beijing, to mislead the Indian communists.
False flag operations require skill and dedication and a culture which we have not quite cultivated. Unfortunately for our chest-thumping politicians, these are also operations for which they can claim credit. That would be a strict no-no.
Indian policy appears to be on the cusp right now. After decades of trying to bring Pakistan around through talks, India has recently raised the spectre of separatism in Pakistan by calling out Islamabad’s record on human rights and democracy in Balochistan and Gilgit Baltistan.
In both cases, there is no dearth of activists who will be willing to do harm to the Pakistani state, though in many instances the activists make themselves out to be more important than they are.
The question is how we should use them. Arming and training them would be a risky option, as we learnt from our cost in Sri Lanka. But we can use them in a systematic and sustained campaign focusing on the denial of human rights and democracy in these regions. Such a campaign would need to be closely coordinated by the Ministry of External Affairs to bring pressure in critical UN and other international organisation meetings as well.
Building Pressure on Islamabad
A diplomatic campaign to damage Pakistan’s reputation across the board can be used to threaten harm to the country’s fragile economy as well. Earlier this year Pakistan completed its sixth bailout programme in its history. The $6.4 billion programme that began in 2013, saw Pakistan getting as many as 16 waivers before it ended.
Pakistan has been kept afloat time and again through the munificence of the US and the Gulf Sheikhs. Working with and through like-minded countries India can raise the costs for Pakistan with a view of pushing it to modify its behaviour.
The bottom line for any campaign to push Pakistan to a desired direction cannot be done by India alone. It requires some hard-nosed diplomacy with Pakistan’s allies like the US and China. If the issue of Pakistan is so important for us, the government should be willing to undertake some give and take with these countries to build pressure on Islamabad.
Upping the Ante
There is little point hoping that this will happen because our cause is just; in the real world things don’t happen that way. Don’t forget that countries like China and US, somewhat indirectly, were willing to support the genocidal Pol Pot regime so as to corner Vietnam in the 1980s.
In the past year, the Modi government has already stepped up the pressure to isolate and sanction Pakistan across the world. Modi and his ministers have lost no opportunity — summits in the US, meetings with world leaders, G20 and ASEAN summits — to raise the issue of “certain countries” backing terrorism. Now, India is likely to raise the issue in the UN General Assembly as well.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)