Of limited wars & precision strikes

-Rajiv Tyagi

L’affaire Pulwama has toppled many gyroscopes, to use fighter pilot terminology, from the days when the gyroscopes in artificial horizons would topple off their gimbals during violent manoeuvers and had to be righted by caging and releasing them.

From Prime Minister Modi intoning in a dramatic tone, that he has allowed the fauj ‘full freedom’, to experienced journalists like Shekhar Gupta suggesting a ‘limited nuclear war’(!), to common citizens baying for someone to ‘teach Pakistan a lesson’, while others abuse fellow countrymen, we have been assailed with hyperbole and extreme solutions, out of a frustration and embarrassment. All of this betrayed a bewilderment that arises from the hyperbolic Bollywood fare we are brought up on, when as a nation, we should be seeing these incidents with the cold detachment of a professional.

It did not help, that within hours of the outrage, Pakistan-based terror outfit JeM claimed responsibility for the dastardly attack, which along with the Uri and Pathankot encounters, was the third encounter of the BJP internal security establishment in the past five years, with the most wanted Pakistani terrorist, Masood Azhar, ironically released from an Indian jail in 1999, to be swapped against the passengers taken hostage on the Indian Airlines IC-814 and parked in Kandahar, in Afghanistan, by another BJP Government. India’s current National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, was a part of the negotiating team that exchanged the deadly terrorist for the passengers on that flight. Within minutes of the JeM claim, the Pakistani civilian establishment denied all connection with the terror attack, even as Masood Azhar struts about in Bahawalpur, with the confidence of man who has the protective hand of the Pakistani deep state over his head.

Once again, the Pakistani deep state had used asymmetric warfare to deadly effect, while we cling on to the doctrinaire approach of conventional engagement, even when we see them use asymmetric techniques so effectively against us, again and again.Pakistan abandoned conventional warfare after the 1971 engagement with India, choosing instead, to bleed India with a thousand small cuts, using radicalised Sunni Islamic militants as its foot soldiers. This technique also allows them to maintain a level of deniability, by internationally advertising, that they are more a victim of terrorism than any other nation, which I daresay they could very well be too, of their own making.

Asymmetric wars cannot be responded to with conventional warfare, as many of our citizens are urging the Govt to do, after the outrage at Pulwama. We cannot fight terror operatives with precision air strikes or infantry corps. But conventional warfare is the only tool we possess. Building an asymmetric capability is what the RAW, with support from the MoD and MEA, should be addressing, not the Ministry of Defence or the Armed Forces, except for providing the manpower and expertise.

With an adversary like Pakistan, we need to develop and hone a deadly 3-dimensional special forces capability, that can infiltrate, take out a target and ex-filtrate, all with specialized air and sea support – a capability akin to what the Israelis and the US have used effectively in the Entebbe raid and the Osama bin Laden operation, respectively. This capability also extends, like the Russians, to training and acquiring undercover operatives specialized in unconventional execution, ranging from injectable and ingestible poisons, to nerve agents and radioactive isotopes The Russians have raised assassination to a fine art and should be our role models and trainers.

Surgical strikes that we are almost bored of hearing about, are old hat and almost as old as our two-centuries-old Army. They have occurred regularly, but have limited reach over narrow geographies along the border and succeed in merely targeting inconsequential tactical assets, as opposed to the far more valuable strategic assets that would be available deeper inland. Targeting and taking out valuable assets like Mahmud Azhar, Hafiz Sayeed and Daud Ibrahim is not an impossibility, with a dedicated inter-services special forces team trained specifically for the task, with specialists in all relevant fields, including undercover agents.

As simple as this feels while reading, creating such a team is a humongous task, simply because it requires an uncommon leadership, enormous cost and a mature political environment that does not succumb to the ‘political value’ of such a specialist force, by tom-tomming its ‘achievements’ as a means to garner votes. Consider for a moment the fact, that to date, no one knows the name of a single member of the Seal team that took out Osama bin Laden from Abbotabad. Just to enumerate one of the obstacles to putting together such a team, I doubt we posses the professionalism to attain the level of secrecy required to execute such a programme. We are a notoriously ‘leaky’ system, in which top secrets of the state could be and are discussed over a whisky at the IIC. We do not respect the foremost directive of secrecy, the doctrine of the ‘need to know’. In our system, everyone above the custodian of a secret, ex-officio inherits the ‘need to know’.

This task, difficult as it is for us to execute, is absolutely imperative to pursue, if we are to strike terror into the terror framework of Pakistan. This terror is a mix of fear and embarrassment, akin to what we feel today, when terrorists strike us at will. The ability to strike stealthily, deep inside Pakistani territory at chosen targets, at will, will ensure the Pakistani deep state either seriously invites us to the negotiating table or reverts to conventional warfare, where we hold the advantage or at least parity…

To reach this level of professionalism however, we cannot get bogged down with the banality of a RAW officer using secret funds to bankroll his daughter’s studies abroad… The State should ensure that these operatives, working in constant danger, are taken care of handsomely, over and above the awards of pay commissions.

(Rajiv Tyagi is a former IAF fighter pilot and a commentator on social media. It was originally published here.)

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