H is for Hawk

In an Indian Express op-ed on 11 January, political scientist Paul Staniland argues that we shouldn’t lose too much sleep over Pathankot-style terror strikes because “despite understandable public outcry and past success, these spoiler attacks will be increasingly ineffective for the Pakistani military and its non-state allies”.

One reason for this, he argues, is that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s nationalist stance ensures that “no national party can make a politically potent case against [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi as being too soft on Pakistan. His domestic room to manoeuvre would be the envy of past PMs”. As a result, Modi will be free to pursue a rapprochement with Pakistan if he so wishes.

The temptation to slot the BJP, the Indian National Congress and other parties as hawkish or dovish is understandable, but it conceals as much as it reveals. For one, even though the BJP’s rhetoric tends to be more hardline than the Congress’, at the present time it is under attack from the Congress party and others as being excessively soft on Pakistan.

More to the point, the hawk-dove continuum exists within each political party, and places limits on how accommodating their leaders can be. Consider two examples:

  1. During a six-day visit to Pakistan in 2005, then BJP President Lal Krishna Advani praised Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah and described him as a “secular” leader. This caused a furore in the BJP, forcing him to resign, and leading to his replacement as president by Rajnath Singh later that year.
  2. In July 2009, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed a joint statement with his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani in Sharm el-Sheikh that delinked progress in other areas with terrorism and seemed to acknowledge Pakistani claims of Indian interference in Balochistan. Coming only eight months after the deadly Mumbai attacks, the statement appeared to undermine India’s earlier stance. Many Congress party members were outraged and refused to defend their own prime minister against public criticism. With no support visible in his party, Singh backtracked and the bilateral dialogue languished for the remainder of his term.

The point is that nationalist attitudes permeate many Indian parties and impose limits on how far and fast their leaderships can move. I have no doubt that Modi, like Advani, would discover those limits pretty quickly if he bent too far backwards in accommodating Pakistani concerns.

The futility of calls for covert action

Every time there is a terror attack in India, whether Mumbai (2008) or Pathankot (2016), some commentators demand “action”, usually a call for India to take the battle to the Pakistan Army and its insurgent proxies. This would presumably mean Indian agencies launching similar strikes at these groups and deterring future terror attacks.

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar appeared to support this line when he stated on 11 January that any “individual or organisation” that harmed India “should also receive the pain of such activities… how, when and where should be your choice”, though he clarified that he thinking aloud rather than formulating government policy.

One frequently cited example of this approach is the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)’s Counter Intelligence Team X (CIT-X) that is said to have carried out “retaliatory attacks in Lahore, Multan and Karachi” in the 1980s, which the former RAW officer B Raman credited with “putting an end to the ISI’s interference in Punjab by making such interference prohibitively costly”.

So why can’t India retaliate in a similar manner to terror attacks from Pakistan? There is one inescapable problem: it’s hard, if not impossible, to judge a strategy that is designed to remain hidden. Outside of a small circle of decision-makers, how would anyone know whether a covert Indian programme is being implemented, let alone if it’s working?

This problem of identification is magnified by the fact that terror attacks aren’t exactly rare in Pakistan – four times as many Pakistanis died in insurgent attacks between 2010 and 2014 as Indians did, even though its population is about a seventh that of India’s (data from the Global Terrorism Index).

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With all kinds of terrorists jostling to blow up stuff in Pakistan, it would be challenging to even identify an Indian attack.

As it is, the Pakistani government frequently accuses India of sponsoring groups like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) via its consulates in Afghanistan. From a Pakistani point of view, the TTP attacks on the Pakistan Army headquarters (2009), the naval base PNS Mehran (2011) and the Kamra air force base (2012) bear more than a passing resemblance to a hypothetical Indian campaign.

Whether this is a figment of Pakistan’s imagination or not isn’t the point. It is that no Indian prime minister will ever say: “Mitron, we’re doing some sick ops in Pakistan, check out this LiveLeak video”. Cynics might think that the Modi government is more than capable of live-tweeting a state-sponsored attack, but I have my doubts.

This makes possible at least four errors of inference:

  1. False positive 1: Pakistan attributes attacks to India that in fact have nothing to do with India, and reacts to them. This could well be the case right now.
  2. False negative 1: India sponsors attacks in Pakistan to impose “costs”, but these are incorrectly attributed to the TTP or others. Indian deterrence fails. (Presumably someone in the PMO has seen Dr Strangelove and would signal to Pakistan appropriately.)
  3. False positive 2: Someone reads this blog and claims that it exposes India’s “grand design”, when none in fact exists (outside of, cough cough, moral and diplomatic support to Baloch rebels).
  4. False negative 2: India sponsors attacks in Pakistan, while all along analysts at home bemoan India’s “emasculation” and plaintively ask “how long can this go on”.

The lesson? Don’t waste your time calling for Indian “action”.

Unless it makes you feel better.