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.

An aggressive Indian border stance would play into the Pakistan Army’s hands

It’s no surprise that the escalation of cross-border tensions in the midst of two important state elections has led Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other officials to issue tough statements to Pakistan. However there is also some evidence that the government is actually considering a change in its current stance of letting officers on the ground respond to ceasefire violations as they see fit, more or less proportionately, to one in which it escalates violence more readily.

Business Standard Consulting Editor Ajai Shukla describes army thinking thus:

With Indian posts on the LoC better constructed and more heavily armed than Pakistan’s, an escalation of firing imposes disproportionate costs on the Pakistan Army. The BSF too has been instructed to retaliate strongly. New Delhi’s decision not to call for a flag meeting underlines its conviction that the military cost will soon become too high for Pakistan.

The Economic Times reports that:

…the Pakistan Army has now given India a chance to do what it wanted to do for a long time – target and destroy permanent defences that were aiding in infiltration.

This sort of talk is understandable if meant as a warning to Pakistan, but any strategy aimed at stopping cross-border militant infiltration is essentially trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

On the face of it, it does seem that the border had been steadily heating up:

The data I located are similar, and show a discernible spike in 2013, but the casualty figures are much lower, with an average of one Indian fatality and eight Indian wounded per year between 2010 and 2013. Also note that the available data appear to exclude Indian ceasefire violations, if any:

Chart 1: Pakistani ceasefire violations along the Line-of-Control

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There does seem to be a discernible increase. Even so, ceasefire violations at this level are strategically meaningless unless they are married to a specific objective. The most likely such goal would be to give cover to cross-border militant infiltration aimed at stirring up trouble in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).

The former commander of the Srinagar-based XV Corps Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain believes that Pakistani troops have targeted the international border, rather than the Line-of-Control, this time round because “this is the best ground for infiltration and immediate targeting of suitable objectives in a very short time frame”.

But what do the data tell us?

Chart 2: Insurgent infiltration attempts in Jammu and Kashmir

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It’s pretty clear that infiltration attempts into J&K by armed insurgents have sharply declined over the past decade, judging from Home Ministry data (sourced from here and here). One dip occurred following the 9/11 attacks in the US as a result of which Pakistan was forced to reduce support to armed groups in Kashmir. The second dip occurred in 2004 after the November 2003 ceasefire with Pakistan which made it harder to infiltrate fighters across the border using covering fire. Furthermore, the rise in ceasefire violations since 2011 has led to no increase in crossborder incursions.

This fall in insurgent infiltration attempts has also contributed to an unambiguous decline in militant violence in the state (data from South Asia Terrorism Portal):

Chart 3: Fatalities from insurgent violence in Jammu and Kashmir 

The reduction in violence in J&K undoubtedly has many causes, but a decline in Pakistan-aided infiltration is clearly an important contributor. Consequently, a more aggressive posture on the border might play well to domestic audiences and TV channels, but would do nothing for political stability in J&K. On the contrary, if Pakistan does in fact intend for its border provocations to facilitate the movement of armed fighters into J&K, a “tougher” Indian policy would simply play into its hands (look here for a different argument that reaches the same conclusion).

An alternative explanation of Pakistan’s border behaviour draws on Pakistani domestic politics and on the power tussle between the military and civilian leadership in that country. But that’s for another time.