What to make of India’s surgical strike?

India’s punitive strike across the Line of Control could set a new norm

Whatever might be the consequences, it is clear that the Indian Army’s operation across the Line of Control in retaliation to a militant attack on its Uri camp is a landmark development. Now, it is common knowledge that both the Indian and Pakistani armies cross the LoC for tactical operations, and have been doing so for a long time.

Such operations, usually, have three characteristics: limitations in the depth of incursion, the extent of damage they cause and the level at which they are officially admitted. While we do not have all the details as of now, last night’s operation appears to have been deeper and more damaging. What distinguishes it from other tactical incursions along the LoC is the level at which they have been admitted: perhaps for the first time, New Delhi has officially announced that Indian troops carried out an attack authorised by the highest political authority.

This is significant because it changes the norm to one where India will use military force across its frontiers to respond to aggression by Pakistan’s proxies. Depending on the Pakistani reaction, the act might vindicate the arguments made by some strategists that India does have space for such punitive operations, within the escalation framework. If so, an important Pakistani bluff — that nuclear weapons will shield its terrorist proxies — will be called. [Related: See this detailed analysis of the India-Pakistan conflict escalation framework]

This, however, is only the story so far. The ball now is in Pakistan’s court. If the Pakistani military establishment continues to hold the position that there was no ‘surgical strike’ at all, and just the usual cross-border firing, then New Delhi would have succeeded in setting a new norm. However, if the Pakistani army decides that it cannot let this insult go unpunished, and responds tit-for-tat — operationally and in public posturing — then it will be up to the Modi government whether it wants to up the ante. There are good reasons for either course of action.

The Pakistani army’s initial reaction is what it is, an initial reaction. It could be used to obfuscate matters to cover a retaliatory attack. Or it could be a signal of not wanting to escalate the situation. At this time, therefore, it would be prudent for the Indian government and media to hold off excessive triumphalism.

Terrorist attacks on Mumbai – A preliminary assessment

Here is a preliminary, and hence, tentative assessment of yesterday’s terrorist attacks on Mumbai.

1. Regardless of who set off the three coordinated bomb blasts, it was an act of terrorism. Even if the explosives were set off by members of organised crime syndicates, as some initially suggested, they constitute terrorism. Terrorism is political theatre that primarily aims to create a psychological impact that then influences politics. Physical damage and casualties are secondary, as is the choice of ‘foot-soldiers’.

2. At this point, there are reasons to suspect that this attack was carried out by the Pakistani military-jihadi complex’s so-called Karachi setup (or the Karachi project). According to David Coleman Headley’s statement recorded by NIA:

“The Karachi setup is basically Abdurrehman’s@ Pasha setup. Pasha has since long been associated with operations in India. Headley believes that local Indian boys are involved in the Karachi setup. The aim of the Karachi Setup is to launch operations into India by using militants of Indian origin…the Karachi setup of Pasha has the complete backing of the ISI. Col Shah who was the handler of Pasha was actively involved in Karachi setup.”

Mr Headley notes that Pasha, who he says is associated with Harakt-u-Jihad Islami/al-Qaeda Brigade 313’s Ilyas Kashmiri, knew that the terrorists who attacked Mumbai trains in July 2006 were “local Indian boys.” He has named six Pakistani army officers as being involved in this setup. Mr Headley has also stated that the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) has its own Karachi setup that “aims to launch boys from Maharashtra and Gujarat into India using sea routes.”

3. The timing of the attack (when the Pakistani military establishment is under severe pressure from the United States), the location of one bomb close to Shiv Sena’s headquarters and the non-claiming of responsibility after the attacks are three key factors that point towards the Karachi project. To the extent that such attacks create tensions with India, the Pakistani military establishment can reclaim the popularity it has lost among the Pakistani people in recent weeks. LeT has shown an dogmatic obsession with the Shiv Sena. LeT usually does not claim responsibility for its attacks. Unlike in other recent cases, where the Indian Mujahideen sent out long manifestos and grievance sheets to mediapersons soon after/just before the attacks, none have been received so far.

There is also the matter of dates: many terrorist attacks have taken place either on the 13ths or 26ths of the month. Also, yesterday might have been the birthday of the sole surviving 26/11 terrorist, Ajmal Kasab. The initial statement recorded by Maharashtra ATS gives his birthday as July 13th, although in other records he gives it as September 13th.

The absence of the usual claim of responsibility suggest that the Indian Mujahideen were either not involved, could not or did not risk sending out the email. (Although a caller from Yemen did claim it was their handiwork). It is possible that their capabilities have been impaired as a result of law enforcement and counter-terrorism measures undertaken by the Indian government since 26/11.

5. Regardless of whether the attacks are traced back to Pakistan, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his government will be under severe pressure, from the public, from the opposition and from within its own ranks, over Pakistan policy. His dogmatic pursuit of dialogue with Pakistan will be called into question, weakening him even further.

6. In March this year, when questioned on India’s response to another 26/11-type attack, P Chidambaram, the home minister, had stated: “If India is attacked again, and we are reasonably convinced that the attack emanated from Pakistan, we will respond swiftly and decisively.” Now yesterday’s attack was not quite on the scale of 26/11 but it will most likely be be traced back to Pakistan. Given the relatively lower level of provocation, it is unclear if the UPA government will swiftly decide to respond.

7. Cliched as it may sound, tensions with India are just what the Pakistani military establishment needs at this moment. Therefore whatever swift and decisive measures the Indian government undertakes must ensure that it does not do anything to make the Pakistani generals popular again.

Oh, the delicacy

Superman, Batman and rogue elements in Pakistan’s security apparatus

A senior CIA official, we are told, traveled to Pakistan this month “to confront Pakistan’s most senior officials with new information about ties between the country’s powerful spy service and militants operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas.”

The New York Times report deals a delicate blow to the visiting Pakistani prime minister. The blow is blunt enough to connect the Pakistani establishment to the Taliban and al Qaeda, but careful enough to provide “Pakistan’s most senior officials” with an exit—for “it is unclear whether the CIA officials have concluded that contacts between the ISI and militant groups are blessed at the highest levels of Pakistan’s spy service and military, or are carried out by rogue elements of Pakistan’s security apparatus.”

Another delicacy: it reports that the CIA presented evidence of the ISI-Taliban nexus responsible for the resurgence in Taliban violance “possibly including the suicide bombing this month of the Indian Embassy in Kabul”. But also that while “Afghanistan’s government has publicly accused the ISI of having a hand in the attack”, it is an “assertion American officials have not corroborated.”

So was this trigger for last weekend’s botched attempt by Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani to bring the ISI under ‘civilian control’? Possibly. In the event, the CIA official’s effort didn’t amount to much. General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has demonstrated that it is he who is in charge of the ISI and would prefer to remain so. And that delicate thing about “rogue elements” is only a crutch for those who can’t stomach the reality.

Who orchestrated Rashid Rauf’s escape and why

Seven possibilities

1. The ISI—because Rauf was working for them, and, like Omar Saeed, just can’t be allowed to fall into the hands of British or American authorities. Like what Rauf’s lawyer alleges, he could have been “mysteriously disappeared”. If this is so, the good people at the Gulshan-e-Abad mosque might be the last ones to have seen him alive.

2. The ISI (Musharraf & Co)—because they wanted to hand him over to British authorities in an off-the-books transaction. The British authorities might, after a decent interval and due process, extradite two Baloch nationalist leaders that Pakistan wants in return. Since there would be no formal quid pro quo, the British government will avoid criticism for engaging in this ugly trade.

3. Jaish-e-Mohammed/Al-Qaeda/The ISI (Gul & Co)—because he was working for them and there was a risk that he would be extradited to the UK.

4. The British/Americans—because they suspected that the Pakistanis will never let Rauf fall into their hands, ever.

5. Rashid Rauf’s family—because he was family. The Rauf family does not lack resources or connections. The story of his escape suggests that the family did play a role in facilitating his escape. Whether they did so on their own accord, or were merely acting on behalf of someone else is the question.

6. The Baloch insurgents—because they wanted to prevent him being exchanged for Faiz Baluch and Hyrbyair Marri, Baloch nationalist leaders currently in British custody. The fact that there was official collusion in Rauf’s escape makes this explanation extremely unlikely.

7. Rashid Rauf himself—because the story of his escape, incredible as it seems, could actually be true. He seized the moment and fled.

Weekday Squib: How Rauf escaped

Please make it more believable!

When it was time to take Rashid Rauf back to Adiala jail after his court appearance, one of his uncles convinced the policemen on duty to use his comfortable Mitsubishi station wagon for the journey, instead of the usual police van. They stopped at a McDonald’s restaurant at Jinnah Park along the way. And then allowed Rauf and his uncle to pray at a mosque at Gulshan-e-Abad while they waited in the car outside. They even unlocked his handcuffs. After twenty minutes had passed, the policemen went in to see what was taking Rauf so long. And found that uncle and nephew had slipped out through the back door.

Quite a lot to swallow. Especially when Rauf’s lawyer says the uncle could not have been in the mosque because he was away in the Kashmir region.

They’ve formed a team to investigate how all this happened. They have started arresting uncles. But they are also saying that “at this time it is impossible to tell if Rashid Rauf is in Pakistan” and dropping hints that “it would be such a terrible thing” if he were to head for the North West Frontier Province and then on to Afghanistan.

One can understand that why the ISI should want to spirit him away. But taking the plot from Bollywood comedies is just too much.

Things that go Rauf into the night

The screenplay takes a surprising turn

Rashid Rauf freed himself from his handcuffs and melted away into the crowd. That he could unlock handcuffs is not the most surprising about his escape. For Rauf, one of Britain’s most wanted terrorists was being escorted to court by a grand total of two constables of the Pakistani police force. And Pakistan—where he pulled the Houdini act—is still a FATWAT. [Related Posts: Rauf and court]

But even that is not the most surprising thing about his escape. For he was treated as ordinary criminal because an anti-terrorism court in Pakistan dismissed charges of terrorism against him for the lack of evidence, and referred him ordinary courts to be tried for ordinary crimes, like forgery.

The Pakistani authorities just sprung the the prime suspect in a plot to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners from their own custody, to prevent his extradition to Britain. So here’s the most surprising thing of all: there are still some people in this world who believe they’ll help catch Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Update: Before he escaped, Rauf was allowed to stop by for lunch at a fast food restaurant and pray at a mosque.