The reaction from the other side

Post-surgical matters

Last night, militants attacked a Border Security Force-Rashtriya Rifles camp in Baramulla, killing one trooper and injuring another. Coming a few days after India announced that it had carried out surgical strikes across the Line of Control, the attack on Baramulla will be seen through the prism of ‘retaliation’ from the Pakistani side.

There are two broad ways of looking at this attack: First, the jihadi components of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex (MJC) are retaliating after last week’s strike by the Indian Army.

Second, that this is part of a larger campaign by the MJC to use militants to target Indian military/security installations along the Indian-Pakistan frontier: Gurdaspur, Pathankot, Uri and now Baramulla, fit the pattern. The intention of such discriminating attacks could be to unsettle the Indian government as it attempts to manage the political turmoil in the Kashmir valley. It could also be to provoke the Indian armed forces to an extent to make the 2004 ceasefire defunct, to undermine political overtures like the one Narendra Modi engaged in late last year and to escalate the conflict to a level that will re-attract international attraction.

Given the timeline, the latter explanation is more likely: it does not exclude the first explanation that this is Pakistani retaliation, but rather, that this Pakistani retaliation is part of its overall strategy. However, if in the days to come, the number, scale and scope of jihadi attacks on Indian targets intensify then we can conclude that the MJC is escalating the conflict using jihadis (rather than the military) as instruments.

An interception in the Arabian Sea

Dissecting the national security issues

The Indian Coast Guard’s interception of a suspect vessel just inside country’s exclusive economic zone in the Arabian Sea, off the Gujarat coast quickly moved from being a national security issue to a partisan political issue. While politicisation of national security is not necessarily bad in itself, the polarised circumstances in which it is taking place leave no space for a reasoned discourse. As of this writing, online outrage was picked up by some of New Delhi’s rageboys for physical protests outside a newspaper’s office.

While partisan politics takes its course, there are two questions of public interest that need to be examined. First, who were the occupants of the suspicious boat, what were they up to, and importantly, how did Indian authorities assess the threat and authorise action? Second, was the Coast Guard right in doing what it did?

Given what we know, and given what the Coast Guard knew at the time, it is impossible to be certain who was in the boat and what they were up to. From the facts that are not in dispute, it is highly unlikely that they were innocent fishermen. They could have been part of a terrorist operation to ship arms, explosives, people, money, fuel or other dangerous material. They could have been part of a smuggling racket dealing with contraband of a similar nature. They could have been both. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said he thinks they were suspected terrorists. Praveen Swami, quoting unnamed sources–and he has among the best ones in New Delhi–suggests that they were probably smugglers. The Defence Ministry is conducting an investigation and we might know in good time, or–given that there’s no physical evidence left of the boat–we might not.

This brings us to the second question: in the circumstances, was the Coast Guard right to act in the way it did? This is a matter of judgement. After the 26/11 attack on Mumbai, the Coast Guard cannot be faulted for being aggressive in neutralising a perceived threat. There has also been an escalation of tensions along the India-Pakistan border, an escalation of conflict within Pakistan, open mobilisation of the Lashkar-e-Taiba leadership and cadre. The impending Republic Day parade and President Barack Obama’s visit to India as the ceremonial chief guest on January 26th are also factors that raise risks for a threat of any given likelihood. The Coast Guard in this context, in The Acorn’s judgement, did well to neutralise a suspicious boat whose intentions are highly unlikely to be bona fide. There might be questions of international law and precedent, but they are subsidiary to national security.

What, then, should we make of this episode? First, The National Security Council must use the opportunity to review and streamline the process that begins with an intelligence input to action on the ground, on in the water as in this case. Credible media reports suggest that there were gaps and jumps. Second, the Coast Guard and the Indian Navy must review procedures pertaining to rules of engagement, and enhance training to handle such threats. In a book published two years ago, this blogger had argued that India’s maritime security forces are sailing deeper into an era of ‘violent peace’, and will see a rise in threats from unconventional mariners. Finally, as pointed out in the same book, the Indian government (and this includes the armed forces) need more sophisticated information strategies in order to acquire narrative superiority. In simple terms, this means acting in ways that avoid controversy.