Concerns about secret US raids into Pakistan

US covert operations in Pakistan pose risks to India

There is something disturbing about US raids of the sort that killed Osama bin Laden. If the level of secrecy was so high that the Pakistani military establishment was not operationally aware of who was conducting the raid, if not for what purpose, there is a risk that the Pakistanis will reflexively react as if it were an Indian attack.

The White House counter-terrorism chief’s comments add to these concerns:

Q: And I understand that there was a moment of real tension, one with the helicopter, but then also when the Navy SEALs were leaving and the Pakistani government started scrambling their jets, and there was a concern that they were coming to where the U.S. troops were, where the Navy SEALs were. Was there an actual concern that the Pakistanis — since they were not apparently informed about this military operation, was there an actual concern that they might actually take military action against the Navy SEALs?

MR. BRENNAN We didn’t contact the Pakistanis until after all of our people, all of our aircraft were out of Pakistani airspace. At the time, the Pakistanis were reacting to an incident that they knew was taking place in Abbottabad. Therefore, they were scrambling some of their assets.

Clearly, we were concerned that if the Pakistanis decided to scramble jets or whatever else, they didn’t know who were on those jets. They had no idea about who might have been on there, whether it be U.S. or somebody else. So we were watching and making sure that our people and our aircraft were able to get out of Pakistani airspace. And thankfully, there was no engagement with Pakistani forces. This operation was designed to minimize the prospects, the chances of engagement with Pakistani forces. It was done very well, and thankfully no Pakistani forces were engaged and there was no other individuals who were killed aside from those on the compound. [White House, emphasis added]

The military establishment is paranoid about their “strategic assets” and the notion of US, India and Israel snatching Pakistan’s nuclear weapons has been deeply socialised within the population. Presuming that John Brennan is telling the truth, what this means is that raids like the one the US conducted in Abbottabad might be seen as attempts to defuse the nuclear arsenal, especially but not necessarily if they happen to be conducted in the vicinity of nuclear weapons storage sites. This sets up a game of Crown Jewel Panic, which poses asymmetric risks for India. [See 1 2 3 4]

It is in India’s interests that the United States share information with India or Pakistan well before it conducts such operations. Now there is a chance that if India is seen to be raising its guard after receiving such information, the Pakistani army will be more inclined to believe that something is afoot, thereby raising the risks to India. So informing the Pakistanis would be the best way to lower the risks of unintended consequences. But then, informing the Pakistanis might well defeat the whole purpose of the covert raid. Therefore, given that the risks disproportionately accrue to India, keeping New Delhi in the loop is a far better option than keeping it in the dark.

Obviously, the question is “Why would the Americans tell us?” It is easy to the usual route of cribbing that they never will. That route also leads to a cul-de-sac. The other route is to ask “How can New Delhi persuade Washington that it is better that they tell us first?” The latter route is likely to be more productive.

My op-ed in Mint: Why India must pull its troops back from the border

Let’s call Pakistan’s bluff with Operation Markarap

In today’s Mint, Sushant and I argue that moving our troops back will compel the Pakistan army to act against the Taliban; and because it is incapable of doing so, will cause the United States to realise that there is no alternative to dismantling the military-jihadi complex.

Sooner or later, the Obama administration will come to realise that it has no way to make the Pakistani military establishment seriously fight and defeat the jihadi groups, which includes the Taliban, al-Qaeda and outfits like the Lashkar-e-Taiba. When that moment comes, Barack Obama will need to choose between direct confrontation with the Pakistani military-jihadi complex and colossal strategic defeat—in the form of acceptance of a radical Islamist state with a well-developed nuclear weapons capability. It is in India’s interests that this point comes sooner rather than later. Needless to say, it is in India’s interests that the United States dismantle the military-jihadi complex. Clearly, this is far more important than merely putting some Lashkar-e-Taiba leader behind bars for carrying out the 26/11 attack on Mumbai.

Already, the Pakistani military establishment is under severe pressure from the United States to stop sponsoring jihadi militant groups on the one hand, and to actually join the fight against them on the other. Now, even in the unlikely event that the ISI decides to dismantle its jihadi connections, the army will still find it impossible to purposefully prosecute a counter-insurgency war against the Taliban. Why? Because the dominant belief among Pakistani military personnel—across the ranks—is that it is the United States that is the real enemy and the Taliban are righteous fighters for the Islamic cause. One only has to imagine what a brigade commander would say to his troops to motivate them to fight their compatriots to realise that the Pakistani army is incapable of fighting the Taliban. In a way, those who argue that the Pakistan army lacks the capacity to fight this war are right: but this is a lack of capacity that no amount of night-vision goggles and helicopter gunships can ameliorate. This unpalatable reality is obfuscated behind the India bogey—the pretence that the Pakistani army could do much better against the Taliban if only it didn’t have to defend itself from its much stronger adversary to its east.

If the ‘India threat’ were to recede, Pakistan—and for that matter the United States—will have no more excuses left to avoid having to do what is necessary. New Delhi should, therefore, call Pakistan’s bluff by mounting what we propose to call Operation Markarap.
Continue reading My op-ed in Mint: Why India must pull its troops back from the border