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.