Dead Men Tell No Tales. Do Dead Terrorists Do?

There was carnage in Sri Lanka last month on Easter Sunday. The Lankans had somehow missed out on (read “doubted”) the lead provided by the Indian intelligence agencies and paid a heavy price for it (Aftermath of Lanka Blasts: Of Open Stable Doors and Bolting Steeds). Perhaps some of the blasts could have been averted had they heeded the Indian warning. Oh really!?  But then those very Indian agencies that provided a ‘clue’ to the Sri Lankans could not place a finger on the Pulwama terror attack in time. Was it a ‘lapse’ or ‘failure of intelligence’ as the media often dubs it? Can they be held responsible (squarely) for the terror strike? There are no straight answers to those rhetorical questions. There can’t really be. One can debate them, with no conclusion whatsoever, till the cows come home.

Needless to say, the job of the intelligence agencies is becoming tougher by the day. Sifting the mountains of information that they come across and zeroing on what matters, before the terrorists execute their missions, is not an enviable job. It is definitely more challenging than looking for a needle in the haystack.

Time to take stock

Dead men tell no tales but dead terrorists do. If one were to go by the media reports, the security forces have recovered a sketch from the body of a terrorist killed in an encounter in Shopian earlier this week. The sketch indicates that terror groups are planning suicide attacks at Indian Air Force bases at Srinagar and Awantipur.

How seriously, can such ‘sketches’ or any other clues be taken? Is another Pathankot, Uri or Pulwama brewing? May be; may not be. Could this ‘sketch’ just be a red herring; could the actual target be different––Delhi? Mumbai? Bengaluru? Hyderabad? Noida? Ghaziabad?

Read on, for a lesson from the past…

Target?

At a time when the World War II was peaking and the Germans and the Italians were wondering about the Allied plans in the Mediterranean, the British engineered a smart ruse. They got the body of a soldier, who had died of pneumonia and dressed him in the attire of a Royal Navy Courier and gave him the identity of one ‘Major Martin’. They secured a briefcase to his wrist, the way classified documents were carried in those days, and left his body floating at sea, off a Spanish Port. The briefcase contained ‘secret’ letters––addressed to British diplomats in Cairo indicating an Allied intention of landings in Greece. As expected, the dead Major Martin was found by some Spaniards and handed over to their Government officials. The Spaniards photographed the documents before handing over the body (and the briefcase) to the British Naval Attaché in Madrid. And again, as expected the Spaniards turned over the photographs of the documents to the Germans who took them to be genuine.

The ruse worked; the Germans were grossly misled. The British and the American airborne forces landed at Sicily and ‘surprised’ the Germans.

“Dead men (and may be, dead terrorists) can tell cooked up tales to cover their trails.”

So?

That terror groups in Jammu and Kashmir are planning attacks in the Valley is a new normal. In this instance the intelligence agencies have logically concluded that Pakistan-based groups might carry out an attack on May 23, the day when counting of votes for Lok Sabha election 2019 will take place. Although, as per the reports, Indian Air Force bases in Srinagar and Awantipur are the likely targets, nothing prevents the terrorists from changing their mind. Or, do they already have a ‘different’ plan? Who knows? Therefore, a really tough time awaits the intelligence agencies and security forces.

Three simple things that a common man can do to strengthen their hands are:

  • Share information only if it is a must, after verifying the truthfulness.
  • Travel and congregate only if it is a must––roads clear of undue traffic, and less crowded public spaces, enhance the efficiency of the intelligence and security personnel.
  • Stay vigilant.

Not a tall order?!  

Jay, Veeru & India-China Relations

What if the world we live in was Utopia? And the countries of the world played golf (rather than rugby)?

Utopia is Utopia. To simplify the other analogy, golf is a game in which, ideally speaking, one plays with one’s own ball, as it lies. Emphasis added on ‘as it lies’. So, what if countries pursued their agenda without jeopardising the interests of others?

Or, at least, countries did not behave like the proverbial dog in the manger––doing little on their own but raising hue and cry when another one tried to do something in its best interest. Allusion here is to the countries of the world (including India) not doing their (enough) bit to gain from the trade and commerce that is available to them but envying (read ‘being jealous of ’) China. For example,countries not doing enough to woo the Dark Continent or Latin America but raising a hue and cry when China lands there and starts reaping benefits; and sending those benefits back home to Beijing.

Another example is the Chinese initiative on the connectivity of countries of the region––Xi’s ambitious OBOR Project. The countries that have joined the mega project know what is good for them and what is not. They have got on the bandwagon with conscious volition. Period.

Why should others (read India) bark?

Because in real life, this world is not Utopian, and the countries are not playing golf. And even those that appear to be playing golf are not playing the ball as it lies––honestly. At least one American President in the recent years has been notorious for(blatantly) improving the lie of the ball. Let’s spare the US and the US Presidents for the time being, since China and India are the subject matter of this post.

It was fine so long as China was pursuing its trade and commerce for its own good in the countries surrounding India; a little adverse effect also would have been an acceptable outcome. But then,China began pursuing its interests at the cost of India’s. The GMR issue in the Maldives, for example, was a setback for India.

India-China Relations

If that was not enough, China started establishing its military bases in return for the infrastructure it developed for the host countries. Acquisition of Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka and the islands leased to it by the Maldives are some of the many cases in point. Besides, the CPEC running through POK is a cause for great concern for India. China’s initiatives in Nepal and the Doklam standoff confirm that it is not Utopia; it is not golf either.

So, what could or should be India’s approach?

Those who occupy offices in the North and South Blocks and steer the destiny of this country know it best, but here is a simple suggestion for whatever it’s worth.

Jay-Veeru Relations

For a moment, recall the Jay (Amitabh Bachchan), the Veeru (Dharmendra) and the Mausi (Basanti’s Aunt) of the Bollywood classic, Sholay. Recall also, how Jay paints a (dark) picture of Veeru for Mausi: “…a good guy until he drinks. He drinks when he is sad. He is sad when he loses money… gambles, visits brothels, blah… blah… otherwise a good guy.”

Can India do to China what Jay did to Viru? Can India paint China’s character for its prospective host countries the Jay way: “China coming to your country would be a great thing. You’ll be able to boast about enviable infrastructure. Your country will progress in leaps and bounds. But of course, the Chinese will use their work force and machinery and building material. So what if your people don’t get employment, they’ll learn good things by being (sorry) spectators. Besides, there will be signs of prosperity, so what if you have to seek more loans to pay the interest on the Chinese debt…. After all being in perpetual debt is not all that bad a thing for a country. Things could be even worse. Haven’t Sri Lanka, the Maldives and even Pakistan benefitted from Chinese largesse?”

Two things need to be borne in mind while dealing with China…

One: For long India has been responding (reacting) to Chinese moves. Pre-empting China on known turfs will consume much less effort than dowsing the fires it lights for India in the future.

Two: Countries are run by people. By human beings who are made up of flesh and bones and blood. And they have a mind. And they have a mind that knows (learns) fear. The fear of notional (and national) loss and slavery is a fear. It can give nightmares, if not to (a corrupt) leadership, at least to the intelligentsia of a country. That fear is the key.

A conscientious three-pronged effort by the diplomatic corps, by those who pursue national interest on parallel tracks and by those who promote people to people contacts with other countries, can go some way in dealing with a less sporting neighbour.

MiG-21 Bison & F-16 in the Eyes of a Goof

A New Golf Set

My pride in my brand new Grand Slam Powerbilt golf set was blown to smithereens when I saw a caddie––in tattered trousers and oversized shoes––lob a golf ball beautifully over a bunker on to a practice green. The club he used was not a branded lob wedge but the branch of a tree, which resembled a walking stick. I was incapable of performing that feat.

Unbelievable, but true!

Although the golf set I was using was gifted to me by Mahesh, my nephew, that incident, more than a dozen years ago, made me wonder, “Was it worth it to invest a couple of thousand rupees in a costly golf set, when a similar result could be obtained with an ordinary old set (or a stick)?” The example of the caddie lobbing a ball with a stick was playing on my mind. Secretly, I envied that urchin to no end.

I’ll give a pause to golf for the time being for there’s a more pressing issue to discuss.

The Indomitable MiG-21 Bison

The other day, an Indian Air Force MiG-21 Bison downed a Pakistan Air Force F-16. That’s what they say, and that’s what my feeling of nationalism, which is overflowing at this moment, makes me believe. In the many debates that ensued on the prime time television and in the electronic and print media, I found some people suggesting that MiG-21 aircraft was a match for the F-16. In fact, it was the other way round. They said, “F-16 is no match for the MiG-21 aircraft.” Mind the subtle difference!

F-16

Some suggested that Indian fighter pilots––with their Su-30 Mk I, Mirage 2000, Tejas and MiG series of combat aircraft––were too good, and were capable of matching any adversary. Hesitantly though, some experts broached the subject of urgency to procure the Rafale fighter aircraft. They felt that it was important to remove the doubts about the kickbacks before procuring the aircraft.

In a vibrant democracy people are not only entitled to opinions, they’re free to air them too.

Returning to golf. In due course of time I realised that the youngster could do little more than lob the ball a few yards away with that stick. To strike the ball long, or putt it, he needed a proper club––a stick of any shape or size was no good. When I gave him a pair of better shoes and one of my golf clubs, he displayed even superior prowess.

I set aside my envy and focussed on my game with the new set. My spirit was high; and my game improved––a few more pars and an odd birdie on the whole. I started winning more games against my usual partners. Interestingly, the scores of some of my opponents dipped. “How can we match your superior new golf set?” said one.

To conclude: Ability of the man behind the machine (equipment) matters; it is of utmost importance. But good equipment not only improves his performance but also raises his morale and goes on to intimidate the adversary. It’s time to address the equipment needs of the Indian armed forces in the right earnest. Today, the morale of the adversary is at a low ebb. Delay in enhancing our capabilities will give time to the adversary to recoup and re-muster its strength.

Balakot Airstrike & the Art of Drawing Lessons

A scientist placed a frog on a table and yelled, “Frog, jump!” The frog leapt forward two feet to the middle of the table. The scientist adjusted his spectacles, read the information flashing on the digital displays of the sophisticated equipment placed in the vicinity and scribbled some observations. He then picked up the amphibian and put it back at the starting point. Without any emotions, he removed (read “chopped”) its hind legs with surgical precision and yelled again, “Frog, jump!” The incapacitated being did not move an inch. “Eureka!” The heart of the jubilant scientist took a leap; he flipped open his notepad and wrote this inference: “The amputation of the hind limbs of an amphibian at an ambient temperature of 27ºC affects its tympanic membranes so that there is a hundred per cent loss of hearing (at 100 db, 25,000 Hz).

Drawing conclusions, inferences and lessons is an art.

Imran surrenders to a moustache

It is inappropriate to talk of a scientist and a frog when the flavour of the day is the airstrike by the IAF across the border at Balakot in Pakistan.

An expert with a TV channel has made an observation that Wing Commander Abhinandan took a hundred and thirty two steps in seven minutes to cross the Attari-Wagah border. Another one has concluded that Imran (Pakistan) surrendered to a moustache (that of Abhinandan).

That was for dark humour.

MiG-21 outwits F-16

On a serious note, a conclusion that some are drawing is that an F-16 aircraft is no match for a MiG 21 Bison. Perhaps it is a conclusion that has been reached a little too early by “experts” sitting in the cosy comforts of their drawing rooms. The fog of war has not cleared yet. Abhinandan’s version of the story is yet to become public.

This is a time for restraint; time to hold the horses and to avoid jumping to conclusions. Drawing inferences, conclusions and lessons is an art, a rare art. It better be left to the real experts.

For now, the question is:

Would the availability of a state of the art fifth generation fighter aircraft in IAF inventory have deterred Pakistan from daring to enter Indian airspace?

An expert is not needed to answer that question.

Pakistan, India & the Art of War

Dictionaries left by the British in the government offices at the time of India’s Independence were torn apart so that a country could take the pages with the alphabet from A-L and the other could own those with M-Z. That was the level of mutual antagonism between India and Pakistan on the eve of partition in 1947 as per Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. The hostility has compounded over the years. While Zulfikar Ali Bhutto sought to wage a war for a thousand years, General Zia ul Haq was determined to bleed India through a thousand cuts.

India-Pakistan

The two neighbours have pursued different Arts of War over the years. Pakistan has bled India for over three decades through covert operations. India has borne the brunt of acts of terrorism sponsored by Pakistan without retaliating decisively against that country, or against those orchestrating the attacks from its soil. The terror strike at Uri, and the one at Pulwama that left over 40 CRPF men dead, has changed the status quo. It has made India deviate from a path of reconciliation and take the path of retaliation.

The Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi gave the armed forces a “free hand in choosing the time, place and the nature” of the response to Pulwama Terror attack. He added that each drop of tear of the families of the martyrs would be avenged. The Rubicon had been crossed. The pre-emptive airstrike by IAF fighters on the terrorist training camps at Balakot (Pakistan) twelve days after the Pulwama terror attack, left Pakistan stunned, as if struck by an earthquake.

In effect, the aftershocks have been no less spectacular. India withdrew the “Most Favoured Nation” status accorded to Pakistan, and raised the excise duty to 200%. India’s action to re-commence work on the dams on the Indus and other rivers has jolted Pakistan. Although indirect, the withdrawal of security to the separatist leaders in J&K has also been a setback to Pak interests. To the detriment of Pakistan, all the opposition parties in the Indian Parliament have also pledged support to the government. Through conscientious diplomatic effort, India has managed to get Pakistan isolated on the world stage. Even China, its all-weather friend has since maintained graveyard silence. The US called on Pakistan to immediately end the support and dismantle the safe haven provided to the terrorist groups operating from its soil. The invitation to India as the ‘Guest of Honour’ to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Meeting in Abu Dhabi has been the proverbial last straw that has broken the camel’s (read Pakistan’s) back.

Pakistan released Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, the IAF pilot who had landed up in Pak custody after ejecting from his fighter aircraft. Although, Imran Khan said that it was a goodwill gesture to promote peace, the fact is that an isolated Pakistan has succumbed to the cumulative pressure created by India.

With its economy in shambles, Pakistan cannot afford to wage a full-scale war. Besides, a full-scale war can lead to its dismemberment; trouble is brewing in the country’s northwest. Pakistan now knows well the consequences of waging a proxy war against India. In one of his televised addresses recently, Imran Khan had spoken of possible ‘miscalculation’ by either side. If he was obliquely hinting at the possible use of nukes, he is also aware of India’s ability to absorb the first strike and India’s capability of a second strike. For sure, he is well aware of the asymmetry, too.

The Art of War

Sun Tzu says: “When you surround an army (read enemy), leave an outlet free. This does not mean that the enemy is to be allowed to escape. The object is to make him believe that there is a road to safety, and thus prevent his fighting with the courage of despair.

Has India left a road to safety for Pakistan? What’s it?

India has left an option for Pakistan. Pakistan’s road to safety (and peace for its people) is through handing over the likes of Masood Azhar and Dawood Ibrahim to India, and to dismantle the terror training camps flourishing in its backyard.

A Black Swan at Balakot

Black Swan: Rarity, impact & predictability

A Black Swan event has three attributes. First, it is (most) unexpected; cognition excludes any likelihood (at all) of its occurrence. Second, its outcome is spectacular. And the third, despite its unexpectedness, people get down to concocting explanations to justify its occurrence. These can be summed as rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective predictability. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book, The Black Swan explains the concept.

Air raid on the terror camps in Balakot (Pakistan) by IAF fighters in the wee hours of February 26, 2019 displays these three attributes of a Black Swan event. The event was unexpected, keeping the feeble Indian response to similar provocations in the past: the Parliament Attack (2001), the Mumbai Terror Attack (2008), and the Pathankot Terror Strike (2016)… the list is long. And, even after the recent terror attack on the CRPF convoy in Pulwama, there was a view that India lacked the will to respond to such provocations. On that occasion, as always, whether India had a Strategic Culture to respond to provocations became a point of intellectual debate. I too had contributed my anna bit to the discourse (Read Rummaging Pulwama for India’s Strategic Culture).

The Balakot Air Strike

Let alone the outcome, which is being questioned by Pakistan, the very act of the IAF fighters crossing the border and releasing ordnance over the terror camps is a spectacular act. It was unimaginable until it happened; how it stunned everyone needs no further elucidation.

Volumes can be written on the third attribute––on the retrospective predictability. People attribute the happening of Balakot Air Strike to so many reasons: The political will, the pressure from the people, the moral high ground, the economic and military power that India wields today, and its recent diplomatic achievement in isolating Pakistan…. There are as many explanations as the number of armchair strategists.

In retrospect, the surgical strike by the Indian Army after the Uri Attack was a Black Swan event too.  

In the immediate present and now, Uri and Balakot are a thing of the past. The success of those raids/ attacks has raised the bar for India––several notches in one go. Now, a stage has been reached when perhaps even a Neptune Spear type raid (killing of Osama Bin Laden) by the Indian Special Forces to eliminate any of the terror leaders hiding in Pakistan will not come as a surprise, not even for the Pakistan’s military. Thus, even if it were to come to pass, a raid to eliminate the terror leaders, it would not qualify to be a Black Swan event. By implication, its success might be iffy.

For sure, Uri and Balakot are a thing of the past. The return gift from Pakistan for India’s Black Swan––another Black Swan––is a much anticipated and awaited thing. And, for sure, no amount of preparedness would be enough to fully absorb a true Black Swan event.

So?

Let the political and the military leadership and the diplomatic corps of the day have their way. They have pulled it this far; they definitely have plans for the future. While they are doing their bit to restore some semblance of normalcy in the region, they are also prepared, to the extent possible, to meet the retaliation on all fronts. The noise and din in the streets and in the media can only distract them.

Prudence demands that they be allowed to concentrate.

Nuclear Terrorism: Need to Tweak the Way We Think

In December 1980, the US President received a recorded message from Muammar Al-Qadafi the President of Libya threatening to detonate a nuclear device that had been smuggled into New York unless his conditions with regards to Palestine were met within a stipulated time. There was an adjunct: In case the US President made that communication public, or made any effort whatsoever, to evacuate New York City, Qadafi would be obliged to detonate the device instantly. The recorded message was accompanied with enough documentary evidence (a blueprint and four pages of mathematical formulae) to remove any doubt about the ability of the sender of the message to execute his threat. The intelligence agencies confirmed that the voice was that of Qadafi. The threat was R-E-A-L.

Nuclear Terrorism

That was fiction: “The Fifth Horseman” by the duo of Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre (1980). But what President Gerald Ford experienced earlier, in 1974, was not fiction. A group of Palestinians had threatened to detonate an atomic device in the heart of Boston unless eleven of their men in Israeli prisons were released. Notwithstanding the threat, Ford did work on an evacuation plan. Meanwhile, the blackmailers were caught and the threat turned out to be a hoax.

After that incident the US came up with a secret organisation to deal with such threats, real or hoax. Fiction and fact, this issue of nuclear blackmail did not end just there.

After the publication of the book (The Fifth Horseman), two journalists interviewed Qadafi and asked him what he thought of the book by Collins and Lapierre in which he had been projected as one terrorising the US with a nuclear device. Until then Qadafi had not known about the book, or the plot. He responded mysteriously, “In (any) case if ever that were to happen (Qadafi were to smuggle a nuclear device into a US city), it would be your fault because you gave me the idea.”

Fast forward to today and now. Nuclear Terrorism is no longer a figment of imagination; it is a reality. A news item published in an obscure corner of The Times of India (of Friday, February 22, 2019) reports a man being interrogated by the IB and the sleuths. He had confided that a girl he was communicating with on a dating app was talking about a nuclear attack on Delhi and that Rashtrapati Bhawan would be blown up.

Real threat, or hoax!?

There are reasons to believe that India, like the US and others, has plans and machinery to handle such threats and crises. The architects of India’s Nuclear Doctrine have crafted some of the most well defined guidelines (on nuclear issues). There is much substance in the “No First Use” policy that India professes.

India’s Nuclear Doctrine, the command and control structure etc. etc. are not the subject matter of this post––they have been very well articulated. Of concern today––in the post Pulwama rhetoric on both sides of India’s western border––is the ability of the Indian military apparatus to respond to a possible nuclear misadventure by an adversary or its proxy.

Are we prepared for a prompt (read “lightning”) and befitting response?

Hmm!!! Well, with the nuclear arsenal that it possesses, India can turn a prospective adversary into rubble (even after absorbing the first strike). There is no iota of doubt about that. What about the will to do just that? Read on…

When the balloon goes up, it will be the armed forces personnel who would be taking the physical actions to launch nuclear weapons––missiles, aircraft, warships or submarines.  Generations of those very officers, who would be expected to act with great alacrity, have been fed on the idea that: “Nuclear weapons are not the weapons for fighting; they are meant for deterrence.” Although this is an undeniable fact, at times the stress laid on it, is far too much. Anyone who even appears to tow a different line even in theory or for the sake of an argument, does not find favour with the directing staff and senior officers who conduct war games. Officers with divergent views are sometimes ridiculed by their superiors/ colleagues.

An officer who has been groomed and trained for years to treat nuclear weapons as meant “ONLY FOR DETERRENCE” if, and when, ordered to fire a nuclear missile, would pause and have second thoughts. He would be inclined to verify the authenticity of the order. In a war involving use of nuclear weapons, a delay of a few seconds to respond to first use by an adversary might result in considerable degradation of the capability to cause unacceptable damage to the attacker.

So? Those who wear military uniforms need not be told that the weapons in their charge are not meant for use; they only need to be apprised––loudly, clearly and publicly, “These are weapons of mass destruction, use them only under the explicit orders of the leadership. This small change in approach will certainly not turn our fine men into trigger-happy warmongers. If at all, it will improve the response and make the deterrence more effective.