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?!  

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.

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.

Rummaging Pulwama for India’s Strategic Culture

A couple of years ago, I was at a seminar where many eminent people from different walks of Indian life had gathered to share their thoughts on India’s Strategic Culture. The discussion, which began with great bonhomie, metamorphosed into an animated debate. There were those who eulogised all great Indians from Manu to Manmohan Singh. They recalled with reverence Shivaji, Maharana Pratap, Rani Laxmibai and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. They spoke in praise of Ashoka and Chandragupta Maurya; Mohanjodaro and Harappa; Nalanda and Takshila…. They were convinced that Chanakya and his Arthashatra were as great (read, “greater”) than Sun Tzu and his Art of War. They talked of the wars India has won against Pakistan including the surrender of 93,000 Pakistanis (1971). They skipped the Sino-India War (1962) and went gaga over India’s Space and Nuclear capabilities and its rich and varied culture and heritage…. “Wow! What a Strategic Culture!”

Chanakya

People on the opposite bench spoke of the so many times India has been invaded. They recalled some names with a lot of venom––Genghis Khan, Timur, Ghazni, Ghauri and the East India Company…. They argued that the Kashmir issue was poorly handled in 1947; we are still paying the cost of bad decisions. They held Prime Minister Nehru responsible for the debacle in 1962. They argued that the Indian Airlines Flight IC 814 shouldn’t have been allowed to leave India; there was no question of releasing Masood Azhar. On the issue of the rescue of President MA Gayoom of the Maldives (Operation Cactus, November 1988), they were sure that India (like the US, the UK, and Pakistan etc.) shouldn’t have extended military assistance––the returns were not commensurate with the risk involved. For sure, India was the proverbial cat’s paw that pulled the chestnuts out of the fire for the Maldivians. In Kargil, India was caught napping…. “Does India have a Strategic Culture at all?”

In the Q&A hour, intellectuals raised doubts, asked questions and commented. I kept mum for I didn’t want to prove my ignorance. I felt relieved when the learned chair concluded that it was important to define the term “Strategic Culture” before one could talk about “India’s” Strategic Culture and there was no clear definition of that term. My relief knew no bounds when, during the high tea after the event I interacted with people and discovered that most of us (if not all) were sailing in the same boat.

Discussion, and the debate over, I consigned “Strategic Culture” to some far recesses of my mind for I had more pressing issues to turn to; we all have pressing issues, including children. Publication of my book was top on my list of priorities at that time.

Until Pulwama…

Rummaging Pulwama

Today everyone, literally everyone, is talking (on television, texting, tweeting, whatsapping…) about India’s Strategic Culture, or some such thing––the same debate and the same arguments have resurfaced. Only the discussants are more vociferous, more clamorous and very aggressive.

I wonder: “At this point in time, is a definition of Strategic Culture or a knowledge of India’s Strategic Culture important? Is it going to help in any way? Is this the time to think of doctrines, recall principles of war, military strategy––the theory?”

I am reminded of a young cricketer at the nets a day before a major game. Just when he hit the ball over the boundary, his coach came to him and said that that was not the way to hit the ball. He reprimanded him for his wrong technique and started teaching him the ‘textbook’ way of doing what he was doing.

“But where’s the ball, coach?” the player asked as he looked at the ball being recovered from the spectator stand.

In tune with what I said the other day, I add:“The time to learn theory has long gone; it is time to act. Rummaging Pulwama for India’s Strategic Culture will be an exercise in futility. Let those on the stage perform unhindered. Let others just W-A-T-C-H. Those of us who have performed our acts really well (when we were on the stage) will be approached for direction, if deemed necessary.”

Kandahar Hijack: A Revisit in the Aftermath of Pulwama

Among others, a phoenix that rises after almost every terror strike is the issue of hijack of the Indian Airlines Flight IC 814 (Airbus A300) en route from Kathmandu to Delhi on December 24, 1999. The crisis ended after India agreed to release Masood Azhar, along with some other terrorists. The released terrorists were later implicated in other acts of terror, like the gruesome murder of Daniel Pearl (2002) and the Mumbai Terror Strike (2008).

Hijacked Indian Airlines Airbus 300 at Kandahar

Therefore, after Pulwama, a recall of Kandahar appears to be a natural public impulse. The decision of the Bajpai Government to barter Masood Azhar for the passengers and the crew is being criticised yet again. Many are suggesting that India should not have let go of Masood; it is being lamented that India is paying the cost for that ‘wrong’ decision. It is fashionable to cite the example of Israel in dealing with terror strikes and their policy of never-succumbing-to-the-demand of the terrorists to release their brethren in return for Israeli hostages.

The fact is that Israel does have a rigid policy on the subject. Israel has dealt with situations on case-to-case basis. Kozo Okamoto, a member of the Japanese Red Army fighting for the PLO was caught alive by the Israeli security forces after the Lod Airport Massacre in 1972 (17 killed; 22 injured). Although sentenced to life imprisonment he (along with some PLO members) was bartered for a few Israeli soldiers held by the PLO.

In another case, Israel had almost agreed to release PLO men in its jails in return for the hundred odd Air France passengers (mostly Israeli) held hostage at Entebbe Airport (Uganda 1976). But the delay in the return of Idi Amin (the Ugandan dictator who was away) to Kampala gave them an opportunity to plan and carry out the daring raid to rescue the hostages (the daring Entebbe Raid). The Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was supported by the entire parliament.

The Israeli leadership decides when, and when not, it is in Israel’s interest to accede to the demands of the terrorists and acts accordingly. The public and the opposition parties do not question the wisdom of the leadership––they do not pester the leadership either way.

Returning to Kandahar, the Indian leadership did what it considered best under those circumstances. Post Pulwama, it is unfair to criticise the then government and the security forces for their actions. Kandahar is past––lessons have been learnt and ways of dealing with similar situations in the future have been worked out.

In the current situation, all political parties have shown remarkable maturity by extending support to the government. It would be best to leave the government and the military leadership (who are in the know of things) to decide the best course of action.

Pulwama Terror Strike

A parting thought.

For Israeli state, it is a question of survival; they have reason to respond to situations the way they do. They also have full support of major world powers in everything they do. Our leadership and military has to go it alone. We’ll do well not to breathe down their necks as they plan and execute an appropriate response. Let’s not indulge in candlelight marches, burn tyres, and block roads to pressurise those who need to remain calm at this juncture. Think of it: such actions only cause global warming, traffic snarls and loss of productivity. Still worse, they might force a knee-jerk reaction. Let’s give the government and the military the elbowroom to act freely.