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The Covert Option

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One has also to be realistic about countering terrorism. Like crime, it will never disappear completely, no matter what laws and agencies we have. It can only be deterred and contained. The Mumbai massacres are undoubtedly a lesson about our vulnerabilities, our huge security gaps, our disjointed reaction, our media hype and our weak response to Pakistan. As a result, we are today seeing the unfortunate spectacle of Pakistan, the obvious suspect in this case and many others that have preceded this, stealing the ground from under us and screaming that Islam and Pakistan are under threat from India. The suspect has changed the rules of the debate and smuggled in Kashmir into the equation.
Mumbai happened even though there was a semblance of some intelligence, but no one connected the dots. We may not be lucky next time, and there will be a next time unless we do several things in the short term and others in the long term. Every terrorist attack is a learning experience for the terrorist and he comes back stronger and deadlier. Unfortunately, the State learns less.
We must also admit that quite a few of the things that happen or do not happen do so because of the way we are. The contempt the citizen has for the law in India is visible on our streets all over the country, and the state shows its indifference when it fails to correct this. It is a sad reflection on our polity that promises bijli, sadak and paani (electricity, roads and water) as an election slogan 60 years after Independence. Obviously, the State has receded when we find that those who have the means no longer depend upon it. They get themselves a generator when the State does not supply electricity, dig tube wells when there is no water, and hire private guards when there is no security.
Tata Group Chairman Ratan Tata’s comment — “We will protect ourselves and we will try to deter such activities again and we will seek external expertise for the same’’ — has a significance that may have escaped many. What he is saying in effect is that India will have to move up from the present system of merely gated communities with unarmed guards to a system where the corporate sector must learn to anticipate and protect itself against lethal attacks. In a sense it means that the State will not or cannot protect or provide security to all its national assets. Possibly this means entering into the sphere of corporate warriors where each big corporate house has its own security apparatus more in the style of Blackwater, Dyncorp or Vinnel of the US. It was Dyncorp personnel who provided security to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai in the initial days. Considerable security work has been outsourced in Iraq and Saudi Arabia to private warriors. Maybe that is the need of the hour because the first thing that we need to do in the short term is to protect ourselves and to make our vulnerable national assets invulnerable.

EXTERNAL THREAT: With a 7,500-km sea frontier and porous land borders India will always
be vulnerable to terrorists (Reuters)

This would leave the State free to handle those responsible for spreading terror. This means taking on Pakistan differently from the way we have in recent years. Talking peace with Pakistan may be necessary, but we should not delude ourselves into assuming that Pakistan’s attitude will change. With a 7,500-km sea frontier and porous land borders, we will always be vulnerable to terrorist attacks launched by an implacable foe. They cannot be guarded by good intentions and fond hopes. Pakistan has been fighting a proxy war especially after 1971 at places and times of its choosing. It is a total war against India and we must treat it so. Other than adopting defensive postures, we have done precious little to teach the perpetrator a lesson.
Getting ready for Pakistan and its terrorists extends beyond modernising the armed forces with the latest aircraft, tanks or submarines. It means above all ensuring a highly professional and sharp intelligence capability. It means equipping our specialised forces with the most lethal and suitable equipment, and keeping them agile, trained and mobile for all times. It means empowering the local state units adequately in every sense of the word to be the first respondents in a crisis. It means developing a covert option.

This probably sounds sinister, but a country’s national interests are protected by hard-nosed realism and not by soft options. A State is respected by others only if it is able to protect its interests and project its power. If India is seen to be soft and weak by our neighbours, we will lose respect even here. The covert option is something many States have and they use it, too. The Americans are quite free and easy in announcing that they have set aside funds to destabilise an unfriendly regime. The same rules do not apply to us but the principles of trade craft are usable.
Covert action can be of various kinds. One is the paramilitary option, which is what the Pakistanis have been using against us. It is meant to hurt, destabilise or retaliate. The second is the psychological war option, which is a very potent and unseen force. It is an all weather option and constitutes essentially changing perceptions of friends and foes alike. The media is a favourite instrument, provided it is not left to the bureaucrats because then we will end up with some clumsy and implausible propaganda effort. More than the electronic and print media, it is now the internet and YouTube that can be the next-generation weapons of psychological war. Terrorists use these liberally and so should those required to counter terrorism.
The third weapon in the covert option is the use of cyber techniques. This is an ability to intercept cyber networks and communications, cripple systems and carry out counter attacks on the enemy’s systems. In a country that boasts its brain power, it should not be difficult to find such expertise.
Despite the latest drama on our borders, future wars are unlikely to engage massive armies locked in prolonged battle for real estate. Attacks could be of the Mumbai kind or come by stealth, master-minded by some computer whiz kid and the targets are our ways of life. Unless the State learns to be flexible and agile, and unless there is full international cooperation, it will always be an uphill struggle with the peak never really visible. The covert option is more than just blowing bridges and killing innocents. At all times, it should form part of a State’s armoury. It takes years to build this capability and just a few weeks to destroy this.

The author is a former secretary of Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW)
(Businessworld Issue 06-12 January 2009)

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