Writing in a post for his blog on The New Yorker, Steve Coll, an old and much respected hand on security affairs in South Asia had something interesting to say about the terrorist attack in Mumbai and the likely reaction from Pakistan. His argument is that the options for India are limited. Simply because the Pakistanis know that they are blessed when it comes to its relevance in geo-politics:
"The Pakistan Army understands this international equation thoroughly and exploits the gaps—it is careful not to expose its direct fingerprints, and yet it is brazenly persistent in pursuit of its objective of military pressure against India in Kashmir and political-military pressure on India more broadly."
So what are the options that India can exercise in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attack?
If the politicians are to be believed, there was a lot of sabre rattling at two meetings held by the government on Sunday, November 30 night. While the all-party meet called by the government was a more sedate affair, an earlier meeting organised exclusively for the UPA and its allies, held in Parliament was more telling. A representative of the Samajwadi Party is said to have suggested that this was a good time to "bomb Islamabad!"
Fine. Let's bomb Islamabad, assuming we have the capability to do so and that the frontline aircraft of the Indian Air force are all serviceable, the MiG-21s ready to escort the bombers, and we can launch a full-scale military attack by penetrating the secure skies over Islamabad and then bomb it back to the stone age.
But are we really ready for a war?
Are we ready for the fallout when two nuclear nations go to war? Are we ready for destroying everything that we have built in the last decade and a half? Are we prepared for rolling back our consistent 9 percent growth story and undertake hardships that several generations of Indians have never seen?
All this must be weighed before we take on the job of rattling our sabres. We did that once, post December 13, 2001 attack on Parliament. What did we really achieve from that 11-month old stand off with the Pakistanis? We stood on the border and they stood on the border, eyeball to eyeball, and we finally sent the forces back to the bunkers after that. But not before we had spent something to the tune of Rs 6000 crores (the official figures put it at a much lower figure pegging it a few hundred crores) and lost many precious lives of our soldiers, who stepped on mines not mapped, or tried to clear mines with bare hands while our bureaucrats held back critical mine clearing equipment.
Our air force, sanctioned 39.5 combat squadrons, is down to 30 off squadrons, our armoured corps doesn't have the tanks to roll in, our infantry is horribly tied up in counter-insurgency operations, our soldiers and officers are poorly paid and cheated in pay commission after pay commission, while we talk about "bombing Islamabad."
But there are options that one could look at as a credible response to these terror attacks.
More than us, more than the Americans or the British, it is the average Pakistani who knows that they are living in a failed state. They know that their economy is in shambles, their young men are becoming ready fodder for the terror factory and governance is being remote controlled by a military-industrial complex that is also making billions as we speak.
The international outrage that has emerged after the terrorist attack is an opportunity that rarely presents itself in a nation's history. This is the time to forge partnerships with all those willing to work with us. Intelligence cooperation has already been ramped up (the first warning for the current attack came from the Americans) and there are other diplomatic measures that are already underway. But, this is also the time to build partnerships with those elements in Pakistan who recognise the fact that the idea of Pakistan is in greater danger than from these terrorists than its declared enemies.
This is the time to look for partnerships in intelligence gathering -- not just the non-functional anti terror mechanism that was set up earlier, but a mechanism that produces hard, actionable intelligence that can be put to good use. This is the time to look at joint covert operations against terrorists and their infrastructure simply because this is a job that the Pakistanis cannot do on their own. The Americans, the British and the NATO forces are already in the region and this is as good a time as any to build partnerships with them.
Perhaps a partnerships sounds too utopian and unrealistic, a diplomatic impossibility in times of rhetoric. But look at the facts. There is no terror attack that can bend a nation as resilient as India. It has an innate strength that will ensure that the good news story, that India was, will continue to hold true.
A lot will have to be done to weed out the systemic failures in our security apparatus. It is not about "intelligence failure" and as this case has shown, our intelligence actually produced good stuff. By calling it "intelligence failure" we are trivialising the discussion to a level that is insulting to our counter-terror mechanism as well as security apparatus. Instead, we have to realise that systemic faults have to be addressed systematically. The overhaul, if the political leadership is willing, will have to happen over months, and perhaps years. But if politics goes back to the usual set of empty promises, the usual rhetoric and the usual coteries, that will be an attack on the very idea of India itself. And the time to act, is now.