US Defence Secretary Robert Gates predicted during his visit to India that the Lashkar-e-Taiba, or LeT, would launch an attack on India to trigger an Indo-Pakistan conflict. While commending India’s restraint following the 26/11 Mumbai attack, he wondered whether India’s patience would endure in that case. The Pune attack signals that this testing moment has arrived for India. It is time for the Indian government, strategic community, media (especially the electronic media) and civil society to carefully assess India’s national interest — because, in all probability, the Pune terrorist attack is likely to be just the first; others, perhaps even more devastating, are likely to follow. Let us for the moment forget the partisan political rhetoric on the foreign secretaries’ talks and concentrate on threats to India and how to tackle them.
American and British forces have launched their biggest operation since 2001 in a place called Marjah in the Helmand province of southern Afghanistan. The US has every reason to be worried that the Afghan Taliban forces under attack will retreat into Pakistani territory and obtain a safe haven in which to regroup.
When Robert Gates spoke about the LeT triggering off an Indo-Pakistan conflict, he had in mind the precedent of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar being pursued by the Northern Alliance and being cornered in the Tora Bora mountains — only to discover a safe haven in Pakistan in December 2001. At that time the Pakistani army was supposed to block their entry into Pakistan. But General Musharraf withdrew his forces from the border to allow the Al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban leaders in. He justified his action with the alibi that Pakistan faced a threat from India under Operation Parakram, launched in the wake of the December 13 attack on Parliament by the LeT. In fact that attack was a deliberate trigger to cause an Indian mobilisation, thus providing Musharraf with an alibi. Gates was anticipating that the Pakistani army would again resort to the same trick to create Indo-Pakistanconfrontation that would be an alibi allowing the Pakistan army to let the Taliban retreat into Pakistan to save it from a rout. Ever since the Marjah offensive was imminent, the last few weeks, the US has issued a terrorist threat advisory.
That explains why Chidambaram says there was no intelligence failure. This attack was expected and it is logical to expect more LeT attacks — and probably more severe attacks, sufficiently provocative to create immense pressure on India to retaliate with a military response. Pakistan desperately wants Indian jingoistic rhetoric: talk of military response, our strategists holding forth on a “cold start” and our media screaming for retaliation. They may not need an actual military response; even our politics and media, if sufficiently jingoistic, will be adequate for Pakistan to move their troops away from their western border to the east, allow safe haven to the Afghan Taliban and blame it all on the “Indian threat”.
The next couple of weeks are crucial. Pakistan has to generate its alibi well before the Afghan Taliban are pushed across the border. The LeT will have prepared contingency plans for attacks on Indian targets and developed the appropriate sleeper cells to carry them out. In this respect David Headley will be a valuable source of information. The closest coordination between Indian and US security agencies is called for to assess the possible targets, the nature of the attacks and their intensities. It is not only necessary for Indian and US security agencies to cooperate but also to be seen to be cooperating.
Will the Americans allow themselves to be taken for a ride for a second time and allow the Afghan Taliban to escape? If so, then there is no way the surge strategy will work, and the US and NATO will have to purchase reconcilable Taliban and ensure they stay purchased. The latest US Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR) says that “the first (objective) is to prevail in today’s wars” — the first time this objective has appeared in a QDR. “Achieving our objectives in Afghanistan and Iraq has moved to the top of the institutional military’s budgeting, policy, and programme priorities. We now recognise that America’s ability to deal with threats for years to come will depend importantly on our success in the current conflicts.”
In other words, if the Americans do not win this campaign in Afghanistan they can forget about not only being a preeminent economic and technological power but a preeminent military power. They will have been defeated not by the Taliban — but by the wily ISI, that they themselves trained in the 1980s. Will that be acceptable? The Pakistanis will have reversed the results of the 2001 campaign, restored the Taliban to Afghanistan, sustained the LeT threats to the US homeland and perhaps kept alive Osama bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri.
India should not walk into the Pakistani trap. Can the government of India afford to do so?
The writer is a senior defence analyst