Thursday, January 07, 2016
The conspiracy angle to the Pathankot episode
In the pro-establishment version, the anti-terror operation in Pathankot was triggered by the Pakistani ‘deep state’ unwilling to countenance potential success of the initiatives unleashed by Mr. Modi in his characteristic style of bold leadership. The ‘deep state’ was therefore out to derail it, just as it had truncated the earlier Lahore peace process. While this time the scale of their action was not quite another Kargil, they were messaging their disapproval not only to India but also to India’s interlocutors, in particular Nawaz Sharif, and pro-India constituencies in Pakistan such as business interests. In so far as there were drawbacks in the operational conduct, there was mention of security gaps in the media coverage of the visit of the defence minister accompanied by the army and air chiefs.
There is much to commend the pro-establishment version of the episode. Pakistan’s ‘deep state’ comprising its army and the ISI, while of a piece with Pakistan reaching out to India, are wary of India attempting to set the pace. The army has attempted to retain control by replacing the National Security Adviser with a former military man. Yet, they are worried by initiatives such as Mr. Modi’s stopover in Lahore, evident from the Pakistani NSA keeping aloof from the function. They are also perhaps as confused as ordinary Indians are over the periodic about turns in Mr. Modi’s Pakistan policy, which at last count were on four occasions, with the foreign secretary talks currently lined up in Islamabad being potentially the fifth. For its part, as a preemptive measure, Pakistan was quick in its condemnation and expression of solidarity with India. Even if the ‘deep state’ is not implicated, there are elements, the so-called ‘rogue’ elements, who may want to throw a spanner in the works for their own autonomous reasons and self-interest, including terrorist organizations either hell bent on seeing Kashmir not as a resolvable territorial dispute but a millennial struggle against non-believers or for more prosaic reasons as self-perpetuity.
The plausibility of this narrative aside, there is another version that needs airing, given ballast by the contradictions in the establishment’s story of what happened. While loose ends can be expected in fast developing stories, certain elements in the ‘Pathankot’ story suggest the possibility of a counter narrative. This can be derided as a ‘conspiracy’ theory, but we must not on that account dismiss it overly quickly.
While Ajit Doval is a man of action and has acted true to form and reputation in this case by seizing the leadership of the operation, his alacrity suggests there may be more to it than personality issues alone. The second element that has been noted widely is the mysterious role of the Superintendent of Police of a neighbouring district in the initial and, as it turned out, critical phase, of the operation. The two suggest a critical look at the statist narrative.
Delivering the tenth Nani Palkhiwala memorial lecture at the Sastra University down south prior to taking over as NSA (his famous ‘you will lose Balochistan’ speech), Ajit Doval had virtually given out his manifesto on how he would tackle national security given the chance. The chance arrived a couple of months later in the form of the Modi wave, which he did much to create such as by energizing the strategic community against the incumbent government being in strategic stupor. Doval’s exposition of ‘defensive offence’ includes a reference to buying terrorists off, exploiting their vulnerability for funds, as he puts it, ‘if they have a budget of 1200 crores we can match it with 1800 crores, they are all on our side’ (1 hr: 3 min). To him they are not ‘great fighters’ but are mercenaries, unemployed and misguided. He wants to ‘match them (Pakistan), with money by money.’ In effect, terrorists can be bought off and employed to one’s own ‘covert’ purposes. Doval beguilingly states, ‘you know the tricks, we know the tricks’.
This implies terrorist organizations across the border can be manipulated into doing our intelligence bidding if the price is right. Terrorist handlers can then dispatch would-be jihadists to gain paradise in India. This is what ‘black flag’ operations comprise of, a stock in trade of the men in ‘the trade’ as intelligence practitioners refer to their craft. There is suspicion on precedence to such operations, including in the parliament attack case which the gratuitous hanging of Afzal Guru has only served to reinforce. If the gambit succeeded in the more visible case of parliament attack, it would presumably be relatively easily to execute in close proximity of the border and of Kashmir, viz. Pathankot.
Even if the possibility of an Indian hand is ruled in, it still leaves us with having to explain the motive, particularly in face of the statist narrative best encapsulated by the Great Communicator Mr. Modi himself in his speech at the combined commanders’ conference as ‘try and turn the course of history’. If India’s Pakistan strategy is being reset for the better, it would be churlish to argue against it or to attempt prove otherwise. Indeed, this article attempts this difficult proposition.
The bonhomie on display between the two prime ministers, mostly driven by Mr. Modi, is in its being counter-productive to India’s Pakistan strategy a key give away that India’s Pakistan strategy is not quite what is made out in the statist narrative. If India is to improve relations with Pakistan, it is not quite Nawaz Sharif it has to embrace as it is doing, but to get the Pakistan army – the ‘deep state’ - alongside. It has failed earlier in relying on Nawaz Sharif and to expect India not to have learnt this lesson at Kargil is to be mean spirited on India’s strategic sense. In other words, Mr. Modi’s very public and effusive embrace of Nawaz Sharif is not so much as to put his eggs in Sharif’s basket as to provoke an internal schism in Pakistan, between the ‘liberals’ – wanting better ties with India to ward of the clear and present danger at their door step - and the ‘deep state’, that could ally with the clear and present danger of extremism if only to get back at India.
Doval has indicated as much in his famous ‘Balochistan’ speech (at the 58 min mark). He wishes to ‘start working on the vulnerabilities of Pakistan, it can be economic, it can be internal security, political… making it difficult to manage internal political balance or internal security ….’ India’s stratagem of reaching out visibly to Nawaz Sharif can be expected to generate a backlash that can only rebound on the strategy’s success. Consequently, the strategy of ‘reaching out’ is not reliant on Nawaz Sharif prevailing over his opposition, but intended instead to divide and thereby generate the desired negative internal political dynamics in Pakistan such as another praetorian tryst. This will create one more front for the Pakistan army to manage, thereby spreading it thin; increasing Pakistan’s vulnerability to the enemy at the gates. The strategy’s intent therefore is for getting Pakistan’s army to its knees, enabling India to set the terms.
The Modi-Doval doctrine cannot be less ambitious or any more benign than this. Theirs’ is not a UPA requiem. The principal problem remains how to manage the Pakistan army and this is the only possible strategy that can be attributed to the duo since in analysis in their case the role of personality cannot be wished away.
This is a counter narrative that must be out there even as we hope and pray that even if plausible it is not true. The fact is that a consummate intelligence man is at the helm of national security and reporting to a seemingly implacable boss. In his lecture, Doval has of the three modes – defensive, defensive offence and offensive - ruled out the defensive mode as that of UPA and the offensive as too military reliant in light of the nuclear threshold. His dispensing with the military in Pathankot indicates he is consciously relying on the intelligence instrument.
The Pathankot episode was to set up a three cornered faceoff in Pakistan. It is to decelerate on talks process by blaming the ‘deep state’ so as to set ‘official’ Pakistan against it and to also perhaps set the ‘deep state’ against extremists to the extent the ‘deep state’ wishes to ameliorate relations with India and is unable to do so due to actions of extremists such as JeM’s Masood Azhar blamed by India for the attack.
This brings one back to the two indicators that the Pathankot episode has an intelligence angle that cannot be wished away. This intelligence angle was facilitated by the SP’s car enabling the access of the terrorists into vicinity of the air base. Doval’s alacrity in handling the episode and use of the National Security Guard – more amenable to such handling than the army – suggests he wanted to ensure an early termination so as to keep the intelligence angle under wraps. To the extent the narrative here is taken as the conspiracy theory, he has succeeded. To the extent it carries any credence it can serve as a check. India – nay, South Asia - cannot afford otherwise.