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The Big Picture – Terror attacks: Can India have a standard doctrine?

The Big Picture – Terror attacks: Can India have a standard doctrine?



Four days after the attack on Pathankot airbase by terrorists suspected to have come from across the border the picture is still unclear. The attack and the way it got prolonged have led to many speculations and criticisms on the way the whole incident has been handled. While such incidents have been common place every time there is significant improvement in the ties ever since the comprehensive dialogue began since 1997, the problem is that India has not been able to establish any standard operating procedure or a doctrine to deal with such crisis or how to go about it following such incidents. The attempt to create a powerful National Counter Terrorism Center was also initially opposed. Predictably, the long-drawn out militant attack on the Pathankot airbase has generated waves of criticism across the country with some finding fault with the government’s handling of the issue, and others questioning the entire rationale of Modi’s Pakistan strategy and focusing on the conduct of operations in Pathankot.

Despite years of experience India has not been able to fabricate a sturdy shield, which is so vital for our policy of engagement. The shield plays a key role in our Pakistan strategy. Contrary to popular perceptions, India does have a doctrine in place in dealing with Pakistan. This has, like all doctrines, been shaped by experience, circumstances and geography. The convention has been to involve Pakistan in a process through which a normal Pakistan will emerge, even while withstanding the blows that Pakistan rains on us. This policy is born out of prudence and practical experience. Surprisingly, this has also strengthened India’s global stature.

The challenge thrown up by the terrorist attack on the Pathankot air force base is to evolve India’s national security doctrine to include its response to non-state actors. While carrying on diplomatic engagement with Pakistan, India needs a firm strategy to deal with terrorist threats that are now the prime challenge to the state. Political consensus must be evolved, in a publicly transparent manner, to reflect the complex challenge facing the country, detail its thresholds, interests that would be protected at any cost and response calibration vis-à-vis armed aggression. The doctrine must be accompanied by a national security strategy that spells out the command and control structures for meeting eventualities such as terror strikes, so that last-minute goof-ups such as those that have been evident at the Pathankot airbase are not repeated.

After every terrorist attack, there are shallow attempts by the establishment to fit episodic responses into academic frameworks and proposals for security establishment reforms, but in no time things go back to default mode, until the next terrorist attack. Hence, the very foundations of India’s security establishment need to be reformed if a robust national security doctrine is to be implemented. Given the opacity of these agencies, intelligence alerts often emerge that have no credibility. In the process, credible intelligence inputs, such as the one about Pathankot, are not treated with enough seriousness. The agencies that are to provide security cover and neutralise terrorist threats do not have a cohesive command and control structure. It is time to finally show that India can be more than a functional anarchy.

A sustained dialogue is the only fitting answer to terrorist groups and to their handlers inside the Pakistan establishment who wish to destabilise the peace process. India must develop a consistent, coherent policy on how to deal with Pakistan, a fragmented polity with multiple power centres, some of which are implacably hostile towards India and can be counted on to express their hostility by means of terror strikes in India or on Indian targets elsewhere, such as in Afghanistan. India cannot afford to let its Pakistan policy be dictated by hostile elements, whether Kashmiri separatists or those members of the Pakistani establishment who see terror groups as instruments of additional strategic reach. India must also be prepared for attacks emanating from Pakistan, all the time, whatever the state of relations with the government of Pakistan.

These terror strikes are believed to have been an attempt to undo the recent improvement in India-Pakistan ties but both countries so far have given no indication they would affect proposed talks later this month. The attack in Pathankot came barely a week after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a historic Christmas Day stopover in Lahore to meet his counterpart Nawaz Sharif. It may be aimed at sabotaging the peace initiative by Modi and Sharif. On its part, Pakistan has condemned the attack and expressed its commitment to partner with India as well as other countries in the region to completely eradicate the menace of terrorism.

Unfortunately, every time something good is about to happen, it is erased by such attacks. India and Pakistan need to beat these terrorist elements by a better strategy and planning. They have to defeat those elements that carry out terrorist activities to roll back any peace process. The governments of India and Pakistan need to engage in talks consistently to foil the nefarious agenda of the terrorists. The solution lies in persistent dialogue, even in the face of terrorist attacks.