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Deterring a Covert War

Deterring a Covert War


Recent developments like the granting of MFN status by Pakistan to India, and the cordial talks at Maldives, on the surface indicate a thaw in relations between the two estranged neighbors. On the other hand, the Indian Army maintains that the training camps for terrorists in POK are intact, and in business, while infiltration attempts into Kashmir have not ceased.   Pakistan’s softening of anti-India rhetoric has followed a sharp deterioration in Pak-US relations over Afghanistan.  Is Pakistan’s softening stance on trade with India a change of heart that it is prepared to accommodate Indian interests in Afghanistan?  Or is it a mere tactic to calm things on the eastern front as Pakmil grapples with its many problems on the Western front and in Afghanistan proper?



Perhaps that is the wrong question to ask.  Pakistan has consistently sought to use armed aggression to seize Kashmir.  This began right after independence when Pakistan used irregular militias to invade Kashmir.   Indian intervention prevented a complete capture of Kashmir.  After India’s disastrous showing in the 1962 war, Pakistan tried the same gambit in Kashmir again in 1965 using similar irregular militias.  Unexpectedly, India counter-attacked Pakistan across the international border; forcing the Pakistanis to agree to a truce that saw both sides restore the status quo ante.  Indians must note that we did not accept Pakistan’s pleas in 1965 that the irregulars were not under Pakistan’s control despite its denials.  Nor did we hesitate to counter attack, not in a tit-for-tat fashion, – but in a manner, time and place of our choosing, – so as to compel Pakistan to vacate aggression. Contrast the aggressive retaliation in 1965 with our entirely defensive response in the 1990s.  Instead of taking the fight to enemy, we sought to counter ingress of militants by using the army as a mere adjunct to the State police forces.



What made India so defensive in the 1990s as compared to our robust response to Pakistani aggression when it used irregular militias in 1948 and 1965?  The answer of course is acquisition of nukes by Pakistan in the 1980s.  How do nukes alter the balance?



Consider the 1971 war in the then Eastern Pakistan.  Would India have interfered openly in Dhaka to compel the Pakistani army to surrender?  The answer is almost certainly no. On the other hand, would that have prevented the creation of Bangladesh?  Almost certainly not, given the kind of political blunders committed by Pakistan, followed by the repressive military measures unleashed by its army.  But any Indian support to the rebels in Bangladesh would have remained covert from start to finish.



The moral of the story is two fold.  Firstly, nukes don’t deter covert wars even if they are undeniable over time.  Secondly nukes do deter conventional counter strikes to deter covert wars.  It is said nukes are great equalizers.  They are not.  Nukes are highly asymmetric with respect to their deterrence value against covert versus conventional wars.  Our nukes have proved to have almost zero deterrence value in so far as aggressive use of covert war by Pakistan is concerned.   Both in 1948 and in 1965, Pakmil did not expect a conventional counterstrike from India largely because its leadership held Indian politicians in contempt and didn’t think they would have the gumption to come up with a robust response.  In both cases, the regimes that lost the war were subsequently toppled in Pakistan. With the coming of nukes a conventional counterstrike lost its deterrence value.  This was brought home to us vividly during Operation Parakram.  In what has since been euphemistically billed as “Coercive Diplomacy”, we massed troops along the Pakistan border for the better part of a year. Painfully the realization dawned that we could do very little with them because Pakistan could have gone nuclear in response.



India has struggled to find a means to deter Pakistan’s use of covert war against it.  Cold Start, a sort of limited conventional war, fought by rapidly deploying forces to seize Pakistani territory, was in fashion for a while. The idea was that seized territory could be used as a lever to deter Pakistani covert thrusts.  The concept is not without merit since any major loss vis-à-vis India almost guarantees a regime change in Pakistan.  This was true in the aftermath of Kargil as it was true in 1948 and 1965.  That, if not the seized territory per se, would have a deterrence value against a Pakistani army. Despite its professionalism, Pakmil is as much a political party, acutely susceptible to domestic public opinion, as it is a fighting force.  However Cold Start has remained a concept that hasn’t been operationalized.  Meanwhile, Pakistan has added more wrinkles into the game with its development of tactical battlefield nukes.  These tactical nukes could be used against rapidly deployed self-contained Indian brigades used as a part of Cold Start.  In effect as of now, India has nothing operational with which to deter determined use of covert warfare in Kashmir or elsewhere.  The lacuna is so obvious that Pakistan continues to use such methods against us regularly, openly, and with obvious impunity.  Pakistani chutzpah is nothing but a reflection of India’s inability to do anything beyond purely defensive measures on its own soil such as gridding the whole of Kashmir with Army & Para-military forces.



Indian inability to deter Pakistani covert aggression confers a huge advantage to the latter.  This is inherent in the nature of asymmetric warfare using terror against civilians as a tactic.  The aggressor can chose the point of attack, the time of attack and the manner of attack.  It has the element of surprise on its side.  The manner of attack is limited only by human ingenuity.   The targets are dispersed widely and can be chosen at random.  Worse, as technology progresses, the difference between the technical means available to the aggressor terrorist and conventional forces converge, whittling away the latter’s advantage in combat.  Worth recalling here that police action to maintain law and order has always depended on the police force’s ability to concentrate its forces at a point in time and place quicker than the opposition.  The vital advantage has slipped away following developments in personal technology and the trend is unlikely to be reversed.  In many instances we have seen Pakistani militants have better armor, weaponry and communications gear than our army soldiers.



Lacking any inherent superiority over militants, the army has had to fall back on sheer numbers to suppress militants.  Furthermore, it is compelled to deploy itself as a widely dispersed force, over a large geographical area, in order to defend the maximum number of points that could come under attack, both in terms of people and places.  No wonder then that the army needs vast number of troops to suppress a handful of militants.  Pakistan has thus been able to tie down about a 100,000 of army troops with a few thousand militants in Kashmir alone.  Given the lopsided asymmetries, it is no wonder that Pakistan persists with its use of terror as a weapon of choice.  The fact is that it is wonderfully cost effective means no sane Pakistani general is ever going to give it up regardless of the state of play in Kashmir.  It is high time we take this salient fact into account in our strategic calculus.  Hoping that the problem will go away once Kashmir is resolved is childish.



So how do you deter use of covert war in a situation where both the protagonists are nuclear armed?  The answer, obvious from recent world history, is that a covert war can only be deterred by another covert war.  In simple terms, if Pakistan uses irregular militias and militants against us, then we must use such covert and deniable means as we have, to make equal if not more trouble for Pakistan in areas where it is most vulnerable.  A balance of terror is necessary to deter terror.



India had built up considerable covert capability in Eastern Pakistan in the events leading up to 1971 war.  It was used with great effect although, as noted earlier, it may not have sufficed to liberate East Pakistan as quickly, in the absence of the coup de grace delivered by the regular army.  Such capability in Western Pakistan persisted till the 80s when it was foolishly disbanded under the orders of IK Gujaral.  Such has been the folly of politicians who land up in the Prime Minister’s chair.  Covert capabilities may be relatively inexpensive but are as difficult to create as regular forces and requires years of hard slog.  The fact there is no visible effort from India to deter Pakistan on Pakistani soil, coupled with Pakistan’s use of the same with impunity, shows India has done nothing to revive covert capabilities.  It is high time that we did so, whether or not we intend to use them. Just as with conventional war fighting forces, capability to fight a covert war should exist independently of the decision to use it. Creation of such capabilities should be separate and distinct from active deployment of such capability.



Covert war is the only effective deterrent India will have against Pakistani adventurism in a long time to come.  We need to shed our hypocrisy and empty moralizing in this regard.  Nothing can possibly justify the death of our civilians in Kashmir or elsewhere at the hands of militants sponsored by Pakistan.  That is not a choice we should leave to politicians anymore.  They should be firmly told there is no moral superiority in getting your own citizens killed.  As in conventional war, when attacked covertly, we must take the covert war back to the enemy.  We must never again fall into the trap of dealing with a covert war as if it were isolated incidents of terrorism to be dealt with by police methods.



Pakistan’s use of militants in its covert war has not been as costless as it had hoped.  Militias over time acquire a vested interest in persisting with a conflict far beyond its strategic utility to the sponsor.  In Pakistan a whole ecosystem to sustain jihad has evolved overtime that is simply impossible to dismantle even if the Pakmil wished to.  Parts of the jihadi complex are already in rebellion against the Pakistani army over spoils of war.  Others have evolved their own ideological and political agenda with considerable sway over electoral politics in parts of Punjab.  As history shows, bands of militants develop internecine rivalries that overshadow their original purpose. In fact should conflict in Kashmir and Afghanistan end, it will be the beginning of the battle for Pakistan where religion and politics will combine with selective use of armed jihadis to capture political power.  Islamists in many Muslim countries have used this strategy. Pakistan is susceptible to the same combination of guns, religion, politics and poverty.  That leaves Pakistan vulnerable to covert warfare to a far greater degree than India even without taking the active insurgency in Baluchistan into account.



Pakistan has an expansive agenda in Afghanistan.  It’s objective remains far more than just strategic depth or a wish to contain Indian influence.  Pakistan controls the only meaningful trade routes that a landlocked Afghanistan has.  Pakistan could easily contain and counter any Indian influence in Afghanistan by merely using trade and it historical ties of common culture and religion with its western neighbor.  On the other hand, Pakistan’s weakness in Afghanistan stems from its ambitious expansionist agenda where it wishes to straddle and effectively control all trade routes from India to central Asia, not just Afghanistan.  This ambitious agenda conflicts with Afghan nationalism.



Pakistan’s negativity in Afghanistan through its proxy militants has cost it the goodwill of the Afghans who see US intervention in their country as a wasted opportunity for development.  As the US experience of the last 8 years in Afghanistan shows, no combination of conventional carrots and sticks can deter Pakistan from its Afghan adventure.  Pakistan has been willing to forego all aid and risk a conventional, albeit a limited war, with the US in order to preserve its proxies in Afghanistan.  Pakistan’s capacity to sustain its belligerence economically & politically beyond a point is suspect.  Pakistan’s external and internal financing is precarious. Its current account deficit is bridged by inward remittances and foreign aid whose strings are controlled by the US. In times of distress, not only do remittances dry up but also capital flight aggravates the negative impact. Nevertheless Pakistan has signaled confrontation rather than conciliation to the US in recent exchanges.  The US, much like India, has found itself with no good options when confronted with irregular militias using terror against civilians to cause mayhem.  Taking the war to militia safe havens that are sheltered by an overt nuclear power bent on aggressive intervention in a neighbor’s territory is not that easy even for the world’s only super-power.



The US, like India, will have to conclude that covert war is what can possibly moderate and contain, if not deter, Pakistan’s expansionist agenda in Afghanistan.



Pakistan is uniquely vulnerable in Baluchistan. It is it saddled with an active insurgency there.  The Bloch have a long history of alienation and suppression to remember. To add to the incendiary politics, Pakistan is disproportionately dependent on Sui gas that fuels its power plants and domestic kitchens.  Needless to add, Pakistan’s power situation is precarious.  Baluchistan would also provide Afghanistan with port access to the Arabian Sea were it to be revert to its pre1948 independent status.  In a great many ways, Baluchistan is Pakistan Achilles’ heel where long term US and Afghan interests could converge.



The time may therefore have come to bring home to Pakistan the true cost of its belligerent use of proxies to further its expansionist foreign policy agenda. India, having paid an enormous price in blood and treasure to Pakistani covert wars, needs to shed its squeamishness and revert back to covert strategies to moderate and contain Pakistan’s covert wars against it’s interests at home and abroad.


In fact readiness to pay back Pakistan in the same coin must go hand in hand with normalizations of relations between the two countries.  It is lack of retaliation from India that has enabled Pakistan to persist with it covert strategy in Kashmir.  Had there been a robust response from India taking the covert war to Pakistani soil, Kashmir would be far easier to resolve bilaterally.  To obtain peace one must be ready to war. This has always been true of conventional wars.  After 30 years of one-sided covert war it is time for India to realize that the aphorism holds just as true for covert wars.  No amount of make believe dossier exchanges nor diplomatic homilies from us or the rest of the world is going to change Pakmil strategy.  We do not cease to build up our defenses when peace prevails.  In the new world, covert wars will replace conventional wars and we must be ready to wage them if we are to face them.  Mere defense against a covert war can never ever be cost-effective.




What holds true for India holds true for the US in Afghanistan.  Pushed beyond a point, the US may have to rethink it hands off approach to Baluchistan.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Abraham Paul
    November 14, 2011 at 4:52 am

    Good perception of facts: “Hoping that the problem will go away once Kashmir is resolved is childish” Like our experience with China, PAK also -a lull always forewarns a tempest.

  2. commonindianman
    November 14, 2011 at 5:31 am

    Indian nukes are useless, we will never use them.. Even if someone lands a nuclear missile in Delhi, we are more likely to run to UN than counter-strike. Everyone knows it particularly Pakistan.

  3. November 14, 2011 at 6:27 am

    Before practicing covert war, India needs to learn to practice covert speak. So you should have written only about the moral and diplomatic support India should give to the Balochis out of pure-hearted concerns for their rights.

    Do you remember when every story from Reuters would include lines like “India says Pakistan is arming and training the insurgents. Pakistan says it provides only moral and diplomatic support for the Kashmiris”?

  4. bevivek
    November 14, 2011 at 8:23 am

    The author concedes that Pakistan’s strategy of supporting militant proxies has rebounded on itself. Is there any reason to believe that such a strategy if used by India will not have similar blowback effects within India? If on the other hand, India pursues covert terror using ‘state’ agents, truth will soon out, and will be viewed as an active act of war not just by Pak but by other nations as well (including world bodies such as the UN). India will then risk being classified among the nations which sponsor terror. From being viewed as a responsible nation which is an emerging economic power, India will, like Pak move towards the rogue nation category. Not a smart thing to do.

    The covert terror route is one that only countries such as Pak which don’t care a damn about the civilian population or the economy or indeed anything other than their own insane ‘strategizing’ can choose to go on.

    Pak is paying dearly for going down this route – it is isolated internationally, has an economy that is imploding, the social fabric is being warped by forces beyond anyone’s control.

    So what is the solution to Pak’s terror strategy? I don’t know. But I do know that the way to deal with a sociopath is not to become a sociopath oneself.

    • Nikhil
      February 19, 2012 at 11:32 am

      The laws of ehtics and morality applicable to human beings are not applicable to nation states. It is called realpolitik and not sociopathy – something which Pakistan is better at than India is, in my view.

      India has been paying a heavy price for being at the receiving end of Pak sponsored terror for the last 3 decades. India’s access to energy and trade in Central Asia is already limited because of Pakistan’s proxies. Pakistan’s proxies continue to pinprick India, which keeps India preoccupied at its borders. Another reason why countries like China tolerate and support Pakistan despite its nuisance value

      The Indian state must develop covert war capabilities that can hit the enemy where it hurts the most. Protecting its citizens from foreign aggessors is the state’s primary task. Developing covert war capacities is necessary for any nation state, like India, to thwart the terror sponsored by deliquent states like Pakistan. India, by acquiring the means to fight covert war, will gain more respect, and not seen as a rogue, in the committee of nations.

  5. Ravindran Subramanian
    November 14, 2011 at 10:11 am

    The biggest problem in the nineties has been the pusillanimity exhibited by India’s politicians. Offence is first a frame of mind and then it is carried forward into the batllefield. Sadly this frame of mind has been missing. Also, it is perhaps time that India publicly renounced its no first use of nuclear weapons doctrine. This is silly in a world where Pakistan will most definitely use these weapons. Alos this can sedn the right kind of message to China.

    I am also surprised that Indian politicians keep falling for the propaganda that Pakistan is an irrational power that will not hesitate to use nuclaear weapons at the first sign of trouble. I think Pakistan is following an entirely rational agenda and the moment they know that they can no more count on India’s “no first use doctrine”-the game can change swiftly.

  6. trickey
    November 14, 2011 at 2:16 pm


    “Contrast the aggressive retaliation in 1965 with our entirely defensive response in the 1990s. ”

    Never award a rematch to a sore loser. After 1971, India has nothing to prove. Let them know that a rematch is not forthcoming and they will have to live with the humiliation of 71 for as long as Pakistan exists.

    ” Would India have interfered openly in Dhaka to compel the Pakistani army to surrender?”

    Technically, it’s Pakistan that declared war on India in 71. Indian response to overt war will be much the same.

    “Our nukes have proved to have almost zero deterrence value in so far as aggressive use of covert war by Pakistan is concerned. ”

    It’s because of India’s NFU doctrine, which specifically deters only NBC. More broadly, Pakistani terrorism cannot be deterred, because anti-India bigotry is the only bankable political strategy in that vile society.

    “Pakistani chutzpah is nothing but a reflection of India’s inability to do anything beyond purely defensive measures on its own soil such as gridding the whole of Kashmir with Army & Para-military forces.”

    But grid defense has clearly worked. It’s not a spectacular strategy but the army has shown results.

    “Indian inability to deter Pakistani covert aggression confers a huge advantage to the latter.”

    Death is a good deterrent. Killing terrorists works, even if it’s unspectacular. It would be even better if Indian armed forces could neutralize the Paki infiltrators using drones.

    ” Pakistan has thus been able to tie down about a 100,000 of army troops with a few thousand militants in Kashmir alone. ”

    That makes sense only if you believe that Indian troops would be waging war on Pakistan otherwise. The truth is that the troops can be turned onto Pakistan fairly quickly if required.

    “In simple terms, if Pakistan uses irregular militias and militants against us, then we must use such covert and deniable means as we have, to make equal if not more trouble for Pakistan in areas where it is most vulnerable. ”

    Pakistan is vulnerable everywhere except in Pakjab. Most Pakistanis believe that the TTP and Baloch freedom fighters are sponsored by India. Given this prevalent thought, it hardly matters whether India is actually stirring the pot or not.

    “Pakistan has an expansive agenda in Afghanistan.”

    It’s the other way around. Afghanistan has an expansive agenda in Pakistan.

    “Pakistan controls the only meaningful trade routes that a landlocked Afghanistan has. ”

    Not true anymore. At some point in time, the Zaranj-Delaram highway built by India through Iran, will come into play.

    The fact is that Pakistan is unbelievably vulnerable at this time. It isn’t going to take very long to take it apart. The question we must answer for ourselves however, is whether the disintegration of Pakistan is a good idea. MMS has repeatedly said that a stable Pakistan is in India’s interest. Regardless of whether you accept this or not, it is a question which requires very careful consideration.

  7. November 14, 2011 at 6:06 pm

    What we have done here:
    1) Haven’t learnt the Isreal lesson on dealing with error,
    2) But have been constantly building capability for counter insurgency clinical ops- those rusted guns
    3) While Pak crossed the border at there whims and fancies through local militia we didn’t reply with the same kindness.
    4) even now , while we keep giving the wanted terrorist wish list – we should eradicate these people clinically ASAP. (Think they need to watch black September and refresh our memories).

    5) While you continue diplomacy please continue to make our country safe- we vote and pay you for that.
    in the meanwhile Pak has has given us MFN also for…
    1) We are much mature an economy who are baling our Europe and US (in parts).
    2) The western fund crunch is not helping Pak to manage its shop.
    3) imagine a plan of aid from India to fight India in a proxy war !!!
    Pak doesn’t have the political maturity with chariots of power pulling in diff directions.
    As always we will continue with the dance and pony show in diplomatic talks, its time we put a hard stop this nuisance around us, issue is do our political think take have the will to do..

  8. Ash
    November 15, 2011 at 4:30 am

    Very badly formatted. Very painful to read. I had to stop after few para.

  9. Vivek
    November 16, 2011 at 11:27 am

    i think u hav not read any proper history Chandrshekhar Azad, Netaji, Rajguru, Pandit Ramprasad and hindu rulers during 1857 revolt. History also has Maharana Pratap, Ahom kingdom of Assam fought off Mughals, Marathas and many more. Dont equate impotent Congress leaders with Hindus

  10. Vishal Sachdev
    November 17, 2011 at 5:45 am

    All what u guys say is a bunch of lies and ignorance.
    The truth is: covert wars and conventional wars are expensive and many times detrimental to economies. We don’t fight for Oil like others, we fight for sovereignty. Therefore, war is expensive for us in all forms. The reality and the most important matter is when populations derive benefit from their countries which are resilient and focus on the areas that can bring them growth and a better quality of life.
    India has proven to be smart in its stategies and sense of direction.
    You can simply compare the Indian and Pakistani level of success by seeing where is India going to and the bright future that awaits.

    China can be supporting Pak, but China aint everything needed to support an anti-Indian country.

    Russia, USA,Israel,Brazil are India’s closest friends. They are wise and analytic, and lot impulsive and stupid like some “nuclear powers”. The smart thinkers can always create trouble in remote areas without even stepping in publicly. I call that influence and power.

    India’s biggest detterent to Pakistani threat and covert agression is the awareness of the fact that Pakistan faces a lot of internal militancy and sectarian violence that hinders its ability to fight in the arena. You can never say you are strong when you are eroding from the inside. It is always a huge advantage to know your enemy from inside rather than poking and trying to know if he is of thick skin. Waging war is more expensive for Pakistan rather than defense costs for India.

    Comments are welcome to my email.

    • Vishal Sachdev
      November 17, 2011 at 5:48 am

      Correction, NOT impulsive and stupid. I used L instead of N.

    • Nikhil
      February 19, 2012 at 5:03 pm

      Vishal Sachdev:

      You are mixing too many things. Developing the capabilities to fight a successful covert war is different than actually fighting one. It gives us more options such as not fighting an actual war. Nor does developing capacities implies that we should stop talking with the Pakistanis. We must do both.

      I do not think that developing capabilities to fight a covert war is detrimental to the Indian economy either. India’s economic growth resulted from internal reforms. It will continue if we stay of the path of more economic reforms and secure our access to energy and trade routes. We must also try to extend the relative peace we enjoyed over the last decade; an unintended consequence of American presence in Afghanistan and America’s war on terror. This is likely to change and we risk being at the receiving end of a revitalized jihadi terror.

      India will need access to energy and trade in Central Asia to sustain its economic growth. Pakistan’s proxies and the reluctance to provide transit have made it prohibitively expensive to do just that. Pakistan military, like you suggest, knows it is expensive to fight a full blown war with India and it will be self-defeating to do so. That is why Pakistan has been fighting covertly for the last 3 decades under a nuclear umbrella. In response, we have stationed half a million troops in our border areas alienating our people and tiring down our service men and women. I wonder what is the economic, cultural and political cost that India has to shoulder as a result of this perennial defensive strategy against known foreign sponsored proxy warfare.

      Pakistan’s internal fissures make it easier, and probably cheaper, to plant human intelligence sources that can track ,create confusion or take out elements in Pakistan that mean harm to us. Moreover, isn’t a state’s primary job to protect its citizens from foreign sponsored terror? If there is no security the economy is bound to go for a toss.

  11. Bharath magadi
    November 25, 2011 at 7:33 pm

    It’s like wrestling a pig isn’t it – with Pakistan, what do they really have to lose? Pak politics’ fixation with Kashmir is actually a national agenda. Nearly all Pakistanis will play along when the K card is flashed. Peace won’t happen till such time the Pakmil has a true change of heart or is replaced – never mind who’s in govt!

  12. Ashok
    December 28, 2011 at 8:28 am

    amazingly incisive analysis

  1. January 17, 2012 at 8:46 am

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