Ask Vir Ask Vir

Retaliating to terrorism can be a difficult business

Was India’s response to the 2019 Pulwama terror attack the appropriate reaction?

Should we have done something similar in 2001, after the attack on Parliament? Were we too restrained in our response to the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai?

These questions have been raised again and again and are now back in the news following the release of a new book by Ajay Bisaria, who used to be our Ambassador to Pakistan and then Canada.


   You can argue forever about how well-targeted our retaliatory strike on Balakot for the Pulwama massacre was. According to the Pakistanis, who took the Western media to the site of the Indian air attack, we missed the target and killed a couple of goats and hit a few trees instead. According to us, we damaged the headquarters of the terrorist group behind the Pulwama massacre (though we later dialled back the figure of 500 dead).


   That episode is also remembered for the capture of Group Captain Abhinandan Varthaman, the brave Indian Air Force fighter pilot whom the Pakistanis took into custody after shooting down his plane. Bisaria was Ambassador when that happened and saw how the Pakistanis quickly released Abhinandan. But, he says, the Pakistanis told the international community that they were under pressure from India because seven Indian missiles were pointed directly at Pakistan.


   If the Pakistanis were telling the truth, then the retaliation worked. We may or may not have destroyed the terrorist camp. But by launching the air strike and demonstrating our willingness to take out terrorist targets, we sent the right message. And if it was indeed missile diplomacy that secured Abhinandan’s release, then that also reflects well on the strength of India's response.


   Sadly, many if not most countries rarely get it right when it comes to responding to terrorism. Let’s take our own example. After the Parliament attack, we launched no retaliatory strike. Instead, the BJP government of the day sent thousands of troops to the border with Pakistan in what came to be known as Operation Parakram. This was an expensive and ultimately pointless exercise that cost us hundreds of crores and achieved very little. Certainly, it did nothing to deter further Pakistani terror attacks.


   And there is even a conspiracy theory to the effect that Operation Parakram served Pakistan’s interests. During this period, the US was pushing Pakistan to rigorously patrol its border with Afghanistan because al-Qaeda fighters, including Osama bin Laden, were trying to cross over to Pakistan. At first, the Pakistanis said they were willing to do this. But post Parakram, they moved their troops out and sent them to the Indian border, arguing that they had to counter the Indian military build-up. That may have been when Osama finally left his cave, came to Pakistan, and was given a nice house to hide out in Abbottabad.


   Similarly, there will always be questions about our lack of a strong response to the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Essentially, the Indian handling of that tragic attack was a disaster from start to finish. We had a tip-off from the Americans (possibly originating from David Headley, who was a US agent within the terror group), but we lost interest in the information when the predicted attack did not happen for a few weeks. We then intercepted actual radio conversations from the terrorists on the dhow in which they were heading to Mumbai. These too were ignored by our intelligence establishment.


"The more collateral damage there is, the more civilian casualties there are, the more sympathy the terrorists get for their cause."

   And the counter-terrorist operation was a mess: it took too long, we let sensitive information leak, and though it now turns out that we were intercepting conversations between the terrorists and their handlers in Pakistan in real time, it does not seem to have helped us take out the gunmen sooner.


   Afterwards, Manmohan Singh listened to the Americans who urged restraint and, as a consequence, not one of the organisers of the deadliest terrorist attack on an Indian city has ever been brought to justice.


   And yet, it is possible for retaliation to go too far. When 9/11 occurred, the civilised world united behind the US. When the Americans asked the Taliban to hand over Osama and then invaded Afghanistan after the Taliban refused, the world cheered. We believed that there had to be some payback for 9/11.


   And indeed, the Americans dismantled al-Qaeda and took down the Taliban. (Only to put the next generation of Talibanis back in power two decades later; but that’s another story.)


   Unfortunately the Americans then followed this triumph up with the invasion of Iraq, telling their people the lie that Saddam Hussein had been involved in 9/11 and that he had weapons of mass destruction, which was also another lie or, possibly, a misconception.


   In the process, the Americans disrupted an entire region, destroyed millions of lives, and frittered away the global support and sympathy they had gained in the aftermath of 9/11.


   Something similar is happening with Israel. When the horrific Hamas terrorist attacks took place, most of us were shocked and expected the retaliation that Israel is famous for. But instead of the swift, sharp attacks that Israel is associated with in popular culture, what we have got instead is a series of massacres.


   I do not dispute the Israeli claim that Hamas terrorists are hiding among the civilian population in Gaza and that there will inevitably be some collateral damage. But the relentless Israeli offensive, with its murder of infants and small children, has given the impression that Israel regards the lives of Palestinian civilians as being of no consequence. Others have suggested that perhaps Israel’s eventual intention is to destroy Gaza and rebuild it to its own specifications.


   Worse still, despite the fabled reputation of Israel’s security forces, it is not clear that it has managed to cripple Hamas even after killing thousands of innocent people. Within Israel there is growing anger against the government which, after all the killing, has still not been able to secure the release of the hostages that the terrorists of Hamas captured during their attack on Israel.


   Even the US, Israel’s closest and most important ally, is now calling for restraint. And as the Palestinian bodies pile up, the world has begun to forget the horror of what Hamas did and started condemning the Israelis.


   So, retaliating to terrorism can be a difficult business. Much of the world often gets it wrong. And in a sense, that’s what terrorists want. The more collateral damage there is, the more civilian casualties there are, the more sympathy the terrorists get for their cause.


   Since Balakot, we have been free of any major incident on the scale of the Parliament attack and 26/11. That could be a tribute to our intelligence services and a consequence of the perception that India will retaliate intelligently and strongly if we are attacked.


   Let’s hope it remains that way.



Posted On: 11 Jan 2024 02:34 PM
Your email id will not be published.
Security code:
Captcha Enter the code shown above:
Your email id will not be published.
Friend's Name:
Friend's E-mail:
Your email id will not be published.
The Message text:
This email was created by [your name] who thought you would be interested in the following Article:

A Vir Sanghvi Article Information

The Vir Sanghvi also contains hundreds of articles.

Additional Text:
Security code:
Captcha Enter the code shown above:

CommentsOther Articles

See All

Ask VirRead all

Connect with Virtwitter

@virsanghvi on
Vir Sanghvi