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India should learn to strike silently

By B Raman
January 06, 2009 14:32 IST
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Ever since Israel started its military strikes in Gaza a week ago, against Hamas's terrorism, there have been demands from sections of analysts and the general public in our country that India should emulate Israel. They believe that India should retaliate in a similar manner against Pakistan, for its complicity in the terrorist attack in Novembe 2008 by the Lashkar-e-Tayiba in Mumbai.

Nobody can question Israel exercising its right to self-defence, to protect the lives and property of its citizens from rocket attacks in Gaza by the Hamas, which has been going on for weeks and months now. As the deputy permanent representative of the United States to the United Nations -- in a press interview after the US had refused to join in the condemnation of Israel's action by the UN Security Council -- said, 'Israel, like all other members of the UN, has the right of self-defence. This right is not negotiable.'

Like Israel and other members of the UN, India too has the right to self-defence against acts of terrorism emanating from Pakistani territory and sponsored by the State of Pakistan. It has the right to retaliate against Pakistan and the duty to do so to protect the lives and property of its citizens.

The question is not whether we should retaliate. We should if we want Pakistan and the hordes of terrorists nursed by it to take us seriously. The question is, whether a direct military strike will be the wise and appropriate way of retaliating against Pakistan or whether we should do it through political and diplomatic measures, followed by deniable covert actions, if those measures do not make Pakistan change its ways.

For many years, Israel has been the victim of acts of terrorism by organisations such as the Hamas and the Hizbollah, sponsored mainly by Syria and Iran. Its retaliation has been directed against these terrorist organisations and not against their State-sponsors.

After the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 and the Yom Kippur war of 1973, Israel has indulged in military strikes in the territory of a sovereign state and a member of the UN only on two occasions -- against the Osirak nuclear reactor under construction in Iraq in the early 1980s, and against the Hizbollah's infrastructure in Lebanese territory in 2006. In the past, Israeli armed forces have operated in Lebanese territory on other occasions too.

Isreal's action against Osirak in Iraq was a success, but its action in Lebanon in 2006 against the Hizbollah was not. Despite its concerns over the nuclear sites in Iran producing enriched uranium, Israel has till now avoided any military strikes on these sites, despite public pressure from sections of the Israeli people to do so.

It did launch an attack on a suspected nuclear site in Syria last year, but as a deniable covert action and not as an admitted military strike. It has also indulged in covert actions against suspected Hamas operatives based in Syria.

It is able to indulge in openly admitted military strikes against the Hamas in Gaza because Gaza is not part of any sovereign State. In the past, Israel's retaliatory military strikes have been against terrorist organisations posing a threat to its citizens and property, and not against the States sponsoring them. Its actions against States sponsoring terrorism have been in the form of covert actions and not direct military strikes.

Practically all States facing the problem of terrorism have a covert action capability, because it gives them a third option if political and diplomatic measures fail. Without this option, a nation has to rely only on military retaliation, which could be messy when used against a next door neighbour. When a nation doesn't use military strikes and doesn't have a covert action capability, the State-sponsor and the terrorists sponsored by it develop contempt for such a nation.

The US has bombed Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan in retaliation for their perceived anti-US acts, but it has never taken a similar measure against Cuba, its next door neighbour.

It has declared Cuba a State-sponsor of terrorism and constantly keeps trying to undermine its political stability and economy, but avoids direct military action against it, despite it being a superpower. America knows that military action against a neighbour could get messy.

It is hoped that the government draws the right lessons from its dilemma after the Mumbai terror strike and tries to revive our covert action capability, which was discarded more than a decade ago as an ill-conceived unilateral gesture to Pakistan.

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retired), Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, New Delhi and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail:

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B Raman