On December 2, 2008, India's military, political and intelligence leadership went into a huddle in the Prime Minister's Office in South Block. The agenda at hand was weighty. The dozen or so men in a room deliberated options that had the potential of triggering a possible fifth India-Pakistan war. It was just a week since 10 Pakistani terrorists had targeted Mumbai and killed 165 people. The incident had provoked national outrage and there was tremendous public pressure on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to retaliate.
Almost all the options discussed by the heads of the military, spy chiefs revolved around punishing the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) which had masterminded the attack. The range of options included special forces missions, covert attacks, strikes by the air force on terrorist training camps and even an option of a limited war.
The options for retaliation that India debated, it now emerges, were known to the United States as well. Former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri's memoirs, released in New Delhi on October 9, says the Bush administration sent senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and US special representative for Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke to Islamabad sometime after the attacks which began on November 26, 2008, to judge the public mood there.
"Senator McCain wanted to know from me," Kasuri writes in Neither A Hawk Nor A Dove, "in view of my experience, both as former foreign minister and as a politician, what the reaction of the Pakistani army and the public at large would be, if there was a limited air raid on Muridke", the headquarters of the Jamat-ud-Dawah (JUD), the charity front of the LeT and its leader Hafiz Saeed. Kasuri does not mention the exact date of the meeting, but it was clearly during McCain's two-day visit to Islamabad that began on Friday, December 5, 2008.
No cold start
Indian investigators had traced the Pakistani hand in both the March 1993 Mumbai serial blasts and the July 2006 suburban train bombings. These attacks had killed more people-257 and 187 respectively. But 26/11 was different. It was the first attack carried out by Pakistani nationals who hit civilian targets and foreign nationals with calculated brutality. Unlike the December 2001 attack on India's parliament where all five terrorists were gunned down, one of the Mumbai attackers, captured alive less than six hours after the attack began, had revealed the full extent of the conspiracy.
The first meeting of India's security establishment was held in the PMO on November 28, just 48 hours after the attack began and when Indian commandos were closing in on the last four terrorists holed up in the heritage wing of the Taj hotel. The meeting chaired by Prime Minister Singh included National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan, Defence Minister A.K. Antony, the chiefs of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the chiefs of the navy and the air force. The army chief, General Deepak Kapoor, was away on a tour of South Africa and was represented by the Vice Chief of Army Staff Lt General Milan Naidu. Singh asked the intelligence brass for their options to tackle Pakistan. The military option was still on the table at that point, officials in the meeting say.
One alternative included a 'Cold Start', the Indian Army's plan for swift and shallow thrusts across the international border without waiting for a full-scale mobilisation. It was developed after it had taken the army more than a month to fully mobilise along the Pakistani border after the attack on India's parliament in December 2001. But the option of using Cold Start was discarded. The government was clear that a strike across the international border (at the JuD headquarters in Muridke, Lahore, which Kasuri suggested) would be provocative and escalate matters. It would also be unacceptable internationally.
Lt General Naidu also said he would rather wait for the army chief to return from South Africa on November 28. The navy did not have a swift retaliatory option either. Navy chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta said his forces were not ready yet and did not have a 'Cold Start' doctrine.
The intelligence agencies were miffed at the navy for not acting on an alert which revealed the precise location of the LeT vessel while it was anchored off Pakistan's coast waiting to infiltrate into India. Disclosures made by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had intercepted communications between the Lashkar boat and the LeT headquarters in Pakistan- occupied Kashmir (PoK) and passed the alert on to RAW on November 18, eight days before the terrorists actually struck Mumbai.
Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major held out the only option for swift retribution. The IAF could carry out air strikes on terrorist camps inside PoK within 16 hours, he said. But for the attacks to be successful and avoid collateral damage to civilians, he would need the exact coordinates of the terrorist training camps. The intelligence agencies did not have such precise information. The military option was postponed.
The strike options
A second meeting of India's security establishment which took place on December 2 was more focused on the military option against Pakistan. By now, the Manmohan Singh government had clearly ruled out either an Operation Parakram-style mobilisation of the Indian military or the Cold Start option that replaced it. Options now almost exclusively focused on punitive strikes against the LeT, which had carried out the attack. Exactly a week after the attack, Indian intelligence agencies had built up a comprehensive picture of the LeT's complicity in the attack-confessions from the sole terrorist arrested, Ajmal Kasab, and several hours of conversations intercepted between the LeT handler in a Karachi control room and the Mumbai attackers.
The armed forces, particularly the army and the navy, were still short of options for striking back at the LeT. General Kapoor wondered aloud if the nation was prepared for war, meaning a possible retaliation by Pakistan which then would have had to be met by a tit-for-tat response by India.
The military options came from an unexpected quarter-M.K. Narayanan, who presented five detailed options. It was possibly the first time in recent times that the Indian government had been presented with a diverse range of military options that fell short of full-scale war. The alternatives ranged from surgical air strikes to covert action and special forces raids.
The first option called for covert action against the LeT leadership in Pakistan. Three other options called for the use of air power against LeT training camps and headquarters in PoK. IAF combat jets would carry out surgical strikes against LeT targets or helicopter-borne special forces commandos could strike the camps to ensure there was no collateral damage. A final option was for a limited war confined to airstrikes in PoK, which a mobilisation by the Indian armed forces would ensure did not spread across the border.
It is unclear whether these alternatives were prepared after consultations with India's military, but the three service chiefs weighed into the discussion, examining the options threadbare. Each military option had been minutely detailed down to the escalation dynamics, meaning the possible Pakistani reaction to each action by India. Significantly, all five options presented by Narayanan were confined to action within PoK, a territory claimed by India.
The first option, a revenge strike on the LeT leadership, was examined but ruled out. India, it was revealed, lacked any covert capability or personnel within Pakistan. Prime Minister I.K. Gujral had shut down RAW's covert operations inside Pakistan in 1997 and subsequent prime ministers had turned down requests by their spy chiefs to revive them. Infiltrating commandos for a special operation meant running the risk of them being captured just like Kasab. India, officials at the meeting feared, risked being put in the same category as Pakistan.
Airstrikes like those carried by the IAF on the Kargil heights in 1999 needed exact coordinates of camps. They also needed people on the ground to 'illuminate' targets with laser designators so the IAF bombers could drop their precision weaponry on them without causing civilian collateral damage. "Most of the camps were nothing more than temporary tents. There was the very real risk of the operation killing civilians," said an official present at the meeting.
Indian intelligence officials could not give the military precise whereabouts of the LeT leadership and of the terrorist training camps. They did not have covert operatives inside Pakistan who could illuminate targets. Nor could they procure the intelligence in the short time it was needed for the strike to be effective. The option for airstrikes was discarded.
The last option of a limited war confined to PoK was also debated. The Indian military would mobilise itself along the international border to ensure Pakistan did not attempt to take the battle beyond PoK. Frenzied calls from the Indian public to strike Pakistan had alarmed the Pakistani military which had already put its air force on high alert and prepared anti-aircraft defences.
Another factor complicating an Indian military response was the presence of the US military on three airbases in Pakistan and in their airspace.
Pakistan had allocated a number of air corridors exclusively for use by the US and these were codenamed Boulevard, Bagpipe, Beltline, Buzzard and Eagle. The IAF would have to avoid hitting US fighter aircraft, bombers, drones and transport aircraft transiting from the Arabian Sea to Pakistan and Afghanistan in these corridors.
If a conflict broke out, the military leaders discussed, Pakistan's limited strategic depth and its apprehension of India gaining the upper hand would encourage them to move up on the nuclear escalatory spiral. In other words, Pakistan had a national compulsion to project a very low nuclear threshold. If conflict broke out, keeping an Indian attack 'limited' would not be a Pakistani priority. On the contrary, Pakistan would have preferred to escalate the conflict to a level where it could posture nuclear weapons and thereby force the international community to quickly intervene. "If India was forced to terminate the war under international pressure, then it was not worth it," one official says. This last option too was discarded. It was found that the Indian military machine, hollowed by years of neglect, lacked the decisive conventional edge to localise a conflict.
Unlike Operation Brasstacks in December 1986 and Operation Parakram in December 2001, there was no mobilisation of India's armed forces in December 2008. But it revealed, yet again, the enormous potential of non-state actors such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba to bring the nuclear-armed neighbours to the brink.
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