State-Sponsored Terrorism: A Non-Solution for India’s Relationship with Pakistan

This was originally published here in the International Affairs Review.

In May 2015, India’s Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar made a series of remarks that sparked strong reactions in India and Pakistan. Parrikar said that he would take aggressive steps to counter Pakistani sponsored terrorism, and that only “terrorists can neutralize terrorists”.  To some Pakistanis, this comment confirmed that India is sponsoring terrorism against their state. While Pakistanis routinely accuse India of sponsoring terrorism, what is surprising in the wake of Minister Parrikar’s statements is that some Indians are advocating for such a policy. With the continuation of Pakistani sponsored attacks against the Indian state, it is unlikely that such foolish and futile policy suggestions will disappear soon.

Proponents of this argument maintain that a policy of retaliation was successful in ending Pakistan’s support for an Indian based insurgency in the past.[1] These advocates claim that if India now pursues a similar policy of retaliation against Pakistan for its contemporary support of terrorism, Pakistan will inevitably face more severe consequences for its actions. By this logic, tit for tat action can help deter Pakistani support for terrorism.

Yet the argument that India should support terrorism against Pakistan is unwise. Putting aside moral arguments against aiding terrorism, a policy of supporting violent non-state actors is ill-advised. First, terrorist organizations are not reliable allies for states. While there are some long lasting relations (e.g. Hezbollah and Iran, Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Taiba), these remain relatively rare. Many terrorist groups have their own agenda and interests that inevitably clash with those of a state. As Stephen Tankel explains in his 2011 publication on Lashkar-e-Taiba, the aftermath of 9/11 forced Pakistan to clamp down on several of its proxies due to international pressure. While this was just a temporary measure to please the international community at a sensitive time, groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad, previously supported by the Pakistani state, saw this as a betrayal and soon began to attack Pakistan. Even reliable proxies like Lashkar-e-Taiba have argued that they will take action against the Pakistani state, but only after they defeat India.[2]

Second, India’s own experience with proxies and militias should demonstrate how dangerous a policy like this is to follow. India supported the Tamil Tigers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. When India’s policy changed, the Tamil Tigers turned their guns against their former sponsor. As a result, India engaged in what can only be described as “India’s Vietnam” and saw the former Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, killed by a Tamil suicide bomber. Even the Khalistan movement came to life due to the fact that the national government (led by the Congress party) initially supported the campaign’s ideological mentor, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, in an attempt to subvert the control of domestic rivals. Instead, what happened was the creation of a deadly insurgency that lasted for nearly a decade.

India’s previous success at curbing Pakistan support for Khalistani insurgents also proves to be a faulty analogy. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the Pakistani government provided material and diplomatic support to Sikh terrorists in India’s Punjab, and in response India’s external intelligence agency initiated a program of retaliation against Pakistani cities. Every attack carried out by Khalistani militants was met with a retaliatory strike in Pakistan. Eventually this forced the ISI (Inter-Service Intelligence, Pakistan’s primary intelligence agency) to cut their support (which proved to be crucial in defeating the insurgency), and the covert operation was shut down by Indian Prime Minister I K Gujral.

Initially, this case study would seem to indicate that a similar campaign of vindictive violence will be successful at halting Pakistan’s support for terrorist organizations in India, however a closer investigation shows that the Khalistan case remains an outlier. For one, the Pakistani state had little in common with the Sikh insurgent’s ideology. The Sikh insurgents did not provide protection for the Pakistani deep state, nor were the Sikh insurgents proving themselves to be a domestic aid like many Islamist militants today.[3] Also important was that the Pakistani state remained wary of the Khalistani insurgents, as Pakistani Punjab was also claimed by the Sikh militants to be part of a future Khalistan. While the Khalistan movement provided Pakistan an avenue from which to strike India from, it ultimately was not a long-term interest.

Finally, the belief that supporting terrorism against Pakistan will force a change in policy fundamentally fails to understand the political situation in the country. Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism has been primarily advocated for and carried out by the Pakistani military – which retains control of national security matters. Even today, the military has wrestled control of national security matters away from the civilian government. Any India-sponsored terror attacks against Pakistan will have little effect on policy. Instead, the military will use the opportunity to make the civilian government look weak, and possibly force more concessions from the civilian government.

The current terrorist organizations sponsored by Pakistan share an ideological goal and fulfill an important domestic role. As South Asia analyst Christine Fair has pointed out, Lashkar-e-Taiba plays an important role in the Pakistani state. Besides its provision of social services, the group also counters anti-Pakistan organizations. If anything, Pakistani reliance on its proxies will only deepen should India use terrorism to attack Pakistan.

When it comes to trying to end terrorism from Pakistan, India has limited options. A limited air strike or Special Forces raid against Pakistan remains impractical, with a conventional strike also being too costly for the Indian state. For the reasons laid out above, the idea of using terrorism to fight terrorism remains a foolish idea. Instead, India must rely on intelligence, border surveillance, and international pressure to fight terrorism emanating from Pakistan.

[1] An insurgency located primarily in India’s Punjab state to establish a Sikh state called Khalistan.

[2] Stephen Tankel, Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba (London: Hurst & Company, 2011), 261.

[3] Lashkar-e-Taiba, through its front Jamaat-ud-Dawa, operates a large chain of schools, mosques, and libraries allowing it to be effectively integrated and useful for the state.