AS Dulat: PM Modi must weigh his options carefully; war is not a picnic

“PM Modi has been lucky so far, but he must weigh his options carefully. War is not a picnic,” Former Special Director at IB and former chief of RAW, AS Dulat said during a chat with Ashlin Mathew

AS Dulat: PM Modi must weigh his options carefully; war is not a picnic

Ashlin Mathew

Former Special Director at the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and former chief of Research & Analysis Wing, AS Dulat also served as Advisor on Kashmir to the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. “Prime Minister Modi has been lucky so far, but he must weigh his options carefully. War is not a picnic,” he said during a chat with Ashlin Mathew and asserted that there is no substitute to ‘talks’

In hindsight, was the decision of the Vajpayee Government to release Jaish-e Muhammad chief Masood Azhar in 1999 taken in haste?

There was only one man who was staunchly opposed to the release of Masood Azhar and that was Farooq Abdullah. I was sent to inform him and he said that it was a huge mistake and that the country would regret it. He said this to the government at that time and it is on record.

Although Farooq has been proved right, in that particular situation there was no other option. I don’t think we could have carried out a raid there (Kandahar). The only option we had then was while the aircraft was still at Amritsar. That was a goof-up, a failure. But, once the aircraft left Indian airspace, there was no option and least of all in Kandahar, which was under Taliban control.

Look at the irony of it, that was Dec 24, 1999; during that crisis Jaswant Singh tried his best to get through to the Taliban but failed. That is because we had no relation with the Taliban. Now, so many years down the line, we still have no relation with the Taliban. Now that the Americans are leaving Afghanistan (and Taliban is back in control, we are back to square one.)

Will this government opt for war? Is war a possibility?

I don’t think so. The government (Prime Minister Modi) did say they were giving a free hand to the Army, but wars are nastier these days. I’m sure there are other options short of war. Even after the Mumbai terror attack, there was a clamour for war, probably even louder, but Dr Manmohan Singh did not go to war. So, Modi has to weigh his options, people at the top have to weigh the consequences.

War is not a picnic. There hasn’t been a real war since 1971. Kargil was a limited operation and it was in the heights where fortunately not many civilians got affected. But, if Lahore is bombed, or Amritsar is bombed or even Muzaffarabad is bombed, are we prepared for the consequences? Today, the weaponry is also not that of 1971, it has all changed.

Jaish-e-Muhammad appears to be making its presence felt in Kashmir after a long gap. What could be the contributing factors?

They were hardly there in Kashmir of late. I would think the ISI is using them and that would be the most rational explanation. He is under their protective custody. The Jaish getting more aggressive in Kashmir is indicative of ISI’s role. The question here is that the Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan had given every possible signal that he would like to talk, that he is keen to talk. But the only response has been a hug from Navjot Singh Sidhu. One needs to rethink why this is happening now and what is the situation on the ground that is allowing this.

Navjot Singh Sidhu’s hug of Pakistan’s Army chief continues to be raised in TV studios …

How Sidhu greeted General Bajwa is how Punjabis meet and greet each other. And here, they were not just Punjabis, but here was a Jatt Sikh from our side meeting a Jatt from the other side. The way a Sidhu and a Bajwa met is the normal way they would meet. If there was an element of embarrassment, it should have been caused more to Bajwa, who was in uniform. Sidhu did whatever he did spontaneously.

Why are terror attacks in Kashmir going up under the Modi government and not going down?

When you stop talking, then you are cutting down your options. That’s why we are back to the narrative of violence. When it comes to insurgencies worldwide, very rarely has an insurgency been sorted out or solved through force and by the gun. The British, who dealt with this more than anybody else, had a huge problem in 1950 in Malaya. And that is when two of their top officers (a Field Marshal and a General) wrote the first handbook on how to deal with insurgency and the crux of that handbook, which is still used in the West, is that there is a need to win the hearts and minds of the people.

Now, our people say that Punjab was sorted out by force. In Punjab, there wasn’t such a huge insurgency. Even there, there were other factors in place. They also had KPS Gill heading the police force.

Insurgency is not a new thing. It’s a worldwide phenomenon. There was a US Secretary of State Dean Rusk with President John F Kennedy and he said the best way to deal with your adversary is with your ears – to listen. I would say this again, Governor’s Rule in Jammu and Kashmir for more than six months is counter-productive. We must have elections in the state – the sooner, the better.

But the Modi government says the time for talk is over in the wake of Pulwama. Have they not been always in favour of tough, muscular policies?

I have always said that the way forward is to talk. People, now particularly, ask who is there to talk to? There is more cynicism after the attack. This is because people don’t know what actually happens in Kashmir. My question is ‘Does the government have a problem talking to Dr Farooq Abdullah? I’m glad that the Home Minister met Omar Abdullah. It was important that the Home Minister gave time to him to have his say because Omar knows Kashmir better than anyone except his father. But, why not consult Farooq? Why not consult Mehbooba Mufti? They must sit down with Farooq and Mehbooba together, maybe one or two more. Even if you don’t want to go towards the ‘Separatists’… now you have a separatist in the mainstream – Sajjad Lone. Why don’t they get Sajjad? So, I would say get Farooq, Mehbooba and Sajjad. We need to talk.

If there is a problem at the highest level, then let the Home Minister talk. There is no contradiction in talking to your own people. Farooq Abdullah is not a Pakistani, neither is Mehbooba; Sajjad Lone is not a Pakistani either.

Here is the irony. BJP is courting Sajjad Lone – his wife is a Pakistani, his father is the founder of Jammu & Kashmir People’s Conference, a separatist party. The government talks to him, because it suits them but not to Farooq, the most nationalist of the Kashmiris. So, what sense does it make?

Now that the Government has withdrawn security given to separatist leaders, how is this move going to affect the situation on the ground?

I don’t think it will have any impact. One of them could be shot; they are all vulnerable in their own ways. It could be someone from within who could decide to bump off someone else to settle scores. In Kashmir, such is the situation. After all, Sajjad Lone’s father Abdul Ghani Lone was assassinated. He was really the only politician amongst them then. He was a big player. So, I fear the most for Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. He is the one separatist leader who has a future, is important and will remain a key player in Kashmir. So, his security is important.

Reports are coming in from different parts of the country that Kashmiri students have been targeted by mobs. How will this backlash play out?

What is the point of attacking Kashmiri students? How will that solve the Pulwama issue? They will only add to our problems in Kashmir. What is growing hugely in Kashmir is the feeling of alienation. In Kashmir, the gun is not the solution. The state governments need to be vigilant and ensure that this does not happen. It’s true that passions are running strongly, rightly or wrongly; the feeling here is that it’s all Pakistan’s doing and that Pakistan has to be taught a lesson. So, please go ahead and teach Pakistan a lesson. If we need to teach Pakistan a lesson, teach them, but how are poor Kashmiri boys responsible?

Why does Pakistan continue to support terror?

People need to sit down and consider why they go back to it. There are one-and-a half factors that nobody seems to take into account. One is that Pakistan had totally lost out in Kashmir in the aftermath of 9/11. The Kashmiris had realised that there was no future with Pakistan. Somebody should make the effort to understand why the militants are gaining ground again.

Should India have agreed to the four point plan for peace suggested by Pervez Musharraf?

It’s quite sad that it didn’t happen. Dr Manmohan Singh has said that it almost happened and so has Musharraf. That is the most acceptable to the Kashmiris as well. We have to create chances for talking. If and when we start talking to the Pakistanis, the four-point formula is a good starting point. It may not happen immediately, but whenever it happens…

The Kashmiri is craving for peace. When the former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik visited the separatist leaders, Mirwaiz conveyed a message through him that ‘we want peace and we want to talk’. I’m sure Bondevik would have conveyed that to someone in Delhi.

There is much talk of Intelligence failure that led to the attack in Pulwama while reports also suggest there were Intelligence inputs which were overlooked. Could the attack be prevented?

I wouldn’t know what kind of inputs were given… Every time something goes wrong, intelligence agencies are blamed. Obviously, if there were no intelligence failure, then nothing would go wrong. But, Intelligence, like security, as we have seen in this case and in other cases worldwide, is not foolproof. Intelligence provides a lot of inputs which help governments. But sometimes you don’t have the exact input.

When you say there was an input, it means somebody felt that something like this or something big like this would happen in Pulwama… but I can say that sitting right here about such possibilities because southern Kashmir has been on fire for the last two years. And quite out of control. It’s not that we have not had suicide attacks in the past. But most, if not all, of those attacks were carried out by Pakistanis. There was an attack on the state Assembly, a few years ago in Badami Bagh in the Cantonment area. But they were not of this magnitude and they were not local boys committing suicide. So, that is the really scary part. Over the last one year now, we have been stressing that boys involved in south Kashmir are our own boys, not Pakistanis coming in.

That is what should concern us. Why are more and more of our boys turning to militancy? Who are the others who were with this boy, where are they? This is an extreme scenario – somebody young is willing to blow himself up. Now, this is a scary scenario. If this number were to grow, then safety and Intelligence will become very difficult. What has happened to the others who have joined?

You can have Intelligence that something is going to happen but you can’t have Intelligence about what is going on in the mind of one single person. These single people are the most deadly.

What we also tend to forget is that in Kashmir people are being killed every day; whether members of the security forces or militants, people are dying. Death is common and the main narrative in Kashmir is violence. Somebody needs to change that narrative. The narrative will not be changed by more violence. So, there needs to be a counter narrative. We need to invent a counter narrative.

What would you have done differently, if you were still with an Intelligence agency…

I don’t think I could have done anything differently, because I don’t think anybody provided this input that this boy is going to blow himself up. That is the crucial input and nobody could have this input… his family didn’t know, his father didn’t know… this is happening quite often in Kashmir; teenagers disappearing from families, picking up the gun and getting killed. We need to think about this.

What can be done now?

Atal Bihari Vajpayee is still revered in the Valley. He is not a Pakistani. So, the way ahead is Vajpayee’s way. He never gave up hope with Pakistan and he never gave up hope with the Kashmiris. I think he was tested much more than Modi has been tested. During his time there was Kargil, the Parliament attack, the hijacking of IC-814, but he didn’t lose his balance, he didn’t lose his cool.

It’s extremely lucky if a Prime Minister goes through five years without any serious crisis; Modiji has been lucky. Uri and Pathankot did happen, but that is not of the same magnitude as the Parliament attack or the hijacking. This is the test of a Prime Minister, during a crisis. Dr Manmohan Singh had a difficult time, when Mumbai happened. And to his credit, he dealt with it extremely well and while people thought this would cost the Congress a great deal, but in less than a year, they were back in power.

I would go for the diplomatic route, aggressive diplomacy. You have already removed the ‘most favoured nation’ status, not that it means much, some have suggested that the High Commission in Pakistan can be shut. The Foreign Secretary has briefed envoys and that is how it must be done. This is the time to send out special emissaries carrying the message that ‘we have suffered’ and Pakistan backs all this.

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