Convolutions of Covert Wars

The recent attack on Israelis has exposed Israel’s covert war with Iran.

Akrita Reyar

The recent attacks and attempted assaults on Israelis in multiple cities around the world, following the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists, have taken brinkmanship between the two countries to another level and exposed a covert war.

Many years earlier, former Pakistan president Zia ul Haq had once said that the war, in which one cannot emerge victorious through open force, must be won by “bleeding the enemy through a thousand cuts”. He was speaking in context with India then, but his thoughts cannot be ascribed as original.

Whether it is Israel and Iran or Pakistan, covert techniques have been adopted by numerous countries as a part of a well thought out state policy.

History of Covert Operations

Ancient kingdoms, including those in India, used the covert means to weaken an enemy before attempting to triumph over him in face to face battle. One of the most original thinkers, Chanakya, had devoted space in his famed Arthashastra for covert operations and intelligence gathering. He used espionage extensively by deploying undercover agents in the form of ascetics, barbers, orphans, speech impaired, astrologers, food caterers etc. – people who could make easy and socially acceptable intrusions into enemy circles.

The Chinese were masters of the covert technique in olden times. They still are. And have adeptly adapted the modus operandi to the new age battlefield of cyberspace.

In modern history, during World Wars, both sides used covert or hidden operations to seek information or create chinks in enemy defence. Americans had made it one of their most potent weapons, especially during the Cold War. The Reagan Doctrine was, possibly, the largest covert strategy adopted to destabilize Communist leaders and regimes.

Whether it was Vietnam, Laos, or dangerous alliances with ISI for fighting the Russians in Afghanistan, the US used covert tactics to the hilt for achieving different goals at different times.

The idea of Covert Operations

The reasons behind embracing covert techniques are several. They are best used when, as mentioned above, a particular country has low chances of winning an open war. Second, when an open war, even when it can be won, would lead to unwanted conflagration and cause huge collateral damage. Third, when the operations are targeting only special areas or meant to eliminate of particular people. Fourth, to create low key but prolonged adverse conditions that would be inimical to the interest of the enemy.

Also, mostly, covert wars have lower monetary cost involved than a conventional war and thus become the preferred option.

The example of Israel

Israel, a nation with possibly the world’s best intelligence apparatus, has crafted and executed to an exceptional level the stratagem of eliminating handpicked targets.

Last month, Mossad along with the CIA was blamed for the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan in Tehran. He was killed by two men on motorbikes who drove past his car, pasting on it a magnetic bomb that caused a blast in the vehicle.

The 32-year-old was a target being the deputy director of Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility. The United States and Israel have been openly opposing Iran’s nuclear programme for long. Two other Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated in the last two years in car blasts, while a third had a miraculous narrow escape.

Earlier in 2010, senior Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was killed in a hotel in Dubai, allegedly by Israeli agents. The 50-year old was the founder of the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, and behind the capturing and killing of two Israeli soldiers in 1989.

Two years before that in 2008 in Damascus, Israel was accused of being behind the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh – a military commander of Hezbollah.

Another extremely high profile assassination carried out by Israel was in 1987 when Palestine Liberation Organisation`s military leader Abu Jihad was eliminated in Tunisia.

Lessons to take home?

Considering the fact that Israel has been so successful in wiping out people insidious to their existence, would it be wise for India to actively consider a similar option?

The fact of the matter is that however much it may seem like a proposition worth pursuing, we lack the basic prerequisites for such a surgical operation – intelligence and impregnable internal security. Compared to indubitable information gathering of the Israelis, we are still at a point when we hand over a Most Wanted List to Pakistan for people who are dead or residing in India!

Yes, there was a hue and cry about launching a similar attack like the US’ on Osama, but one must caution that the scenarios are not quite the same.

Granted we know the location of Dawood Ibrahim’s Clifton bungalow in Karachi and can even attend venomous speeches given by Hafeez Saeed at rallies in Lahore (recently a former minister of the UPA government had a televised debate with him on a Pakistani channel), targeting them individually may not be as feasible in terms of logistics.

Even if we had the capability, Pakistan’s reaction would be very dissimilar to its attitude to the United States. Pakistan considers India its arch enemy and would die than face such dishonour at our hands. Remember Zulfiqar spewing about “we shall eat grass”, but acquire nukes address!

One can expect both overt and covert retaliation. Our extremely vulnerable internal security would give our western neighbour innumerable chances of hitting back in far more brutal ways. The reason why Israel has been able to pull off what it has so far is because it is impossible for its enemies to penetrate its borders. The reason why Iran or Hezbollah or whoever else is targeting Israel did it in Georgia, India and Thailand than Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

The greatest lesson for India would be to improve its own espionage systems as well as fortify the security of its citizens and yet perhaps not indulge in covert killings.

Because as proved from the Israel-Iran examples of killing of Iranian nuclear scientists followed by attempted attacks on Israeli nationals, covert wars have one extremely negative fall-out – they inevitably lead to a vicious cycle that is nearly always impossible to smash.

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