If a counterterrorist operation is analogous to bowling a good cricket over, then what constitutes a good over? A wicket and 30 runs? Or, no wicket but a maiden over? Common-sense would obviously make the latter desirable. When you juxtapose counterterrorist operations to this cricket scenario, we have a similar expectation. The number of terror casualties is meaningless, if other critical areas are left unguarded. In the military, this is called an ‘operational art’, in which actions in several theatres are synergised to arrive at a strategic outcome. So, the question is – did India achieve a strategic victory from the 2016 surgical strikes and 2019 air strike? If not, which was the wrong delivery that was lofted out of the fence by the opponent?


To answer this question, one has to understand what goes into the making of a counterterrorism strategy. In principle, counterterrorism has two components – an operational and an informational/psychological component. Until 2016, India mostly nurtured an aversion to the former, while implemented the latter haphazardly. This conclusion and parts of the narrative offered below are drawn from research conducted by the author for “India’s PSYWAR Against Islamic Terrorism: A Trident Strategy” published in Terrorism and Political Violence. The surgical strikes represented a remarked shift from India’s preference for non-kinetic means and achieved it with clinical precision. The operational component, thence, had emerged with authority. However, the crucial psychological component left much to be desired.


The psychological component has three targets, ‘audiences’ in professional jargon – domestic, adversarial and international. Though the same message is absorbed by all the three audiences, the degree of impact and intent behind delivering them differ significantly. For instance, the message conveyed to the domestic and international audience with the 2016 surgical strikes would have been to establish legitimacy of actions, while the adversarial audience (read: Pakistani citizens) were to be convinced of the futility of the government’s terror policies. Needless to say, the critical medium of conveying such messages is through tactful employment of the media and information hubs, like academic and research centres.


The best example to observe this play out with accuracy, is the counterterrorist operations in the Indian Punjab during the late 1980s ad early 90s. Under the able leadership of KPS Gill, every offensive operation mounted against the Khalistani terrorists was complimented by media coverage and public outreach. This has famously been termed as the “Gill Doctrine” by scholars. The net effect of such synergy was that the hardcore terrorists were killed; junior cadres surrendered; people gained confidence in the government; the Khalistanis’ perverted interpretation of religion was exposed; and the media coverage convinced the international community of the gross exaggeration in the allegations of human rights violations. The point to be noted is that there was a doctrine guiding the combination of operational and psychological operations that achieved strategic counterterrorism goals.


Compare this with the surgical strikes of 2016. The picture gets muddled, because the informational component had relied extensively on diplomacy focusing on the international audience. Domestic audience, which by extension determines the extent of impact psychological operations have on the international audience was not given due importance. As a result, the interim advantage gained by operational success was somewhat nullified. Diplomatic efforts had led to the boycotting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit to be held in Islamabad, and countries such as the US, Germany and Russia backed India’s strikes. However, on the domestic front, the groundwork was obfuscated. While Pakistan’s propaganda machinery stood in denial of the attacks, some noted public figures in India were found playing second fiddle. As a result, counterterrorist gains made way for domestic infighting.


The main reason for such hurdles to effective counterterrorism in India is the political utility of religion and the subsequent failure by politicians to separate state-sponsored terrorism from religious extremism. Even in the recent case, the Chief Minister of Karnataka was reported to have said that “celebrating air strikes can lead to communal strife”. This narrative subtly cements the narrative of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Jaish-e- Mohammed (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) that Indian Muslims are under threat and need to be rescued. Objectively speaking, there are very few buyers of this narrative in the international community, especially given the fact that the country with the world’s second largest Muslim population had barely any contributors to the Daesh, while their own countrymen had fled in hundreds. However, in the larger counterterrorist strategy, this leaves a significant impact on the overall objectives India sought to achieve. In a cricket analogy, this is the sixer conceded after the wicket. It not only gives away six crucial runs, but also boosts the morale of the newcomer, and the advantage gained by the wicket is now in favour of the other team.


This brings us to the question of how to remedy this situation. The starting point is to identify the right actors in the psychological war and acquaint them with their particular roles. The first step towards this is a political appreciation of state-sponsored terrorism and a cross-party declaration to launch a unified fight against it. Given the political currency in politicising terror, this is difficult to achieve, yet not completely impossible. This brings us to the other important actor that can have a cross-sectional impact in the psychological warfare, viz. the nation’s intelligentsia. India is now witnessing a record growth in the number of think tanks and research centres, trailing only behind the superpower – the US. The government has to play an important role in funding and encouraging these think tanks to conduct independent research on state-sponsorship of terror from an inter-disciplinary and multidimensional perspective.


The purpose of this exercise is to make the best use of open market talent and channelize their energies towards a national cause. In the age of twitter, several analysts are capable of making greater sense of the world around us than the official government mouthpieces, constrained by political correctness. The comprehensive output, thus brought out by the research institutes on state-sponsored terrorism, can help India better legitimise its actions, prove to the world not only the veracity of India’s claims but also of the futility of the global inaction, and finally, communicate with the Pakistani citizenry the economic and developmental costs of their army’s quest for strategic depth.


Employing think tanks and academia in an offensive capacity is not a new idea. During the Cold War, the British and Americans were involved in using research institutes in the fight against communism. For instance, the Institute for the Study of Conflict (ISC) was critical in highlighting the loopholes in the Western policies of détente and warning against the dangers of policy illusion. In the modern day, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has expressed concerns over Chinese think tankers and academics being affiliated to the Ministry of State Security (MSS). As Indian think tanks grow, a modicum of government support and tasking, devoid of methodological and operational interference, can deliver rich dividends in exposing the ISI’s menace.


At a cultural level, these changes can be enforced only when we consider that the public are a part of the nation’s counterterrorist strategy, not a victim or beneficiary. In order to mobilise the public in the right direction, the role of the intellectual is indisputable. In the ongoing episode, the air strikes gained a strategic victory that will have severe repercussions on GHQ Rawalpindi. The psychological impact of the strikes will undoubtedly shake the Pakistani military leadership out of the nuclear umbrella that it thought had deterred Indian military response for over decades. However, the fact that the actors on the other psychological side of the operation, domestic to be precise, lack basic understanding of terms like war, peace, propaganda, tactical gains and strategic losses, and vice versa, indicates a void in our overall counterterrorism strategy. This is a void that can be filled only by developing a synergy between the political leadership and the public intellectuals. Until then a thousand battles can be won, but the war will be far from over.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.