As Pakistan’s ISI Gets Linked to Terror Groups, Can India Push for a Showdown?

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Reports of Saleem Shahzad’s horrible death made the front pages of some of the newspapers in India today. Like the other alarming news from Pakistan lately, the murder of this prominent journalist only confirms India’s longstanding criticism of the ISI as a source of treachery. Anita Joshua, writing on the front page of the Hindu today, called it “the third instance in May when the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) has come under frontal attack.”

The second (after, of course, the revelation of Osama bin Laden’s hide-in-plain-sight strategy in Abbotabad) is the testimony of David Headley in what is known here as the “Headley-Rana” trial. Tahawwur Rana may be the one who is technically on trial, with Headley as the star witness for the prosecution. But in India, it might as well be known as the ISI trial — Indians have been poring over Headley’s testimony for fresh details of ISI’s double-dealing. India’s Home Secretary G.K. Pillai has even floated the idea of India joining a lawsuit against the ISI by relatives of two Americans who were killed in the attacks. Pillai told the Times of India:

“I think if Rana gets convicted, then you are establishing credibility of Headley’s claim of an ISI linkage. Then those records will go to the New York court case…that is where the pressure will come.”

Pillai also describes how India has tried to convince the U.S. to do more to stop the flow of counterfeit currency from Pakistan into India, arguing that the fake money funds terrorists who threaten both India and the U.S.

“At some point of time, Americans who have maximum influence in Pakistan need to put pressure on Pakistan to stop it because it is all state sponsored.”

His comments reveal an uncomfortable truth about the revelations about Pakistan: India can’t really do much about it. For one thing, there is so far no confirmation about the real identity of the ominous “Major Iqbal,” Headley’s ISI handler. And Headley himself has said that only a handful of ISI operatives knew about the attacks. In the latest from Sebastian Rotella’s excellent coverage of the trial:

During cross-examination, Headley testified that he did not think the top brass of the Pakistani spy agency knew about the Mumbai plot, which he said was planned by his ISI handler, known only as Major Iqbal, in coordination with Lashkar chiefs.

“My belief is that all of ISI did not know,” Headley said. “I would imagine [Major Iqbal’s] colonel would know it. And the group he belonged to.”

That testimony tracks with Headley’s statement to Indian investigators last year that the director general of the ISI, Ahmed Shuja Pasha, had been surprised by the attacks. Pasha visited Lashkar’s jailed military chief in 2009 to learn more about the plot, Headley told Indian investigators.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told reporters this weekend that there was nothing new to come out of the Headley trial, and that he was committed to the government’s official policy of bilateral dialogue. He said he would “use every possible opportunity to talk to Pakistan and convince it that terror as an instrument of state policy is not acceptable to people in the civilized world.” Singh plans to wait until the trial is over and then study the transcripts to consider whether any change of course is warranted. Not exactly fighting words.

However large the Indian military might loom in the Pakistani imagination, the reality is that India is not going to retaliate now for an attack that is nearly three years old, particularly in the absence of new evidence.  While India might want to score diplomatic points by highlighting evidence of Pakistani duplicity, it has very little incentive to seek out a military confrontation with Pakistan. Why? Investors tend to get very nervous about the threat of war, and this government’s most impressive achievement is its record of solid economic growth. It is unlikely to do anything to jeopardize that.

That’s not to say, however, that military options are completely off the table in the event of another attack on India clearly linked to Pakistan. There is some quiet work going on to make the legal case for retaliation. In October 2010, National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon gave a speech to the Naval Defense College titled “The Role of Force in Strategic Affairs.”

Menon lays out the long history of Indian thinking on statecraft and theories of just war, from the Mahabharata to Ashoka to Mohandas Gandhi. It’s an attempt to place any future rationale for use of force within an indigenous context — a useful argument when defending such a decision under international law. The speech is short on specifics, touching only lightly on the challenges of conventional army in assymetric warfare. He concludes:

But one can hardly jump to conclusions about the futility of force when limited war under nuclear conditions remains possible, and when adversaries need to be deterred. This debate will continue.

It’s not quite a shot across the bow; but an unmistakable signal nonetheless.