In the conference room were the ten most powerful men inside Pakistan. Currently, one man was on his feet, his face purple with rage, his expression one of pure disbelief. “Have you lost your mind?” he shouted at the Chief of Pakistan’s Intelligence service. Few men in the sub-continent could yell at the ISI chief and get away with it: the Armed Forces Chief of Staff was one of them.
The ISI Chief tried to keep his temper under control. “The threat is real, and considering our circumstances, our options limited.” He looked at the other faces, seeing his own feelings of impotence mirrored there. “I need the authorization to make contact with my opposite number.”
The Chief of Staff sank into a chair. “What will the Indians say when you put this proposition to them. They’ll think we’ve lost our minds…”
* * *
The meet took place in the Saudi capital. Ali, the ISI Chief, wasted no time. “Thank you for responding so promptly to my summons.”
The Indian intelligence czar, named Chopra, said nothing, but kept his expression neutral.
“Two days ago, there was a break-in at an ISI field office in Pakistan. It occurred at night. Four men were involved, and one of them was caught. We don’t know what they were after, because shortly after security captured him, he committed suicide: cyanide capsule in the upper jaw. Before he died, he tried to destroy his laptop. He was stamping on it when our men grabbed him. A minute later he was a corpse.” Ali paused. “The man was a Caucasian.”
The Indian’s face betrayed no emotion, but his heart skipped a beat.
“There was damage to the hard drive, but our technical people managed to recover a pile of data.” His face went slack. “It is – frightening… Apparently, Taliban has contracted the services of foreign mercenaries. This came as a major surprise to us as they have a strict policy of using their own people. Sub-contracting the job to outside forces represents a very disturbing, very radical change in that policy. Even more disturbing was their game-plan.
“A logical assumption might have been that the targets of this mercenary force were NATO and government bases in Afghanistan. We were wrong. Taliban has done some drastic re-targeting: their primary objective is now nothing less than the overthrow of our government. This mercenary force’s role is not combat, but assassination. Eight weeks from now, in a series of coordinated actions within hours of each other, Pakistan’s top leaders will be killed by this unit. Hours later, with our leadership incapacitated, waves of suicide bombers will target malls, schools, hospitals and mosques, unleashing pandemonium on an unprecedented scale.
“Pakistan is one of our planet’s most hostile regions; death threats are nothing new. But now there are new factors to consider. The hit-squad is comprised of foreign troops. Tactically, they would be superior to anything the Taliban can throw at us; and very likely they have the best equipment money can buy. Our leaders are superbly-protected, but can we guarantee our survival against a determined, well-trained and equipped hostile force?” Sweat was running down his face despite the air-conditioning. “The hard drive revealed this, and yet not enough to identify the attackers, where they are based, how they will come in, nothing we can use to locate and destroy them. All we have are vague plans and a tentative operational deadline…”
Chopra nodded, saying nothing.
“Our only viable reaction would be a pre-emptive strike at Taliban. We know the location of the training camp where we suspect the suicide bombers are holed up. A missile strike would destroy the camp. But I need whatever records are at the camp to identify and track down the hit-squad. Only ground troops can get the job done.” His smile was bleak. “And there is my problem. Many units in our military and intelligence are loyal to Taliban. I cannot keep a military op of this magnitude secret. If news of our planned strike reaches Taliban,” He shrugged. “they might pre-pone their deadline, or dismantle their camps. It’s not a chance we can afford to take. In all our years in power we’ve never faced a threat like this before. Desperate situations call for desperate actions.” He looked Chopra in the eye. “If we can’t use our own men, then the only other soldiers we can trust to get the job done are Indians.”
Years of training didn’t help. The Indian intelligence chief’s mouth fell wide open.
* * *
“He said what?” exclaimed the Indian Prime Minister. They were all in his office, having an early breakfast.
Chopra nodded. “Those were his exact words.” He stirred his coffee slowly. “They estimate there are 15000 extremists in the camp. They have exact co-ordinates. Ali believes a force of 5000 Indian commandos with the right equipment can wipe the camp off the map. Pakistani military observers will accompany our troops when we go in, to grab what data is to be found.”
“And 5000 Indian soldiers with tons of military hardware marching into Pakistan aren’t going to sound alarm bells in the corridors of those army units loyal to Taliban?” The Army Chief wanted to know.
“Ali says they can cross the border by train in small groups. One of ISI’s ‘public sector’ firms deals with farm equipment. They can arrange to schedule a conference in Karachi. Our troops waltz in posing as salesmen and dealers.”
The PM had lost interest in his breakfast. “So our men are taken to ground zero. They set up base, take out the camps before the due date. Then what?”
“Our troops come home, and it’s back to the status quo.” shrugged Chopra.
The National Security Advisor was shaking his head. “I can’t believe Ali’s trying to sell us this mess. This is basically an in-house Pakistan problem. They nurtured and supported the Taliban, and now it’s out of control they come to us for help!”
“He played the nuclear card.” said Chopra quietly. “He said that if the country was overridden and the top echelon taken out, there was no way he could guarantee control of their nuclear weapons.”
* * *
The man who was shown into the Prime Minister’s office later that evening used a walking stick. He looked to be about 80, yet he had alert eyes. “Thank you for seeing an old man without advance notice.” He said when they were settled into armchairs.
The Prime Minister smiled. Mehta may have been an old man, but he was a really important old man. He had served as a former National Security Adviser, before heading India’s intelligence apparatus. As a politician for many years he had amassed millions, and on retirement, had gone on to form India’s only think-tank, an organization with strong links to the current administration, and which still advised the government on policy issues, both domestic and foreign. “You heard about the Pakistani proposal.” said the PM simply. The PM did not know Mehta’s sources but he knew they went up all the way to the top rungs of power.
Mehta nodded. “Has the Council made any decision on the issue?” He knew that the PM was a dove in a government of hawks. It was an open secret that the PM was trying his best to secure a lasting peace with Pakistan.
The PM shrugged. “No consensus. But you already know that, Mehta.” He regarded him warily. “I take it you are here to offer me your input.”
“Sir,” said Mehta earnestly. “I urge you to grab this offer with both hands.” He nodded at the surprise on the other’s face. “My analysts tell me the Pakistani administration is between a rock and a hard place. Their proposal was born out of desperation. Sure, we could sit back and let them crawl out of the mess they spawned. That would be satisfying. But in the long run would it solve our problems or create some more? We need to examine this from a broader perspective. If their government falls, we face a situation wherein the whole country could become a hotbed of extremists. I don’t have to tell you what that means, especially with regard to their nuclear weapons.
“If we send in troops today, at their behest, we can nip this problem in the bud. We help the government regain some grip on Pakistan. If we’re lucky common sense will prevail and maybe relations will improve. Worse-case, we return to being uneasy neighbours, nothing more dangerous. The immediate hazards will have vanished, for now.”
“So you’re recommending I send in troops?”
“Actually, I have a counter-proposal for you to consider. Instead of Indian soldiers, I’m offering you 80 men from my organization, ex-soldiers and engineers. The Pakistanis need not be told. They go in with their equipment, as an advance team to scope out the region. They set up a discreet surveillance post bordering the extremists’ camps. Let them stay a week, observing, monitoring, collecting data, planning tactical combat scenarios. On day seven, they contact us. You then decide whether to go ahead with the actual deployment of Indian troops.”
“You mentioned equipment?”
“Whatever they would need to stay alive for seven days and get the job done. The Pakistanis have already given us carte blanche on gear. We’ll need to insist that we don’t want observers for this initial period of contact.”
The PM looked into the far distance. “How soon can your team be ready to move?”
* * *
The team left the country inside 36 hours, after the ISI chief gave the go-ahead. The men entered enemy territory using their cover stories. Along with them went several crates of equipment. The team re-assembled under cover of darkness at a location unknown to the Indian authorities. The minute they had crossed the border, all communication was down. The next contact, if all went well, would be seven days later.
Five days later, the PM received an urgent call from Mehta. The Indian base-camp had been attacked, presumably by the extremists. The team had resisted and had gone down fighting. Two men had survived and evading capture, made it to the Afghan border two days later, to tell the tale. All equipment had been captured by the extremists. Mehta surmised that his team had been betrayed by sources inside Pakistan. Sending more Indians under such conditions would be tantamount to signing their death warrants.
The Indian intel chief made contact with Ali a few days later. The misadventure had cost Indian lives, he stated, and indicated that the leaks in the Pakistan command structure were worse than had been alleged. He regretted India could offer no further support, officially or otherwise. They would have to bring order to their house on their own.
Within 48 hours of this conversation Pakistan was rocked by a series of suicide-bombings. There were 64 attacks in all, targeting military installations. Very carefully, it appeared, civilians had been kept off the hit-list. Pakistani leaders instantly went deep-cover, fearing assassination hits were next on the agenda. But these never came. When the dust had settled, the military learned it had lost 2000 men. Over 17,000 were injured and the damage to vehicles, equipment, roads and buildings ran into tens of millions of dollars. Armed forces command was enraged at the blatant manner in which they had been targeted. Leaders, coming out of hiding and certain the hits had failed, decided that matters had gone too far. They began planning for massive retaliatory strikes against the Taliban.
* * *
Intelligence boss Chopra found Mehta at the local laughter club the next morning. He waited until the session was over before waylaying Mehta on his way to the parking lot. They shook hands. “Strange place to find you, Mehta.” observed Chopra. “I would have thought this the last place to find someone who lost 78 good men a week back.”
Mehta shrugged easily. “Life goes on, my friend. When you’ve seen as much tragedy as I have in my lifetime, it’s amazing how quickly you learn to adapt and move on.”
Chopra indicated a fast-food counter across the road. “Got the time for a bite?”
Taking a booth in a far corner they ordered large mugs of teas. “Our relationship goes back decades, Mehta. Even after you left government, we’ve maintained our association. I’ve kept you abreast of the latest developments concerning national security, and you’ve sent valuable input and guidance my way, allowing me insights not available to me in my official capacity. When I contacted you some days back about the Pakistani request for troops, it was merely this association at work, me informing you of a recent development. I never expected you to act so quickly, so decisively, assembling a team and putting the PM in a corner to act without delay. To say that I was surprised would be putting it mildly. While the Council were still digesting the intel and wondering how to react, you already had a plan in place and were pressing to get it initiated.” He shook his head, but he was looking at the tea.
“Then, inside the space of a week, you lose your team. Next thing we see a wave of suicide attacks. They were well-coordinated, well-executed, a truly massive undertaking; not something within the Taliban’s capabilities to organize or execute – not without outside help. And now I see reports that the munitions used were European origin, again not the usual toys of Taliban.” He took a long sip. “What exactly was in the crates your men took to Pakistan, Mehta?”
Mehta said nothing, continuing to drink his tea. When he was done, he took out his wallet. “Let’s go for a drive.” They got into Mehta’s car, and he started the engine and switched the music on. “Do you know the mantra of our current Prime Minister? It’s: Peace – at any price. The man is ready to sell the country and its ideals in his quest for a damn Nobel Peace prize!” He pursed his lips. “And look at me. I’m 82. I’ve served this nation’s interests for decades, trying everything to make peace with Pakistan. Every effort we made has backfired, every campaign stamped upon, every conciliatory drive spat at. How do you make peace with a nation that doesn’t want it in the first place?
“And so I put together an organization whose objective was to ensure India’s survival, no matter the cost. It was only a year ago that we came up with a totally unconventional proposition. The thinking was simple: save India grief by diverting all of Pakistan’s time, energies and her military resources to combating an enemy other than India. In other words, create a suitable substitute for their nemesis.” He caught the surprise on Chopra’s face, and allowed himself a ghost of a smile. “Step one, find the nation, and step two, maneuver both countries into a state of virtual war. We factored in every country in the region, but none fit the profile we had set up. We spent three months in research and analysis before we realized the solution was staring us in the face: the Taliban…
“Mutual distrust between the two already exists. Taliban occasionally hollers that Pakistan has become a US puppet. Pakistan feels that sometimes the Taliban bites off more than it can chew. The status now: though supposedly a friendly force, the Taliban is an occasional irritant in Pakistan’s side. Whenever the media puts the spotlight on their extremist activities, Pakistan sanctions some military moves against them, nothing more.” He breathed in deeply. “What I needed was to engineer a situation where Pakistan would be forced to take overwhelming, decisive action designed to eventually destroy the Taliban. For this to happen, the Pakistan military had to be provoked first, to be made to believe Taliban had turned against them, viciously and unforgivably.” As if on cue, the song ended. “With my money and contacts I secured the services of foreign mercenaries. Some weeks back they ‘broke’ into an ISI field office, ‘leaving’ a laptop behind. In it was enough data to make ISI believe a foreign-trained force was being readied as a hit-team. We created plans of the wave of suicide bombings to follow. There were hints of ‘loyal’ military units and ISI operatives and politicians who would give the Taliban prior warning of any offensive launched by the Pakistan military.”
“You created a situation whereby they had no choice but to ask for our help…”
“I wanted my men inside Pakistan for two reasons. One was to deliver the munitions, plans and advisers to the extremists. Two: if our troops ‘fell’, it would have prevented Pakistan from asking for military help further down the line.”
“So – you didn’t actually lose any of your men?”
“No. After their task was complete, they hiked to the Afghan border and were picked up by choppers. The one man who died was the mercenary who took the suicide capsule after allowing himself to be captured by ISI. It was part of the plan. The man was dying. His family was paid a handsome amount for his sacrifice.”
“And the munitions?”
“Among my contacts: some arms dealers. It was no trouble procuring what I wanted. Even easier was getting uniforms of a Pakistan army division loyal to Taliban. In the crates were these uniforms and munitions. When my men got into position, they changed into Pakistan army uniforms and went into camp. The Taliban believed they were dealing with Pakistan military personnel. We supplied them munitions and details of ‘disloyal’ military units we wanted targeted. We gave them a date, locations, sentry details, number of personnel on the bases. Half my team was weapons advisers; they taught them what they needed to make it all work. We needed Taliban to deliver a crippling blow to the Pakistani government.” He smiled smugly. “It worked.”
“What happens next?”
“Pakistan will have no option but to start hunting down the Taliban. Taliban will fight back. Both will direct time and resources against each other, sparing India a lot of grief.”
“None of this is going to bring us closer to peace with Pakistan.”
Mehta snorted. “Peace? This was never about peace, Chopra! I told you: survival is the key here. No Indian or Pakistani politician with any sanity believes that peace is possible any more. That’s something that has become abundantly clear, I’m afraid.” He shook his head. “Peace never had a chance.”