OPINION | Spy vs Spy: The Latest Counter-Check Moment in India-Pakistan Spy Games

OPINION | Spy vs Spy: The Latest Counter-Check Moment in India-Pakistan Spy Games

By Group Captain Murli Menon

Image Attribute: (L) Commander Kulbhushan Sudhir Jadhav, Indian Navy and (R) Lt. Col. Muhammad Habib, Pakistan Army

Image Attribute: (L) Commander Kulbhushan Sudhir Jadhav, Indian Navy and (R) Lt. Col. Muhammad Habib, Pakistan Army 

The unfolding saga of Commander Kulbhushan Sudhir Jadhav and Lt. Col. Muhammad Habib, perhaps mere pawns in the decades – old competing one-up- manship animus between Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) of India and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan, at times smacks of altogether childish tit-for-tat gimmickry. To the uninitiated, it would be difficult to fathom the games people play in Islamabad and Delhi. Various reasons, including regional proximity of the nations, differing religious and social cultures and aggravated aggressive mindsets on both sides have precluded a Cold War-style espionage culture between our two countries. Mostly both have resorted to third country options to prosecute their respective “Intelligence Wars”. Hitherto, generally, the recourse to the persona non grata route was adopted by both establishments to play spy games through the diplomatic channels. Now, with the international community having tired of this silly play-acting by the South Asian nuclear states, a new era of “spy snatching” appears to be going on.

Pakistan’s reasons for having Commander Jadhav commandeered through its proxies in Iran were clear, having been under pressure after its own state-sponsored terror outfit Jaish–e-Muhammad pulled off the Pathankot airfield attack. Picking up the retired Indian Naval officer from Chabahar in Iran perhaps served a dual purpose of attempting to muddy waters between India and Iran. The competitive aspects of Charbahar and Gwadar cannot be forgotten here. If Indian agencies were indeed responsible for the vanishing act of the retired Pakistani Army Lt. Col. from Lumbini in Nepal, it could not have been just coincidence. Though espionage itself is as old as history, negotiating tactics and ploys have been as old alright. Having failed to get the Pakistanis to provide Consular access to Yadav, the Indians perhaps had no choice than to look for a suitable quid pro quo. Await an even more ingenuous cover story to emerge as to how the Pakistanis used Lt. Col. Habib to carry out highly threatening spy activities in India’s hinterland. The drama would further play out when back channels get active to talk of a “spy swap”. From experience of the Cold War-era, we know that for a swap to be considered both entities have to be of equal rank or status. That condition would be met in this case perhaps as a Commander and Lt. Col. are the co-equals! Maybe the Pakistanis reacted hastily by pushing Jadhav through a dubious military legal procedure – how can a Field General Court Martial (FGCM) of Pakistan Army, under its Army Act, hold good for an Indian military officer one wonders- when the missing story unfolded in Nepal. Now they can wait for India’s “Kautilya” (something our neighbors invariably credit us with!) mindset couched in adequate diplomatese,  accuse the neighbor of sending in military officials to indulge in subterfuge across the border. Of course, in cases such as these, it is difficult to say with certainty as to how it would play out, given the inherent below the radar nature of spooky land and facts/ truths being in short supply generally.

One thing is certain …this drama would have a limited audience. International organizations such a UNHCR would have limited roles to play in this case. Jadhav’s  so-called death sentence is unlikely to be executed, more so by a Pakistani state which finds itself in a strategic paralysis after its state- sponsoring of terror has become unviable in prevailing times. But, Pakistan as a country always has comprehension issues...and the Pakistan Army as an institution would continue to attempt to show its clout in matters other than military. Another aspect that would determine the discourse of this spy game is the altogether different organizational ambits of the R&AW and the ISI, the former being mainly civilian and the latter being totally military. Since any “ARGO” type of rescue mission is beyond the pale of both agencies  (and leaderships?) concerned citizens both sides of the border will continue to wonder in utter bewilderment, while the spooks have their day! Meanwhile, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA, India) could only complain to the international fora to take action on humanitarian grounds.

About the Author:

Group Captain (Retd.) Murli Menon served in Indian Air Force for 32 years, transiting its tactical, operational, strategic and conceptual appointment spectra with credit. He was India’s Air Advisor to Indian High Commission at Islamabad, Pakistan (2000-2004). In his second avatar, he served for 8 years with India’s Cabinet Secretariat, including a stint as Consular at Ankara, Turkey from 2008-2011.

He was one of the pioneers in the IAF’s Doctrine Think Tank – “Air War Strategy Cell” that produced India’s first Air Power Doctrine, the IAP 2000 in 1995. His interests include strategic studies and post-retirement, he contributes to various think-tanks based out of New Delhi, India.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IndraStra Global.
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