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Understanding the Doval Doctrine of Defensive Offence

On 21st February 2014, Ajit Doval, the then director of the Vivekananda International Foundation delivered the Nani Palkhiwala memorial lecture at the Sastra University. The lecture was a summary of of his approach and thinking on the appropriate strategic response to terrorism. The same thought process seems to have translated into action during his tenure as the NSA under the current NDA regime. Any journalist worth his salt would have written a detailed report on this lecture by now.

Instead our journalists have chosen to write articles with cherry-picked phrases and lines that sound good in the context of current affairs. At the same time, they have chosen not to report the parts of Mr Doval’s lecture that would otherwise tarnish the image of certain political figures/parties.

Doval has outlined ways in which India could make it costly for Pakistan to continue its policy of supporting terror in his address. Though some in the media might have seen the entire speech, they have been smart enough to pick parts that suit the hot topics of the day and ignore the rest purposefully.

It was also fashionable to mention this speech after Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned Balochistan in his Independence Day address. The phrase ‘defensive offense’ has become a very popular phrase in the English media after the recent surgical strikes on terror launch pads across LoC.


For the benefit of those who  haven’t/can’t/ not interested to watch the entire video, I am putting down the key messages in my summary below. My comments are in brackets:

Interaction With the  Senior-most Political Leadership on POTA in 2004

  • Mr Doval begins by narrating an anecdote when the newly elected government was eager to repeal POTA after 2004 polls. (Mr Doval was the chief of Intelligence at that time). He comments that the political establishment had placed politics above the national interests.
  • His fervent request not to repeal the only law in India that makes terrorism as a punishable crime was eventually downplayed and ignored.
  • In the Q and A session he emphatically states that POTA was a disgrace and a toothless anti terror law when compared to anti terror laws in the West.

Doval’s Two Axioms for Developing an Anti Terror Strategy

  1.  Accept reality as it is and not as you wish it was.
  2.  You can never defeat an enemy that you cannot define. (These two axioms are relevant not only in the area of defence or anti- terror strategy, but in almost any realm of life.)

One the Nature of Terror

  • He laments that India has fought terror so far only on newspaper columns.
  • At this juncture, the current NSA throws a question to himself.

         What makes Jihadi Terror a strategic threat ?

  • Jihadi terror is sponsored by a country that harbors deep hatred and hostility towards India and is directed at destroying India. This is an asymmetric warfare whose chief characteristics are covert actions with a high degree of deniability. This could also be called war through other means. This agenda is achieved at a very nominal cost by the enemy ~ Rs 180 crore per year. The cost of maintaining a formal army battalion is about 30 crores. At the cost of about 6 to 7 battalions this war can be sustained. He also mentions that India’s ‘No first use policy’ of nuclear weapons is also an advantage to the enemy as Pakistan can use it in the event of a formal military confrontation.
  • He also mentions the need to accept the pan Islamic dimension to the problem of terror. The ideology of terror has found some takers in Islam due to propaganda and insecurities of the community in several areas of the world. However, he categorically mentions that this percentage is very small in the world and India.
  • He underscores the fact that the 17 crore Muslim population in India is largely patriotic, but the exposure to internet and the ability of some individuals to connect and sympathize with global causes and incidents puts our Muslim citizens at risk of radicalization.
  • He also points out that all wars cannot be won through the might of the armed forces. He cites example of the loss of Soviets in Afghanistan and the loss of USA in Vietnam.

Political Islam and the History of Jihadi Ideology

  • Terrorism, he says is a tactic to achieve a political and ideological objective. Terrorists do not target the dead people in an act of terror. The people who see the death of those who die are the actual targets. This is a means to bend the enemy to accept the political or ideological objective.
  • Jihadi terror does not have much to do with fundamental Islam. It is true only to some extent. Following a lifestyle as per the holy book in personal/religious life does not affect the world. Jihad has more to do with political agenda. He calls this agenda driven fundamentalism as ‘Political Islam’ which dates back to 13th Century, a time when a scholar named Ibn Taymiyyah issued the infamous Mardin Fatwa. This Fatwa glorified Jihad even against  Muslims (in this case Mongols) to achieve a political agenda during his times. Taymiyyah was rejected during his times, but his idea lived on. The same scholar has inspired dreaded terrorists like Osama bin Laden and SIMI.

 On Smothering Terror/ Terrorist Organisations

  • ‘Smothering is a firefighting term’ , he begins. He remarks that tackling Pakistan is a key part in the fight on terror. Any enemy can be engaged in the defensive mode, defensive offence or the offensive mode. He notes that nuclear threat comes only when we go for the full offensive mode. He observes that we are working only in the defensive mode.
  • In the defensive offense, we work on the vulnerabilities of the enemy. This could include diplomatic isolation, exposing the terror sponsorship  and making management of internal politics difficult for the enemy. In the defensive mode, we can either get hurt or end up in a stalemate. There is no chance of victory. In the defensive offense mode, the enemy will find it unaffordable for them to continue the asymmetric terror war.
  • He warns against doubting or losing confidence in the Indian security establishment due to the losses caused by the defensive mode of our securities. So far, we have been successful in foiling the designs of Pakistan in Kashmir.
  • On smothering terrorist organisations he calls for the denial of three things. The funds, manpower and the weapons. He calls that the terrorists are mercenaries who will side with those who are having a bigger budget. Covert operations , usage of technology and intelligence driven operations are listed as key requirements to defeat terror.
  • He calls intelligence driven war as a fourth generation war. This requires a paradigm shift in response to the terror threat. Old methods of war that involved infantry, ammunition, blitzkrieg are over and obselete. In the fourth generation war, the enemy lies within the civil society. The state has the task of identifying the enemy where as the enemy does not have this challenge. Hence, intelligence capabilities are crucial in winning the fourth generation war according to Mr Doval.


We need “A strong decisive leadership to give  a strong message to terrorists and its sponsors and provide security to the citizens,” Mr Doval concludes. He appends two important remarks towards the end of his lecture.

  •  Strategy without tactics is noise before defeat . Convert the plans to actionable points to achieve the objective of national security. If the strategy is not backed up with capabilities, funds and facilities.
  • Only tactics without strategy is the shortest way to suicide.

Both tactics and strategy are required to solve the problem of terror in the future.

Q & A  Session

The question and answer slot was also very interesting for me as an audience. Questions raised by the audience were on India’s response to 26/11, Ishrat Jahan case, US financial assistance to Pakistan and POTA. I recommend the reader to fast forward to the time 1:08:00 on the video shared in this article for seeing the Mr Doval’s answers. (A bit of suspense is good)

In fact, I strongly recommend the reader to watch the entire lecture. This will enhance the faith of  common citizens in the current national security establishment.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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