Monday, July 28, 2008

TERROR AND NATIONAL SECURITY: THE FAILURE OF INTELLIGENCE

Frankly, the latest terror blasts in Bangalore and Ahmedabad left me strangely numb. I have been writing with some passion on this blog about India’s virtually non-existent war on terror. But this time, I was gripped by an unfamiliar apathy and for quite some time, I felt no urge to say anything.

Every time an attack takes place, there is a deluge of media coverage with graphic visuals and discussions with the same two-and-a-half faces who give the same answers. The fight against terror is lost at the very first step itself to the more important fight between the Congress and the BJP, both concerned wholly about their narrow vote banks, even as the real enemy of this nation grows stronger and strikes with increasing impunity.

Everyone talks of an ‘intelligence failure’ whenever a blast takes place, with politicians blaming the central and state intelligence agencies based solely on their political affiliations. Yes, there is an intelligence failure, and a really grave one at that. This failure is not of the intelligence gathering agencies. It is the failure of the individual and collective intelligence of India’s bureaucrats, the ones who are responsible for putting in place most institutional mechanisms and also for running all the important organs of the government on a full time basis.

Look at the irony. The National Security Advisor is a former cop who once headed the Intelligence Bureau(IB) which is responsible for intelligence gathering within India. With him at the apex of India’s National Security set up, one would have imagined that the very least that he would be able to do is get the IB, which is hopelessly understaffed, to put in place organizational and systemic changes required to be in step with the reality of terrorism that India has been facing for almost two decades. What has he actually done? Effectively nix. Everything remains almost the same as it was when the British left, perhaps worse.

Indian Mujahideen, the group which carried out the recent blasts, was first heard of on November 23, 2007, when it claimed responsibility for carrying out serial blasts in UP. Eight long months have passed, but the Indian state still has no clue about who the people behind this group are. This, despite the fact it has been carrying out terror attacks repeatedly, the latest being the serial blasts in Ahmedabad. The scale and geographical spread of these well planned and co-ordinated attacks means that a large number of individuals, both active and ‘sleeper’, are part of this group. Yet, our intelligence agencies have not found even a single clue about them till now.

Nothing is going to change. Because no heads ever roll in India’s ‘elite’ civil services, of which the Indian Police Service(IPS) is a part. The IPS controls all investigative and intelligence gathering agencies and para military forces besides the police in all states. The fast deteriorating standards of police were recently on view to the nation in the Arushi murder case. Top IPS officers were seen live by all as they cockily displayed the abysmal level of their calibre and professional competence by blaming Dr Rajesh Talwar for murdering his daughter and more, without having even a shred of evidence. Something quite similar was on display earlier in the Nithari killings in NOIDA and the Rizwanur Rehman case in Kolkata.

What happened to the IPS officers who first bungled up the Arushi case and then tried to cover it up with white lies? They were just transferred. That is all that happens almost always. Soon everything is forgotten. This is the kind of material that may well land up heading the BSF, CBI, RAW, NSG, IB etc after a few years. What can we expect from such individuals? Is it any wonder that even after 60 long years post Independence, these civil servants in uniform have brought about almost no original and fundamental changes in the police organisation which is a nineteenth century structure designed to be the enforcing arm of a colonial power for conditions that are unrecognisable today?

Let us take the case of the much talked about National Security Council(NSC) which was belatedly set up by the government in 1999 as an apex body to look into the political, economic, energy and strategic security concerns of India. Originally, it was meant to fill a widely felt vacuum in the country’s higher defence management. But, its structure is a dead give-away that India’s bureaucrats, in their single-minded pursuit of ensuring cadre supremacy, no matter what the cost to the nation or how hopelessly dysfunction the result, have successfully killed the concept in the cradle itself.

At the apex of the virtually unnecessary three tier structure is the NSC which includes ministers of important ministries and the National Security Advisor(NSA). This is where old bureaucratic wine in old bottles with misleading labels starts making the organisation a complete non-starter. The NSA has till now been a civil servant, an insider from the same old system that has failed to deliver.

Next comes the Strategic Policy Group. This pompous sounding group is nothing but an empowered committee of secretaries, the same guys who now have greater power to collectively give to political leaders the same stereotyped inputs that they have always been giving individually. The three service chiefs and a few other outsiders are also part of this group, just to give it a misleading broad based look to conceal the fact that the cast iron control over even this ‘new’ group remains with the bureaucrats as always.

The last tier is the National Security Advisory Board, which is meant to have experts from outside the government to give genuinely fresh and hopefully path-breaking inputs to the government. What do we actually have here? Another set of civil servants, this time those who retired from the IFS, in total effective control! With the 'expertise' that retired Indian career diplomats have about matters related to national security and strategy, all that is going to happen is that this board will be converted into just one more bureaucratic maze providing re-emoployment to the retired.

See the joke that is being played on a nation of a billion people by a few bureaucrats who have virtually killed the NSC just to keep their supremacy unchallenged? More damaging than the fact that India’s bureaucrats have successfully pushed all stakeholders other than politicians into secondary and inferior positions, is the fact that they have deprived India of the benefit of the incredible and available pool of intelligence, experience and ability that it needs to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Though defence and security are supposed to be the primary focus areas of the NSC of a nuclear powered India, generalist bureaucrats have skilfully pushed those critical aspects into virtual insignificance, simply to ensure that retired and serving military leaders remain at arm’s length from political leaders and do not ever get controlling stake in any link of the apparatus, even though they may be better equipped to provide a fresh and possibly superior impetus and deliver some badly needed results in the required timeframe.

This is the real ‘intelligence deficit’ that is plaguing India. This is why nothing ever changes, no matter how strong and destructive the storm that the nation faces. The license-permit raj that India’s bureaucrats had once carefully put in place, almost killing the country’s economy, only because it gave them enormous power and wealth, would have continued had they remained in key positions in the concerned ministries. Had professionals brought into controlling positions from outside not taken charge, one shudders to think where India would have been today.

That is precisely what needs to be done in the field of national security too. Professionals have to be given real stake and direct, unfettered access to the topmost political leadership. This is not the era where posts like the cabinet, defence, commerce secretaries etc, and the principal secretary to the PM should be limited to career bureaucrats who are not trained or attitudinally tuned to give quantifiable, timely results, and take responsibity and be accountable for what they do. The political leadership, indeed the nation is entitled to, and should get, the services of the best available professional Indian material globally. That is the only way to get the government machinery out of the morass and unresponsiveness that has cost the nation heavily and will continue to do so unless such and more drastic changes are made. These changes will never be made by insiders who have twisted the system to their advantage.

Terrorist attacks cannot be stopped completely, no matter which party rules a state. This is something our analysts and TV anchors need to ‘lock’ in their heads so that TV debates do not always degenerate into lowly political point scoring opportunities. Terrorism is far too serious a problem to be viewed through the narrow and damaging lens of political gain and loss. It has to be handled in a totally bipartisan manner. By not doing so, our politicians are as responsible for the loss of the lives of ordinary and uniformed Indians as our bureaucrats are because they have shown criminal negligence in not even trying to figure out a way to deal a decisive blow to this scourge. Numerous reports put out by the UN and the US State Department indicting India’s government for not doing enough to fight its war on terror have simply been put away untouched.

It is this unending failure of the intelligence of India’s civil servants and politicians which is responsible for perpetuating the many unfilled gaps in national security and the heavy price that the country has paid and is continuing to pay to terror.

It is because of this unpardonable deficit that many more lives which can be saved will be lost in future too. That is why the latest blasts left me numb. That is why this piece almost never got written. This strange apathy that I am experiencing is not unique. I am certain it is afflicting more and more Indians with each terror attack.

Somewhere, our leaders are steadily killing something in all of us. This slow death of faith perhaps is even more dangerous than the violent deaths being caused by those who say that they are our enemies. Sadly, I do not see things changing for the better in the near future.
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Readers will find it useful to read earlier posts which can found here.