External Affairs

The Perils of a Grand Strategy that is Intelligence-led

While the hijack of grand strategy by the intelligence community is amply evident, what is not clear is whether this is the product of the rise of majoritarian political forces or a logical extension of the state’s existing predisposition towards relying on its intelligence arm.

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National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. Credit: PTI

With national security adviser Ajit Doval being an old intelligence hand, it was only to be expected that the intelligence arm of strategy would gain prominence in India’s grand strategic repertoire. This is, of course, a mixed blessing. Around the world, wherever intelligence has led strategy, this has tended to compromise national security. The harmful effects have been even more pronounced when grand strategy has been driven by intelligence. As Indians, we need look no further than Pakistan, where intelligence-led policies in Afghanistan and Kargil have produced strategic disasters for Islamabad.

Even India’s great intelligence-driven victory in the 1971 war has not been without its aftershocks. Pakistan first furthered disaffection in Punjab and then concentrated on Kashmir. An intelligence-led strategy in Kashmir, described in some detail recently by a renowned practitioner with leadership experience in both the Intelligence Bureau and Research and Analysis Wing, has not brought India any closer to closure. Instead, the situation in Kashmir continues to hurt the country.

At the other end, the failure of an intelligence-led strategy in Sri Lanka was more obvious, even if the intelligence chiefs in their post-retirement writings never tire to put the failure at the army’s door. India’s intelligence-driven interference extended the internal conflict there by at least a decade. RAW’s generosity towards the Tamil National Army, supplying the proxy militia with weapons at the fag-end of the ‘peacekeeping’ expedition, prolonged the war there for another decade since these arms fell into the hands of the LTTE once the IPKF set sail – as the Indian army had predicted.

The ‘Doval doctrine’

Today, the NSA is considered a master of the ‘trade’. In his pre-accession phase immediately prior to elections, he laid out his worldview in a February 2014 lecture at Sastra University, now famous as the ‘Balochistan ultimatum’ to Pakistan. There he argued that with the nuclear threshold having made war rather costly, intelligence operations were the answer to India’s Pakistan problem. Since terrorists were merely mercenaries, India with a growing economy behind it could afford to out-bid Pakistan. Pakistanis who see in that speech an indication of the NSA’s actual thinking insist the results of the new Indian policy are already apparent.

It is easy to dismiss as typical Pakistani obfuscation the claim that the terrorist outrages at the Peshawar school and the Lahore park have an Indian provenance. Certainly no one in the world is prepared to believe such claims. But the alleged surfacing of an alleged Indian spy in Balochistan – regardless of whether he was kidnapped from Iran or Afghanistan and brought there, or otherwise – is being used by Pakistan to suggest that India might have found a theatre for its intelligence operations. With guns silent on the Line of Control and diplomacy in abeyance, it can plausibly be inferred that the intelligence arm of the government is compensating in some measure.

A plausible aim of an intelligence-led strategy is easy to divine. It could be to bring Pakistan to realise that those who live in glass houses should not be throwing stones at others. With Pakistan’s military-dominated national security establishment suitably conditioned by Indian intelligence operations to its underside, it might perhaps ease up on its policy of administering death to India by a thousand cuts. Seeing that its military and ISI has been bested by India at its own game, the Pakistani political class and business lobbies might then be able to shift the balance of power  Pakistan’s internal Pakistan politics and bring about an end to the country’s overt and covert anti-India policies.

Since this is perhaps all intended to happen in the long term, the strategy can be expected to have some set-backs. Perhaps, this accounts for the current day hiccups – if not hold up or ‘suspension’ – in the India-Pakistan dialogue, despite a promising leg up it received in Narendra Modi’s Lahore stop over.

If that is the theory, the reality is somewhat more sobering.

India’s diplomacy has seen not only its Pakistan domain hijacked by the intelligence lobby, but its multi-vector outreach has been reduced – counter-intuitively during the cerebral S. Jaishankar’s tenure as foreign secretary – to a single track: terrorism. At the Nuclear Security Summit, India raised terrorism. On Modi’s return via Saudi Arabia from the summit, it was terrorism yet again; this time with the Lashkar in the sights. Its China policy is in danger of being over-shadowed by terrorism since the Chinese refrained from enabling the sanctioning of Jaish supreme Masood Azhar, a point that figured in the talks both the defence minister and the NSA had during their recent visits to Beijing. With Modi visits to the US, Israel and Iran lined up, it can only be more of the same thing.

The external part of an intelligence-led strategy is only the tip of the iceberg. India’s Pakistan policy is in danger of being reduced to psy-war. Grand strategy comprises an internal dimension too. On Kashmir, the age-old policy of sticking to military template continues, absent conflict resolution. The state government remains in place even as the police and intelligence agencies keep it afloat, the latest footwork being the release of a video of the Handwara girl – presumably with the larger purpose of saving lives that would have otherwise been lost in a high-on-energy but low-on-purpose agitation.

An inconvenient truth

More pertinent for internal security is the home front. A proportion of terrorism the Indian hinterland has witnessed recently is of Hindutva origin. Yet, as closet Hindutva hands in the strategic community have been reminding us since the UPA-II’s years, such an acknowledgment weakens India’s hand against Pakistan. India’s claim of a Pakistani link can best be sold in case Hindutva fingerprints on terror bombs are obscured. This explains the volte face of the National Intelligence Agency on Malegaon; the triumphant return of Vanzara to Gujarat; bail for the Samjhauta Express bombing suspects; the talk of Major Purohit being let off; the second assassination of a young Muslim woman, Ishrat Jahan; the dropping of murder cases against BJP stalwart Amit Shah; the go-slow in the Gujarat riots case being kept alive by Zakia Jafri, and the over-hyping of the vulnerability of India’s huge Muslim population to ISIS overtures.

The contradiction in India’s position on terror – refusing to invoke hate speech laws against Hindutva proponents, even while asking for incarceration by Pakistan of their Pakistani counterparts, and letting off suspected Hindutva terrorists while calling Pakistan to account for its softness on the Lashkar and Jaish – is not likely to be missed by the chanceries on Shanti Path.

While the hijack of grand strategy by the intelligence community is amply evident, what is not clear is whether this is the product of the rise of majoritarian political forces or a logical extension of the state’s existing predisposition towards relying on its intelligence arm. One interpretation could be that the intelligence instrument is only doing its duty since the policy has been put in place by the government, which in turn is controlled by majoritiarian forces. Another is that intelligence is playing hand maiden. The state of intelligence subculture in India – discernible through strategic literature, anecdotal evidence and writings by practitioners – suggests there is reason to fear Hindutva contamination of its professionalism. Either way, as the intelligence agencies get used to driving strategy, there is a case for a general alert over the strategic underside. India needs to retrieve the balance in its grand strategy by ensuring all institutions and agencies contribute to it rather than having any one run away with the ball.

Ali Ahmed, a former Infantry officer with a PhD from JNU, has worked at a think tank and taught at a central university in New Delhi. His writings are archived at ali-writings.blogspot.in. Views here are personal.

  • http://nmabhinandan.me/ Abhinandan

    We’re on the right path IMO