As in Blair’s Britain, the official culture in India is for the military, bureaucracy and intelligence community to tailor their views to those they believe the political leadership wants.
The Chilcot inquiry has given us a documentary record of the abject manner in which the British government tailed the United States in making war in Iraq in 2003. It has detailed the failure of those in positions of responsibility – fromTony Blair, who was prime minister, downward to the cabinet, parliament, the bureaucracy, intelligence chiefs, military commanders and even the attorney general – to do their duty in the run-up to the war and through its course.
The consequences of this were bad enough for the 150-odd British servicemen killed in Iraq, but they have been catastrophic for Iraq itself which has seen an endless wave of death and destruction that shows no sign of ending. Worse, there can be no doubt that the war transmuted the dreaded Al Qaeda into the evil Islamic State.
In typically understated British style, the report says the 2003 invasion was not a “last resort” and all the alternatives to war had not been exhausted. It decisively lays to rest the perception that somehow Blair and his government were “misled” by bad intelligence, making it clear that they, knowingly, put forward a case that the intelligence data did not support. It does not quite twist the knife by condemning Blair and his associates, but there should be no doubt that it has destroyed their reputations forever.
Sadly, the Americans who were the prime movers in all this – George W. Bush, vice president Dick Cheney, secretary of state Colin Powell, the chief of the CIA, George Tenet – and other assorted functionaries remain out of the reach of any inquiry and even historical accountability of the kind put forward by the Chilcot process.
The report has raised important questions about what it means to be an American ally. Britain, is, of course, no ordinary ally. It is the closest of close allies, part of the UKUSA agreement which even permits intelligence officers to serve in each other’s services.
All systems failure
From the outset, Blair assured Bush that he was as committed to the enterprise of making war on Iraq as the Americans. This was undoubtedly with the view of showing British loyalty to the US. Considering that the UK is a nation of considerable standing, an economic powerhouse and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, this desire to please the Americans unconditionally and uncritically is strange. As a result of this, in Chilcot’s dry recounting, “the UK chose to join the invasion before the peaceful options had been exhausted.”
In the process, Blair may have bypassed his cabinet and lied to parliament about the dangers of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to justify a decision he had already taken. The mendacity with which fictional Iraqi WMDs were used to stoke the flames of war have convinced many that Iraq is a fit case for the prosecution of a number of leaders, including Bush and Blair, for war crimes including the crime of aggression.
Indeed, the whole system may have been complicit. Civil servants failed to take notes of key meetings, cabinet committees were bypassed and even cabinet ministers were not told what was happening by Blair, who knew better that the case for WMDs in Iraq stood on flimsy legs. The same is true of the military chiefs, who encouraged British participation even if it turned out later that their forces were poorly equipped for the campaign in which they played, at best, a subsidiary role. The British performance in Basra and subsequently in the Helmand province of Afghanistan graphically brought out these weaknesses.
The same mentality of playing fast and loose with facts, ignoring ground realities and being quick on the trigger, led to the subsequent western interventions in Libya and Syria – leading to the destruction or weakening of state systems in these two countries with consequences which are yet to clearly unfold.
Lessons from Kargil
The Chilcot report, of course, has no direct relevance to India, except that there were some important voices in the government and public sphere who wanted India to join the American venture in Iraq. There was a great deal of American pressure, to be sure, but fortunately, we had a level-headed prime minister – Atal Bihari Vajpayee – who nixed the proposal.
India, too, has conducted national security-related inquiries. The Henderson-Brooks report on the 1962 debacle is yet to be officially released. In any case, its principal findings have been leaked and they reveal that the inquiry was limited and that its authors did not have access to Army HQ documents, leave alone those of the prime minister’s office and the ministry of defence.
The Kargil Review Commission of 1999 was, again, carefully structured to avoid throwing too much light into the murky darkness of decision-making that allowed the Kargil incursion to take place. Even so, the sanitised version of the report that was published made some trenchant observations, while self-consciously steering clear of apportioning any individual blame. It resulted in the first major reform in the national security system through what is known as the Group of Ministers (GOM) report of 2002.
Compared to Iraq, the Kargil affair was trivial, even though many more Indian soldiers died in pushing back the Pakistani intruders, as compared to the British casualties in Iraq.
But there were some similarities, principally the failure of the intelligence services, both at the apex and tactical levels. Despite his best efforts, commission chairman K. Subrahmanyam was unable to persuade the government to publish the annexures of the report dealing with the specifics of the failures. As a result, the head of the Research & Analysis Wing, responsible for the principal failure of intelligence, was actually promoted and appointed governor of Arunachal Pradesh after retirement.
This refusal to apportion blame at the top led to several junior officers being punished for the episode, while people at the higher level who were more culpable got away. Because the Pakistanis had to beat a hasty retreat, an aura of great achievement and sacrifice was created which shielded the system from criticism. Yet the reality is that more than 500 young men died in retrieving a situation that need not have arisen in the first place.
The importance of the Chilcot inquiry to India arises from the fact that we work on a political system which was fashioned by the British. The institutions that failed the UK in the Iraq affair have a familiar ring – prime minister, cabinet, parliament, the civil service, the external intelligence service, JIC, and military services. Can we, with all honesty, say that all these institutions work in harmony to take key national security decisions?
This has particular salience since we know that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is uncommonly powerful, and that the cabinet committee system does not probably work in the way it should. Can you imagine any of the members of the cabinet committee on security (CCS) standing up to Modi, or even expressing a contrary view on any issue ? As for the parliament, the less said, the better.
The same would apply to the professional bureaucracy, the intelligence services and the armed forces. In any case, the official culture of today is to tailor your views to those you believe the government wants, and to acquiesce and even support whatever the leader comes up with so that you are assured of a post retirement sinecure.
Cautionary tale on US alliance
A related question arises out of India’s desire to play the role of a US ally. Historically, New Delhi has steered clear of this somewhat dubious distinction. But in recent years, India’s failures in the area of economic growth and defence modernisation have persuaded New Delhi that the only option of countering a rising China is an American alliance. The Chilcot inquiry lays out in brutal detail the possible consequences of such a course, especially when you have non-functional institutions like the CCS and parliament, and your bureaucratic and military leadership is supine.
War is serious business, especially in the age of nuclear weapons. Professional advice and decisions need to be carefully weighed. Politicians like Modi and his cabinet cannot be expected to be familiar with the nitty gritty of international politics and national security issues. What they deserve and need is unfettered, high quality advice from their aides. However, as political leaders, it is their duty to foster a system where such recommendations can be made without fear or favour.
This is especially important when one of the elements in the equation – the “free” media – is always ready to push the government to the brink of war as a first option, and so-called veterans tom-tom a “can do” approach to issues that led the Anglo-Americans to disaster in Iraq.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation