Wednesday, March 02, 2005

INDIA : Intelligence Matters

India’s technical intelligence (technint) capability is now rated as very advanced. But humint, especially from regions where it matters most, is abysmally low, for a simple reason. The agencies are reluctant to recruit Muslims. One of the first intelligence inputs about Kargil came not from the local area, but from distant Finland where Pakistan army had ordered 500 pairs of special snowboots. As a former spymaster pointed out in a seminar at the Observer Research Foundation, "Most terrorist threats come from the Asian crescent. From the special branch in the states to central agencies, there is a big block against employing Muslims. This prejudice needs to be overcome." Many put the blame for this also at the NDA government’s door.

IIntelligence Matters
R. Prasannan

Many of the book publishers on Delhi’s Ansari Road got a bonanza in the late 1980s when it was clear that the Soviets would withdraw from Afghanistan. They got orders to reprint in thousands some old British books.

The books on Afghanistan’s history and ethnology—written in the 19th and early 20th century—landed in Kabul and Kandahar, as also in thinktank libraries in Europe and America, and embassies all over the world. In Islamabad, they sent jitters through khaki uniforms.

Difficult lessons: The Kargil war

What is the connection between old British books and Leonid Brezhnev’s military defeat in Afghanistan? They reminded the world that Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province had been a part of Afghanistan, leased to British India in the 19th century. The lease would expire in 1991, around the time of the Soviet withdrawal.

The books legitimised, in the eyes of the world’s strategic and diplomatic decision-makers, the idea of a larger Pakhtoonistan incorporating the Pakhtoon territories in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Or the post-Soviet government could claim back the leased territory from Pakistan.

This was perhaps one of the least reported non-lethal successes of India’s premier intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing. (The best reported was the taped phone conversation between Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who was in Beijing, and his chief of staff Lt-Gen. Mohammed Aziz Khan in Rawalpindi on the eve of the Kargil war. The Musharraf establishment, however, believes Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif gave the tape to Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee to prove that he was innocent of Kargil.)

A decade later, when I visited the bookshops of Kabul, which had been liberated from the Taliban, shopkeepers were again asking about those old books. But there was no R&AW presence in Kabul to supply them.

The 90s—the period between the publication of those books and the Yankee-Taliban war—was a decade of India’s spooky withdrawal. In the decade when the Taliban was overrunning Afghanistan, when Maoists were ‘liberating’ districts in Nepal, fundamentalism was rising in Bangladesh, and insurgents were sneaking into J&K, India was scaling down its strategic intelligence profile. The United Front governments of the mid-90s, either trusting India’s neighbours too much or showing sheer lack of political will, ignored it altogether. The NDA government, obsessed with Pakistan because of the Kargil experience or its own political agenda, cared little about intelligence from elsewhere.

As a result, the links India had built with Afghan warlords during the Soviet occupation era severed by the late 90s, especially after India failed to bail out Afghan president Sayid Mohammed Najibulla. Pakhtoon headmen were once considered India’s best Afghan friends. (Thank Mahatma Gandhi for that strategic vision—with one Gaffar Khan he got the Pakhtoons as India’s friends.) By the end of the century, they had become Stinger-toting clients of Pakistan.

Even with the friendly Tajiks, the links were ‘stethoscopic’ and confined to the charismatic Ahmed Shah Masood. Stethoscopic because, the goodwill was maintained through a set of Indian Army doctors who ran a hospital in Farkhor in Tajikistan for his Taliban-wounded soldiers. The lack of other links proved critical in 2000. Just on the eve of the US-Taliban war, Masood was assassinated. So when a Putin-pushed, Bush-tolerated, Tajik-led, Masood-less Northern Alliance walked into Kabul, Indian intelligence did not know anyone among its ranks on a first-name basis. On the contrary, the ISI, having ‘defeated the Soviet empire,’ as its then chief Hamid Gul boasted, and having tied India down to Kashmir, was reaching out to Central Asia. It built links with the Uighurs spread across the ex-Soviet ‘-stans’ and China’s Xinjiang. As a former Indian diplomat to a Central Asian country said, "The ISI’s every move was well-calibrated. Occasionally, a bomb would explode in one of their cities. The governments would call up Islamabad. Islamabad would promise to rein in its boys, in return for their silence on Kashmir. Then when Islamabad needs their help at some other world forum, another bomb would go off."

India's technical intelligence is rated as very advanced. But human intelligence is abysmally low.

Meanwhile, grappling with insurgency in Kashmir, India could not reach out even to Pak-occupied Kashmir. "There were enough faultlines in Pakistan, there still are; but we could not exploit the unrest in Sind, the Baluchi problem, the Waziristan problem or even the unrest in PoK and Northern Areas," said an intelligence analyst. "The entire Kargil operation was launched from the Shia-dominated Northern Areas, where the people resent the Sunnis in the rest of Pakistan, but we did not have enough assets there to warn us."

Even after Kargil, when the agitation against Islamabad in the Northern Areas worsened, India could do little. The Kargil defeat led to a feeling among the Balti Shias that they had been ‘scapegoated’ in the war. (Musharraf had used boys from the Northern Scouts whose ranks were drawn from the region.) As former Union minister Arun Shourie revealed recently at a lecture to Army officers, the anti-Islamabad movement in Gilgit-Baltistan is led by Wajahat Hassan Khan, son of Col. Hassan Khan who got Gilgit for Pakistan in 1947 by jailing Maharaja Hari Singh’s governor. Another leader of the movement is Shaukat Butt, son of Maqbool Butt who was hanged by India for assassinating diplomat Ravindra Mhatre in Birmingham. "Where are the specialised groups studying Nepal, Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, China?" wondered Shourie.

Shourie was stressing the lack of Indian strategic or intelligence interest in these regions which, being anti-Islamabad, are factors which India should be exploiting. One major lacuna, according to certain analysts, is the inability to gather human intelligence (humint) from these regions.

India’s technical intelligence (technint) capability is now rated as very advanced. But humint, especially from regions where it matters most, is abysmally low, for a simple reason. The agencies are reluctant to recruit Muslims. One of the first intelligence inputs about Kargil came not from the local area, but from distant Finland where Pakistan army had ordered 500 pairs of special snowboots. As a former spymaster pointed out in a seminar at the Observer Research Foundation, "Most terrorist threats come from the Asian crescent. From the special branch in the states to central agencies, there is a big block against employing Muslims. This prejudice needs to be overcome." Many put the blame for this also at the NDA government’s door.

Not that the boys are doing well in non-Muslim regions. Even when the NDA government looked east to southeast Asia through cultural (read Hindu) diplomacy, it ignored the Central Asian region with which it had relations from the Buddhist times. "Cultural diplomacy for us means nothing more than sending Bharatanatyam dancers," said a former cultural attache to a Central Asian country.

Even the ‘Hindu’ links seem to be no longer working, as was witnessed in Nepal, where the ISI now seems to have a better network than the R&AW (The Week, Feb. 20). "We aren’t worried much on this front," said an analyst. "There is a limit to which the ISI can penetrate in Nepal." The problem has been that India had put all its eggs on the throne in Nepal, unlike in the 80s and early 90s when Nepali political parties were eating out of India’s hands. Links were established with the Maoists in the late 90s and early 2000s, but have not been followed up since.

A good part of intelligence information comes through normal diplomatic channels—often gleaned from ‘glassmates’ of diplomats among local elite. But going by mission expenditure, Islamabad seems to be low priority: the mission expenditure in Islamabad and Kabul last year was Rs 6.3 crore each, just about what was spent in distant Seoul.

Banking on a single political asset seems to have been the trend since the end of the Indira Gandhi era. Indira had got the R&AW to train the LTTE, as well as maintain relations with Colombo, enough to prevent them from approaching outside powers for help. The changeover to the single-asset trend proved disastrous: the LTTE’s links with the R&AW helped them to be warned about the Indian Peace Keeping Force's movements in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, India seems to have learnt the lesson. Today, the links with both the Chandrika Kumaratunga government and the opposition parties are sound.

Links with the LTTE had to be severed after the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. Apart from the political compulsion, there seems to have been an intelligence compulsion. The R&AW had assessed an LTTE threat to Rajiv. According to former R&AW additional secretary B. Raman, it had also been informed by West German intelligence that a Germany-based Lankan Tamil who was visiting Chennai frequently was an explosives expert. The Indian intelligence men "did alert their humint sources, but they could not pick up any intelligence about the plans and preparations of the LTTE to carry out the assassination", said Raman in a talk at the United Service Institution. Probably this made the R&AW rethink the reliability of its assets in the LTTE.

Both the single-asset syndrome and the mental block against Muslims had led to a double-disaster in Bangladesh, though according to sources the scene is changing. India had cultivated only the Awami League of Sheikh Hasina, so much so that Begum Khaleda Zia formed an anti-India platform and won the elections. Since then, the attack on Hasina and the recent assassination of Shamsul Kibria have unnerved India to the extent of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh refusing to attend the SAARC summit. Intelligence sources estimate that the Awami League is so disorganised today that it may not come to power even in the next elections. So, according to sources, "We have made contacts with saner elements among the ruling elite. These contacts, combined with a little bit of coercive diplomacy, should work to our advantage in the months to come."

One country where multi-asseting has yielded dividends is Myanmar, though it was a reactive step. In the early 90s, India had fully backed the democratic movement, and the military junta looked to the Chinese. China set up listening posts on Myanmar’s Coco Island to snoop on Indian Navy’s Fortress Andaman (now a triservice command). This compelled India to do business with the junta, while maintaining links with the democrats through former defence minister George Fernandes.

Multi-asseting is never smooth. Often one Indian agency builds assets in one group and another agency in another group. This led to the Operation Leech embarrassment in 1998. In the operation where the intelligence men were looking the other way, the Navy intercepted a boat carrying arms for the Arakan Army, the military wing of National United Party of Arakan, a secessionist group in Myanmar. (The episode was one of the factors that led to Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat’s ouster.)

Grappling with insurgency in Kashmir,
India could not reach out even to Pak-occupied Kashmir.

A precondition to the success of multi-asseting is intelligence-sharing among own agencies. The R&AW and the IB have been accused of not sharing intelligence with local military commanders in Kashmir or the Line of Control. "An agent who picks up some vital intelligence relays it to his bosses in Delhi, probably to impress them. The information is shared in Delhi, and by the time it trickles down to the local commander for action, precious time would have been lost," said an analyst.

Since more than 60 per cent of the intelligence from abroad is for the military’s consumption, the armed forces demanded and got their own Defence Intelligence Agency in the post-Kargil period. Though otherwise a defender of his old employer, Raman has admitted that the R&AW had overassessed the Chinese military presence in Tibet in the 1980s. "The then director of military intelligence (DMI), now a director-general, repeatedly challenged this assessment," says Raman in his USI paper, "but his challenges were rejected by the R&AW and the Joint Intelligence Committee. It was subsequently found that the DMI was correct.... The overassessment arose due to the R&AW’s poor humint and technint capability with regard to China, including in Tibet."

Armed forces say civil spies often make wrong assessments on intelligence on military matters. The R&AW gathers information on Tibet from foreign intelligence agencies and Tibetan political exiles who inflate Chinese threat. The exiles also do not understand the military. "One agent may give you information about missiles being deployed in a particular region in Tibet. Those may just be anti-aircraft missiles, which are deployed around all vital installations, and not ICBMs. But he knows of only one missile, and that is an ICBM. What if he gives such a piece of information and you make your assessments based on it?"

Even in the case of Kargil, the same mistake is said to have been committed. Though the Shia majority of the Northern Areas have been hostile to Islamabad, the firewalls created by the ISI had made it impossible for the R&AW to penetrate the population. So the R&AW’s primary source of information about the Northern Areas has been the so-called Mirpuri diaspora (Mirpur is a district in the region) in the UK, Europe and the US.

An unwillingness to share information with a consumer of intelligence or plain stupidity of the consumer has led to embarrassing situations. A former intelligence officer never tires of telling this story. In a Caribbean country, where more than half the population is of Indian origin, an India-friendly government complained that black-dominated police could not be trusted. (The blacks in the Caribbean are perceived to be US-friendly.) An intelligence officer proposed to send an economic mission with security provided by a British company, employing retired Gorkha soldiers who would be India’s eyes and ears. As the proposal was being cleared, the new ambassador openly asked the Indian-origin president of the country, in the presence of the British and American envoys, whether he actually needed the security. The British and the Americans got wind of the plan and put pressure on South Block to call off the mission.

Intelligence officials have often complained to their superiors that their own embassy colleagues, to escape Pakistani harassment, have told on them ("I am not the R&AW guy; he is the one") to Pakistan intelligence. Even after the post-Kargil reforms, there is still a feeling that Indian espionage is Pak-centric. "We still do not have enough senior analysts to deal with China," said an analyst. "Our intelligence is still technint-based, something in which we are the best in the region."

Pakistan too seems to know this. Generally, wireless lines are easier to snoop on than landlines, as was proved by the ease with which India tapped Musharraf’s call from Beijing to Aziz in Rawalpindi. So Pakistan is taking no chances. It is converting telecom lines to optical fibre cables, which are more difficult to tap.