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SOURCE: THE PRINT

What happened in April 2020 on the north bank of Pangong Tso and why were we taken by total surprise? Such questions are being asked in muted tone, lest we rile and fall out of favour with those in power. What has happened on the ground is abject intelligence failure because we failed to read any signs of Chinese intentions.

While we all know that the Chinese maintain high levels of institutional secrecy and the outside world rarely gets a peek into their minds, what is disheartening is that India could not pick up on troop movement and buildup along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

While strategic intelligence is difficult to gather and can often be drastically wrong, it is the tactical-level intelligence failure that aches us the most. The tactical-level intelligence is largely gathered through a simple ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) model—a basic mechanism deployed while holding defences, especially along the borders.

Have we learnt from the past?

The Kargil Review Committee did a commendable analysis of the entire conflict of 1999 because it was related to intelligence failures and management of our borders. In its report, the committee lamented the absence of any institutional mechanism governing interactions between different intelligence agencies. Although the heads of different agencies interacted regularly as per SOPs in vogue, they collectively failed to give any input on such a large-scale infiltration by the Pakistani forces. The report was also a scathing criticism of the ‘turf wars’ and the lack of inter-agency cooperation.

Collectively, all agencies failed to see through the deception at work as both the governments (India and Pakistan) were in the process of building peaceful relations. The famous bus diplomacy was a huge media event—the Army believed it was not possible for the Pakistan Army to risk an infiltration through the rugged and inhospitable terrain of Dras and Batalik sectors. Few who spoke of the Pakistani intention of cutting the Kargil-Leh national highway in summer months with a view to isolate Leh and the rest of Ladakh, were quietly snubbed. The intelligence agencies, including the senior leadership, were ‘cognitively predisposed’ into believing the opposite and accordingly fed this ‘make believe’ truth to the Army.

The rude shocks of May 1999, resulted in over 560 soldiers killed in action and injuries to over 1,500. Thankfully, the US administration intervened in time and the Army too started winning back the lost ground.

The Kargil Review Committee Report was taken very seriously by the government of the day and for once it appeared that finally India would have resolved its intelligence-related complications. Massive amount of work was done within the government on one side and the armed forces on the other. New structures were created to coordinate intelligence related work. However, all this merely led to new appointments and billets—no visible improvement in quality of strategic or tactical intelligence was achieved.

In last 70 years since our Independence, we have had several major intelligence failures, both at the borders and internally.

External failures

From Sri Lanka—where we simply failed to read the minds and intentions of the LTTE, resulting in catastrophic failure as ‘our boys’ turned enemies—to Punjab where the ISI managed to fuel a deadly insurgency in one of India’s most prosperous states, India has paid heavy price for a number of external intelligence failures since Independence. In Punjab, the agencies had failed to give any input to the Army before Operation Blue Star. In Kashmir, while the signs of a growing unrest were quite discernible after the bungling of the 1987 assembly elections, we failed to assess the gravity and sheer audacity of the uprising. The ISI lulled us into slumber and pumped in weapons and ammunition in the Valley that could arm two Infantry Divisions worth of troops.

Internal failures

It’s not just external intelligence gathering where India has not performed up to the mark. Even internal intelligence failures have had a deep impact on the national security of the country. Be it the Babri Masjid demolition that led to riots in large parts of the country that shredded India’s social fabric or the hijacking of IC 814 and the subsequent release of Masood Azhar and two other terrorists, intelligence failures have strained India’s progress.

Parliament attack and the 26/11 Mumbai attacks can be termed as two of the biggest intelligence failures. The planning and coordination involved in Parliament attack lasted for nearly eight months, between Pakistan and modules in Delhi, but our agencies had no clue or warning.

PLA breach goes undetected

The summer of 2020 saw a very aggressive and openly belligerent People’s Liberation Army (PLA) flex its muscles on an otherwise peaceful LAC. In hindsight, it can be said that there were indications of such an attitudinal shift for six to eight months. However, our intelligence agencies were probably seeing too much into the political bonhomie between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, and did not watch closely the developments taking place on the borders.

Our tactical-level ISR simply failed to assess or analyse any troop movement. The PLA, on its part, did not even try any deception or take measures to hide its concentration and subsequent movement of troops. High-altitude troop movement cannot be hidden as soldiers need sufficient time for acclimatisation to simply survive. Tanks, guns and other heavy war equipment too needs to move up along narrow road arteries — these can be constantly kept under surveillance and observation.  As the events kept unfolding on the north bank of Pangong Tso, India was just reacting on the ground. The loss of a Commanding Officer and 19 other soldiers added agony to over 90 badly bludgeoned earlier by the PLA troops in riot gear.

Can we fix responsibility?

This is a question often asked by those who wish to see action taken post a crisis. However, our track record is not very good. We have a long tradition of not punishing failures. Not one person in the position of responsibility has ever got sacked for failing, not once has any responsibility been fixed on numerous intelligence-oriented debacles. India is too soft on individuals in higher positions and the same is true of the organisations entrusted with the task of safeguarding the territorial integrity of the country. Deep down, introspection is needed among a plethora of agencies involved in the task of intelligence gathering — Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Intelligence Bureau (IB), and the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) among others. Some serious meditation and self-analysis also needs to be done by the border- guarding forces, including the Army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police Force.

The silver lining amid all these mega intelligence failures is the resilience and fortitude of the Indian soldier who has never let down the nation. He stands tall and motivated even in face of adversity, ready to sacrifice his life, yet again, for the failure of those who are never held accountable.