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August 9, 1999
It's reveille in Kargil
It is a paradox that the Government of India seems unable to explain. On the one hand, India's intelligence agencies have the capability to listen in on telephone conversations between Pakistan's army chief and his deputy. These conversations provide an insight into the way the Pakistani establishment functions. On the other hand, Pakistan can mount a fullscale invasion of Kargil using thousands of regular troops and hundreds of Mujahideen and mercenaries -- and it is a month till anybody in India has any idea of what is going on.
To date, not one person in the government has been able to explain why the same intelligence agencies that can tap secret conversations between top Pakistani officials were so utterly useless when it came to predicting the invasion of Kargil.
To be sure, the government has offered explanations, even if these are not terribly convincing, There is, first of all, the George Fernandes position. Put broadly, this states that the area occupied by the infiltrators is impossible to patrol during the winter months because the terrain is both vast and rugged. Therefore, there was no way we could have known that the Pakistanis were coming. And even when they did come, it is not our fault that it took us several months to find out.
I am not sure that Fernandes really believes all this. My guess is that this was a position he adopted during the conflict to keep the army's morale up. Certainly, his actions suggest that he recognises that there was a command failure. In the early days of the war, he replaced the brigadier in charge of the concerned area and gave him a punishment posting.
Now, he is on record as stating that the first time he heard of the intrusions was when the army informed him that a shepherd had told it that there were Mujahideen in the mountains. According to Fernandes, even then, the army did not recognise the gravity of the situation and told him that it could clear the area in 48 hours. (Optimism is the hallmark of the Indian army. Remember how they were going to clear the Golden Temple in two hours? How they were going to disarm the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in two days?)
Reading between the lines, it becomes clear what Fernandes really means is this: the army failed to recognise there were intrusions and when it did find out, through the agency of a perceptive shepherd, it did not realise how serious things were. But, says Fernandes in the army's defence, this may be understandable because of the nature of the terrain in Kargil.
Even this position -- far more reasonable than the gung-ho official defence ministry line -- has come under attack in recent weeks. According to a series of leaks -- believed by the government to emanate from the brigadier who has become the fall guy -- the army completely mishandled the situation. It was too complacent and believed nobody could survive in the Kargil mountains during the winter. The brigadier wrote several times asking for more men so he could increase patrolling; each time his request was ignored.
Moreover, he also wrote to say he was uneasy because the snow had melted early this year and the Pakistanis had increases shelling. (He was right to be uneasy. The shelling was to cover the intrusions assisted by the early melting of the snow.)
The army response has two dimensions. On the record, the army is hiding behind technicalities. It contests the claim that the brigadier wrote to the army chief; no such letter was received by army headquarters. This is probably true but the claim is that the brigadier wrote to his superior and not to General V P Malik directly. Off the record, the army is saying that these are false claims, made in retrospect, by a man who failed to detect the intrusions and is disgruntled because he was punished for his failure.
None of us armchair critics is in a position to decide who is telling the truth. But now that we don't need to be hyper patriotic and supportive of the army at all costs, the time has come for a little realism. Yes, the Indian army did a brilliant job. Yes, the nation owes a debt of gratitude to the hundreds of men who gave up their lives for us. But was all this avoidable? Could the army have detected the intrusions before the Pakistanis were so well entrenched?
So far, we have not had a straight answer to those questions.
The army's failure to detect the intrusions is only part of the story. That there was a massive intelligence failure now seems beyond dispute.
The government has been focussing on the how-could-we-patrol-that-terrain argument. But that is only one dimension of the failure. Intelligence does not consist solely of noticing the enemy when he enters your territory. It consists of knowing what the enemy is going to do before he enters your territory.
Most Indians have a deservedly low opinion of our intelligence agencies. The Intelligence Bureau consists, in the main, of semi-competent flatfoots who waste public money on taping telephones and collecting political intelligence on enemies of their ministerial masters. Any politician who has held high office will tell you that after the 1989 election, the then director of intelligence, M K Narayanan, accurately predicted Rajiv Gandhi would lose and had the guts to tell the prime minister that. But IB's assessments are usually widely off the mark.
Much the same is true of the Research & Analysis Wing which has declined dramatically from its glory days in the seventies and eighties. It has been called the Relatives & Wives Association because of the high level of nepotism and a succession of second rate chiefs have contributed to its downfall. (It is significant that the government has gone outside RAW to find the new chief, and as significant that the RAW unions, in the manner of good babus everywhere, have asked for internal promotion.)
Nevertheless, it has been an article of faith within the intelligence community that no matter how weak our agencies are, the one area where we have extraordinary expertise is Pakistan. For years, RAW's Pakistan desk provided useful insights into events in that country. In the seventies, when technology was not so advanced, it managed the remarkable feat of tapping the personal telephone line of the then prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Even IB is good on Pakistan and has successfully penetrated many Pakistani financed organisations within India.
So, how could our intelligence agencies have gone so wrong?
Before launching an operation such as the Kargil intrusion, the Pakistanis must have had several rounds of discussions at the civilian and military level. RAW clearly had no inkling of any of these discussions. Moreover, any operation of this magnitude requires massive planning. Snow equipment has to be ordered, trains have to be requisitioned to take troops to the area, divisions have to be reassigned and -- judging by the fact the Pakistanis actually built their own bunkers on top of the mountains -- construction equipment has to be carried near the Line of Control. RAW should have had some idea that all this was happening. And yet we were taken completely by surprise.
One view of the failure is that RAW's fabled Pakistani capability is now a thing of the past. Fernandes seems to suggest as much when he continually repeats, "We do not know how to penetrate the sanctum sanctorum of Pakistani decision-making. We do not have that capability."
But there is another view. If we can tap the Pakistani chief's telephone then obviously we do have some capability. When the tapes were first released, so low was the average Indian's opinion of RAW that most people believed these had been given to us by the Central Intelligence Agency or the French secret service. But RAW insists that the tapes were its own work and that no foreign agency was involved.
Which, of course, leads us back to the question I posed at the very beginning. If RAW can tap these phones then obviously it can penetrate the sanctum sanctorum of Pakistani decision-making. And yet, it failed completely during this crisis.
Explanations remain hard to come by but the most common excuse offered by the government is that typically Indian alibi: dhyan nahi raha. In other words, pure and simple carelessness.
Apparently, RAW's intercepts in Pakistan yield up to 60 cassette tapes of conversations every day. This is a marvel of intelligence. But then, the Indian flatfoot takes over. Somebody has to transcribe these tapes. Somebody else has to provide translations. Then a third person has to collate all the intelligence gathered. And a fourth person has to analyse what it all means. It was at these levels RAW failed.
According to intelligence sources, once the war began in earnest, RAW finally got its act together and began analysing the intelligence contained in the intercepts. And, to RAW's credit, this provided us with an edge while conducting the battles.
None of us can prejudge what the K Subrahmanyam committee will conclude on the intelligence failures. But on the basis of available evidence, we can safely make two points. One: forget all this nonsense about how politicians did not provide the army with the right snow gear or adequate equipment to functioning Kargil. Fernandes has given the army pretty much everything it asked for. The problem in this case was that the army did not realise that large chunks of Indian territory had been taken over and therefore did not ask for the right equipment. Similarly, nothing will be gained by throwing more money at RAW. The problem was not that we didn't have the information. The problem was that we didn't know what to do with it.
And two: the lesson of Kargil is that as a nation we can rise to the occasion whenever there is a crisis. The army performed magnificently and RAW finally got its act together. But, in the absence of a crisis, we tend to get lazy and complacent. It was that smug inertia that caused the intelligence failure that cost so many young lives over the past few months.
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