Dr S Amer Latif, a senior Pentagon policy expert, has said the civilian bureaucracy with the Indian Ministry of Defense 'is a significant impediment to close US-India military ties'. Aziz Haniffa reports
Acknowledging the chuckles around the room, he said, "To any 'veteran India-watchers', that's not a new finding."
Latif, who will soon return to the Pentagon, where he earlier served as director for South Asian Affairs in the Office of South and Southeast Asian Affairs in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, speaking at a briefing coinciding with the roll-out of his major report titled US-India Military Engagement: Steady as She Goes, said, "In our research, we consistently found that when you talk to the services, when you talk to folks in the Army, Navy, the Air Force on both sides, there is a hunger, there is great desire to seek closer service-to-service relations."
"But, unfortunately, the civilian overseers within the Indian bureaucracy, have some reservations, and a lot of these are reservations that obviously go beyond just the desire to engage," he said. "There are a number of factors to consider."
Latif, widely recognised as a rising star in policy studies in strategic and military circles, addressing a standing-room only audience of American and Indian diplomats, Pentagon and state department and intelligence officials, and scores of representatives of the military-industrial complex, acknowledged, "I am not saying that these are not factors that shouldn't be considered legitimate, but they are factors that the ministry of defense takes into account as it limits the deepening partnership with the US."
He argued that a lot of these impediments could be attributed perhaps to 'a lack of bureaucratic capacity on the Indian side, combined with a lack of expertise on security matters'.
Latif, who spent months on research that included visits to India and meeting with senior Indian military leaders and defense officials, speaking in his individual capacity and not on behalf of the US department of defense or the US government, said in the Indian Administrative Service officials in the MoD, "you'll get individuals who may not be very knowledgeable about security issues and so it becomes difficult, sometimes to have a very deep strategic discussion between both sides within the defense establishments."
Thus, he said, "A recommendation put to the Indian side is to perhaps, maybe within the MoD think about establishing an office or an official that deals with policy and strategy and put that individual at the Additional Secretary level -- somebody that is knowledgeable about security issues that can perhaps also have good strategic discussions about where to take the relationship in the future."
In the interaction that followed, Latif noted, "One of the things I found while researching this is, Indian officers are taking advantage of a lot of the International Military, Education and Training opportunities," and their attendance at professional schools such as the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu and the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington.
"So India is clearly engaging in taking advantage of the resources. But the problem comes in that after those training opportunities and those relationships have been established between US and Indian officers and everyone kind of goes their separate ways of maintaining that contact."
Latif said, "There are some restrictions that the Indian side has imposed on a lot of their officers to continue that sort of relationship-building."
Earlier, in his introductory remarks, he said that the oft-cited talking point that India now conducts more exercises with the United States than with any other country, it was imperative that this exercise-based military engagement be transitioned to 'being a relationship in which we can perhaps cooperate on areas of operational concern and significance'.
Latif said the 2004 tsunami 'is one of the significant incidents or events in the life of the US-India military-to-military relationship', but that 'the question now becomes, can we now take the relationship and make it to where the US and India routinely and consistently operate together on areas of mutual, strategic concern'.
He argued, "For all the talk about India as a potential provider of security and being able to be a critical element of security and stability, our conclusion is that India is not going to be a decisive provider of security in the Indian Ocean region for the next 5-10 years."
Latif put this down to the fact that India 'is still very much in a evolutionary phase of developing its military, modernising its military, and actually coming to grips with how to employ that military for the achievement of their own national security interests'.
He added, "The threat perceptions between both sides can also be different and also inherently limit cooperation. And, so, when you talk to the Indian side or the US side, you talk about strategic convergence, in a general sense, yes, there is strategic convergence of interests, but there are times when there are certain issues and threats that come up, where both sides may have different perceptions about the urgency, the magnitude and the complexity of various threats and that can also be a limiting factor."
Latif strongly advocated multilateral engagements as helping to 'develop habits of cooperation among some of Asia's powers', despite India's reticence fearing China's perception of an encirclement.
At the same time, he added that 'even though we are talking about US-India military engagement, there is also a case to be made to encourage India to lead on its own -- to lead engagements in the Indo-Pacific without US involvements."
"Sometimes too much insistence on having bilateral engagements with India, perhaps maybe takes away something from the benefit of perhaps having the Indian military lead on exercises like it does with the exercises in the Bay of Bengal," he said.
Latif predicted, "As the US rebalances to Asia, India and the US are increasingly going to face areas of common concerns, strategic threats that range from natural disasters to terrorism and proliferation as well as a rising China, whose strategic aims are still rather nebulous."
"So, faced with these prospects, there is a great opportunity here for both of these countries to really kind of take the current trajectory of their relationship and their ties and deepen them even further," he said.