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  Opinion   Columnists  02 Jan 2023  Aakar Patel | India’s Pakistan obsession: Can doctrine shift to focus on China?

Aakar Patel | India’s Pakistan obsession: Can doctrine shift to focus on China?

Aakar Patel is a senior journalist and columnist
Published : Jan 3, 2023, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Jan 3, 2023, 12:05 am IST

Building intelligence capability now to counter our primary threat — China — will not be easy

We will need to write the doctrine and the strategy, and that will not be easy for a government that prefers certitude over doubt. (Representational Image/AFP)
 We will need to write the doctrine and the strategy, and that will not be easy for a government that prefers certitude over doubt. (Representational Image/AFP)

In concluding his chapter on intelligence agencies and their manner of functioning, Amarjit Singh Dulat, a former head of the Research and Analysis Wing, wrote in his recent book that RAW is “pretty good, better than the ISI”. He left it at that, without explaining in what way it was so, and it would be interesting to learn how he arrived at this conclusion. To know whether something is good, bad or indifferent, one must first ask what it is intended to do. What are the outcomes that are sought to be achieved? For Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, it has been two things. First, to tie down its giant neighbour so that the military and economic asymmetry is neutralised. Second, it should control its western neighbour through proxies. This is to say that Pakistan’s primary national security objectives have been tasked in large measure to its military intelligence agency.

If it is possible for one to be a dispassionate observer in this matter, it appears that both outcomes have been achieved. Indeed, they have been achieved so comprehensively that they have managed to get into the minds of the adversary and switch off his thinking, as A.S. Dulat’s book reveals, and as I wrote about here last week.

To draw a comparison, we must first know this: What are the outcomes that RAW seeks to achieve? This is not clear because we have no national security doctrine or national security strategy. A “defence planning committee” under the current national security adviser, Ajit Doval, had been tasked five years ago to write up the doctrine and strategy, but has not yet done it.

While we have not defined what the threat is in terms of doctrine, we do know who the enemy is by instinct. Addressing his first combined commanders conference in October 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said: “The threats may be known, but the enemy (terrorism) may be invisible”. His NSA has spoken of, though not written about, something referred to as the Doval Doctrine. It also identifies Pakistan as the main national security threat and terrorism as the primary problem. His solution is to do to the enemy what the enemy does to you, though he does not reflect on what that might mean in the long term.

To be clear, this focus on terrorism is not just about the current government. Going back to 1990, the Indian State determined that Kashmir was where its national security strategy would be centred. The Army raised units called the Rashtriya Rifles, which would focus on counter-insurgency rather than on war. The Line of Control and bits of the international border were fenced off in a defensive act.

The intelligence agencies would be focused on counter-terrorism. As the head of RAW, Dulat refused to let go of the Kashmir portfolio he held in the Intelligence Bureau. Why the agency tasked with external intelligence (spying on other nations) was intruding into the space of the agency working on internal intelligence (tasked with internal security) is not explained. But it doesn’t have to be. For the entire Indian State apparatus, Kashmir and Pakistan was the obsession.

This has been rudely taken apart by happenings on the eastern front. Till the clash in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley, of India’s 38 divisions, only 12 faced China while the rest were ranged against Pakistan. Today, 16 face China with more on the way. We have been yanked into a military posture that is conventional again. India was compelled to do this against its will, though there is of course no media uproar over why we were wasting time obsessing over the wrong thing.

For decades, instinctively and in a sort of primitive manner, India showed laal ankh to Pakistan. Years of refusal to engage with either the insurgents or the separatists mean that we no longer have a meaningful intelligence game in Kashmir. And, of course, we have no agency to act either, except through force. It is disappointing that this is how a democracy and a modern state responded, but it is not surprising. Obsessing over something but also refusing to deal with it is a strange paradox but understandable if one is familiar with the Indian psyche as it has evolved on the communal question.

The refusal to hire the minorities, especially Muslims, is also likely to have affected counter-intelligence, espionage and operations capabilities. How many individuals in RAW and the Intelligence Bureau have Urdu and Pashto (or Mandarin)? It would be interesting to know.

Dulat’s book tells us that the approach by intelligence agencies, including RAW, followed that of the military. In the absence of defined threats and a doctrine, the system fell into a sort of sleepwalk mode. The political establishment and the media enthusiastically barked up the wrong tree. Building intelligence capability now to counter our primary threat — China — will not be easy. We will need to write the doctrine and the strategy, and that will not be easy for a government that prefers certitude over doubt.

It will require, above all, for the nation to be weaned off the idea that the primary problem is terrorism and the main adversary is Pakistan, and the belief that the current Kashmir policy is meaningful or sustainable. None of this is, of course, going to happen.

For this reason, we will bumble along till we are forced or compelled to do something. The light that Dulat shines on the state of affairs in our intelligence services is at once bright and illuminating and also depressing and scary.

Tags: amarjit singh dulat, ajit doval, narendra modi, galwan valley