Ladakh standoff and India’s repeated intelligence failures


The mother of all pandemics notwithstanding, it is fairly obvious that China had put into place the plans to take on India quite some time ago. What is also becoming obvious with every passing day is that on the Indian side, despite having a plethora of intelligence agencies, the entire establishment has been caught not just napping, but are so badly compromised by their failure, they have no choice but to further cover up by creating more and more smoke in the hope their little empires do not sink. For those in the know, who have been warning that the rot is extremely deep, all they can do is despair at the state of affairs as the pigeons come home to roost.

Keep an eye on the developments in what is known as the ‘Central Sector’ where initial though yet to be officially confirmed reports coming in suggest that the Chinese have increased their activity in the area opposite Chitkul in Kinnaur District of Himachal Pradesh. As the crow flies, this is not very far from Nelang, the border post north of Harsil in Uttarakhand. Even though the frontier in these areas is demarcated and the international boundaries are well defined, Xi Jinping seems intent on testing the Indians along the entire 3500 km border. The scale of operations today is much larger, but the pattern being followed seems to be exactly the same as what the Chinese had done in the pre-1962 build up.

The Kargil War in 1999 was labelled as an ‘intelligence failure’ and reams and reams were subsequently written on how so-and-so warned this one, and that one warned these ones, but those who mattered failed to join the dots until one fine morning, using Indian cement bought from Indian companies in Indian markets, Pakistani sangars and bunkers were ready and their occupants were ready to cock a snook at the Indian Army. A couple of months later after it was realized that the heights around Drass, Kargil and Batalik had indeed been occupied, with more than 500 officers and men killed on the Indian side, the surviving intruders mainly from the Northern Light Infantry, were forced to withdraw across the LoC. India rejoiced! It had won the limited war. We buried the Pakistani dead, returned their eight prisoners, and appointed a committee to see what had gone wrong. The two words ‘intelligence failure’ kept cropping up with regular frequency, there were some more debates, a few editorials lamenting the fact that the committee’s recommendations were not being implemented, and then it was life as usual.

Post-Kargil there were strategic changes on the Indian side–an area that was earlier held by 121 Independent Brigade now became the responsibility of XIV Corps. The then home minister who was also the deputy PM, LK Advani, headed a Cabinet Group of Ministers who investigated intelligence lapses during the Kargil War and on their recommendation a comprehensive reform of intelligence agencies was undertaken. Accordingly, the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) was created and formally became operational in March 2002. The DIA was to henceforth coordinate all the three intelligence wings of the army, air force and navy, and in one of those periodic nods given to ‘jointmanship’ in the armed forces, the director general’s post was to be held in rotation between the three armed services. However, since its inception, owing to other reasons, it has only had DGs from the army.

DIA, that directly came under the Ministry of Defence, was to coordinate further with the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), National Technical Research Organization (NTRO), Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) and the National Investigation Agency (NIA). Small matter that in addition to these organizations, others involved in the business of gathering both internal and external intelligence include the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) that apart from functioning as an investigating agency, also gathers intelligence and acts as a liaison with Interpol; the Aviation Research Centre (ARC) under whom come aerial surveillance and reconnaissance flights (PHOTINT), imagery intelligence (IMINT), and signals intelligence (SIGINT) operations; the Shimla-based All India Radio Monitoring Service (ATRMS); the Central Economic Intelligence Bureau (CEIB); and many, many more. If they were to be listed, it would make India not only sound like an extreme police state, it would seem even a mouse could not find a mate without a file being opened on it!

In this complex labyrinth, if we were to further get into who reports to who, which group is responsible for what, it would perhaps require a super computer to decipher the complex maze and even then you would only have part of the story. This huge mammoth network–incidentally, state governments have their own complex bodies–though undoubtedly ‘understaffed and over worked’, invariably fails to pick up tell-tale signs and like the police in Bollywood movies of yore, always is the last to arrive on the scene. On the western front, the sea-borne Mumbai attack was a classic case and now, across the high Himalayas, with all the eyes supposedly pouring over satellite images, maps, photos, the entire Chinese build-up in Ladakh was missed, or perhaps more accurately, not interpreted correctly. In this Alice in Wonderland scenario, what a pity there is no Queen of Hearts to declare ‘off with their heads!’

Far from it–the magical maze ensures there is actually very little responsibility, and as we move up the narrow funnel to the top, it becomes even more critical for those in power to cover-up for their blunders. In a scenario where the ‘border management’ is with the Ministry of Home–the Border Security Force (BSF) is responsible for the Pakistan and Bangladesh borders; the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) looks after China; the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) with 73 battalions looks after Nepal and Bhutan and the Assam Rifles is deployed in the Northeast where it keeps an eye on the Myanmar border as well without actually guarding it per se. Technically, all come under the operational command of the army ‘when and if’, but it is common knowledge that all is not well in this marriage as well. Fortunately, the hair-brained proposal to merge the Assam Rifles, perhaps one of the best para-military organizations in the world, with the ITBP has been shelved for the time being. Given the way turf wars play out, it will be revived sooner or later yet again.

Maybe there are valid and straight forward answers to these questions if they are asked, but surely apart from the movement of three Chinese divisions for the purported high altitude exercises, someone, somewhere would have noticed the additional stocking up that was required to sustain these troops for a longer period of time. A back of the envelope calculation would suggest upward of 3 lakh tons of material just to create the infrastructure. And let us face it, unlike our boys in the para military and even in the army who are often moved and expected to ‘fight with what they have’, the Chinese, be it their accommodation, vehicles, winter clothing etc. are not exactly following our standards when it comes to defining the ‘happiness quotient’!

Unfortunately, in covering up for this big failure, and combined with the need to always appear on top of the other side, transparency went out of the window, opening the doors for what the Chinese have also perfected–the weaponization of dissent. This cacophony of defence experts and defence analysts who took over the print media and the airwaves to demolish whatever little credibility the government had, was nothing new. In the pre-1962 build-up, though thankfully television was not there, the Chinese had worked the media in a manner where a sizeable population of India was festooning the complex path of international diplomacy with land mines. Nehru’s comment ‘that we shall throw the Chinese out’ at the airport as he left for Sri Lanka just before the conflict, was then used by the PRC as a virtual declaration of war.

We can sigh, roll the eyes and say, as we repeatedly do, that these are the pitfalls of ‘democracy’, but we are playing with fire. The fact of the matter is that in 2012, in what one can only describe as some bizarre decisions, it was decided that the Armed Forces would hitherto only be entrusted with Human Intelligence (HUMINT) and all technical intelligence (TECHINT) would be the responsibility of other agencies. The one agency set up as an ad hoc unit after it was realized that there was no covert capability to strike back at Pakistan after the Mumbai attack, the much-maligned Technical Services Division (TSD), was amazingly declared a ‘rogue organization’ and it was disbanded by the very people it was serving.

The TSD was exposed in the media in an orchestrated manner by vested interests at the very top within the army, but its demise also suited many others who despite operating with humongous budgets were falling short on results that were being put on the table by this small band of officers and men. Forget about R&AW and IB, who on their official web page very rightly say their budgets ‘are classified’, the DIA and NTRO are packed with officers–quite a few re-employed–who have done some ‘imagery course’ and for whom these tenures are ‘Dilli ki posting’ where it is a nine-to-five’ job during which time their own post-retirement life takes precedence over everything else. I am not echoing some disgruntled voices, but one hears this lament repeatedly by those who are in the know. If it is letting out a national classified secret, well, so be it!

It should be pretty obvious by now that whatever the outcome of the disengagement talks, the Chinese are going to stay in Eastern Ladakh through the winter, which will throw up its own challenges. The gradual expansion of probes will continue, be it Himachal, Garhwal, Kumaon, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan or Arunachal. The reiteration of their claim on Eastern Bhutan, and the chances of them following exactly the same pattern of aggression as in 1962 makes the entire border from the Karakoram Pass in the west to Kibithoo in the east a burning hot potato (which is ironical, given the freezing temperatures across this entire zone).

How much time India has before something gives on the border a la Galwan, no one can tell, but there are immediate areas of concern that need to be addressed by the one man who today calls the shots, hopefully even if it concerns those in his immediate decision-making circle. Repeated intelligence failures cannot be swept under the carpet, and accountability has to be demanded.

On the ground, today we have three different army commanders dealing with the Chinese, plus three air force commands, and various para-military headquarters each with their own pulls and pressures. In addition, we have two other countries that are also involved in the standoff. It is imperative that the flow of information is seamless and all differences sorted out. Enough studies and papers have been written on integrated command systems and though the fault-lines have been created over the years, it is now imperative that every resource is brought to bear in an optimal manner to counter the growing threat from the Chinese dragon by tackling these issues.

When he was the Home Minister, P Chidambaram had set up the Multi Agency Centre (MAC) wherein representatives of all intelligence agencies met on a daily basis to share information, but this was more or less entirely terrorism-centric. In fact, the NATGRID had been created that allowed for information to be shared on a real time basis, but then again, in a strange quirk of inverted logic, in the latter half of 2012 it was decided to take the army out of this loop. With the growing multi-dimensional threat emerging from not only China but Pakistan also, these anomalies have to be corrected. We must remember that once milk spills out of the bottle, there is no way one can put it back again.

(This piece was first published on Sunday Guardian website. Canary Trap has republished it with the permission of the author Shiv Kunal Verma. Verma is the author of the books ‘The Long Road to Siachen: The Question Why’ and ‘1962: The War That Wasn’t’. The opinions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Canary Trap or any employee thereof)

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2 thoughts on “Ladakh standoff and India’s repeated intelligence failures

  1. Every intrusion of a thief is not a failure of police. Similarly, every border intrusion is not intelligence failure. What matters is action and stand taken. We now have firm ground unlike previous Govts.

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