India’s Covert Action Capabilities Stymied By CIA, MI6 Pressure

Pathankot attack calls for reassessing covert operations restricted by Western intel agencies, writes Chandan Nandy

Published
Opinion
5 min read
Have the Indian security organisations capitulated to the extent of allowing  their Western counterparts to control them? (Photo: The Quint)

The biggest question that is on every Indian’s mind even as the messy details of the Pathankot operations gradually come to light is why our intelligence agencies have never had the stomach to resort to covert action to cripple terrorist infrastructures in Pakistan.

What is alarming – and this is based on long and searching conversations I have had with a few covert operation specialists in our intelligence agencies – is that the security organisations have allowed their Western counterparts to control them.

Indian army soldiers climb up the stairs of a residential building outside the   air force base in Pathankot, Sunday, January 3, 2016. (Photo: AP)
Indian army soldiers climb up the stairs of a residential building outside the air force base in Pathankot, Sunday, January 3, 2016. (Photo: AP)

Last evening, as the Pathankot mess unfolded, one former specialist revealed that as far back as 1993-94, the American CIA and British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) literally forbade the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) from launching covert operations in Pakistan. These meetings, which were part of the liaison arrangement that the RAW had – and continues to have – Western intelligence agencies have been to the detriment of India and its ability to strike back clandestinely across the border.

Western Agencies’ Control

“Their argument was that Pakistan being a rogue state does not mean that you too stoop to its levels,” a former top RAW officer said, quoting his American counterpart at one liaison meeting, adding that “we have been forced to fight but with our hands tied behind our backs just because one of the Western agencies’ stakes in Pakistan are far too deep.”

We have been forced to fight but with our hands tied behind our backs just because one of the Western agencies’ stakes in Pakistan are far too deep

Former top RAW Officer

The pressure exerted and the control exercised by the two Western intelligence agencies continues. The only difference now is that there is an additional foreign security organisation (which worked closely with the RAW to train the LTTE) which has been able to establish a stranglehold over our intelligence community.

Snapshot

India’s Covert Action Experience

  • What is alarming is that the Indian security organisations have allowed their Western counterparts to control them.
  • Till 1993-94, the CIA and British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) literally forbade the RAW from launching covert operations in Pakistan.
  • Not just the executive is to be blamed, the IB is known to resort to puerile means to ‘catch spies’
  • Covert action could also involve mobilising political forces across borders the way it was done with near precision in Bangladesh in 1992

Incapable of Artful Subtlety

Even as the same forces that have repeatedly attacked India have grown in West Asia, the commonsense wisdom should be that it must rest on our ability to know, to understand, to predict and – when the moment is opportune – to act. But India has never had the capability of acting with artful subtlety or, in other words, undertaking covert operations in our neighbourhood.

French President Jacques Chirac (L) talks with the then Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral in New Delhi, January 25, 1998. (Photo: Reuters)
French President Jacques Chirac (L) talks with the then Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral in New Delhi, January 25, 1998. (Photo: Reuters)

Ever since the then Prime Minister Inder Gujral issued unwritten orders to wind up RAW’s modest covert action capabilities, the agency has found itself crippled and wanting in raising the cost of the clandestine war for Pakistan.

But it is not just executive orders – and cold feet among India’s political class – that have forced the RAW or even the IB to turn to conventional or benign methods of gathering intelligence. It is no secret that the intelligence agencies, especially the IB, have resorted to underhand, and sometimes puerile means, to “catch spies”.

Past Covert Operations

There indeed was a time – in the 80s and early 90s – that the RAW could act with near-total freedom when covert action would be carried out in India’s neighbourhood. Covert operations need not involve sending in special forces across international borders to create mayhem and large scale disturbances in neighbouring countries where governments or non-state actors have been inimical to Indian interests.

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stands along with army officers for the national anthem during the celebration of the country’s 45th Victory Day in Dhaka, December 16, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)
Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stands along with army officers for the national anthem during the celebration of the country’s 45th Victory Day in Dhaka, December 16, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

Covert action could also involve mobilising political forces across borders to bring down governments and this was done with near precision in Bangladesh in 1992 when the RAW was able to bring together the two warring begums – Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia – to run a pro-democracy movement that finally led to the toppling of Lieutenant General H M Ershad.

Specialists have also undertaken covert operations in Afghanistan around the time the Taliban was gaining ground there, clandestinely meeting an Uzbek warlord in European capitals. Others have secretly moved huge consignments of weapons to ethnic insurgent groups in Myanmar.

Narasimha Rao’s Foresight

Former RAW and IB officers recall that the then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao has been the “only PM” who understood the foreign policy value of covert operations. When brief unsigned proposals would be taken to him, Rao would, as was his wont, simply nodded to give executive approval to individual covert ops. “That executive authority and decisiveness to sanction covert action has since been sorely lacking,” a former RAW special secretary said.

Indian soldiers stand guard outside the besieged  airbase in Pathankot,  Monday, January 4, 2016. (Photo: AP)
Indian soldiers stand guard outside the besieged airbase in Pathankot, Monday, January 4, 2016. (Photo: AP)

Lack of Commitment

Critics at once assault the RAW and the IB for incompetence and omnipotence. But it is when the country is faced with national security crises that they are exposed as blundering fools who otherwise manage to deviously manipulate information and events to claim success.

After a series of unpardonable failures and blunders, Pathankot has now thrown up questions that have been asked before. Why didn’t we know? Why didn’t we act more aggressively to prevent the attack? Why were we so unprepared to respond quickly? Why did/do we lack the skills of stealth and deception, contacts/sources/agents and the ability to infiltrate/penetrate the deadly jihadi groups in Pakistan?

The one answer to the clutch of questions is: historically, members of our so-called intelligence community, have been inert with no sense of security first and incapable of the derring-do, expertise, specialisation and commitment that the job of collecting and analysing intelligence demands.

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