After Uri, a look at why intelligence failures happen

Eighteen soldiers died at Uri, marking one of the worst Indian intelligence failures of recent times. Such mistakes, however, cost innocent lives the world over.

Published: 24th September 2016 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 24th September 2016 04:23 PM   |  A+A-

Context: The attack on Uri, which is classified as one of India’s worst recent intelligence failures. Comment. “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” This quote from the legendary spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré sums up what happened on the dark pre-dawn hours at Uri near the Line of Control (LoC) when four Pakistan-trained terrorists stormed the Indian Army camp and killed 18 soldiers, mostly by locking them up and setting them on fire. As the early news filtered in, shocking and enraging India and the rest of the world, the question being discussed at high-level meetings held in New Delhi was whether it was an intelligence failure, the likes of which has been happening ever since internal politics in the Army seriously affected its information gathering capability. How do these lapses occur? Why do they happen? The answer to these questions and such concerns lie in the questions themselves.

The most frightening aspect of the Uri attack is that it might have been facilitated by one of the various agents who the Indian forces have been using to collect information on Pakistan Army’s logistics.

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A Military Intelligence source explains that there are two primary sources the Army depends upon for information. The double agent and the dual agent. The double agent, as all readers of spy fiction know, is one who penetrates an enemy intelligence service at great risk to gather information for his country’s service. The dual agent, however, has no such loyalties. His primary role is that of a courier. He works only for money and is not choosy about who he gets it from. He is poor, a resident of one of the many border villages, which have continued to exist even after Partition, and has family on both sides of the LoC. Dual agents are used to crossing it regularly, to visit relatives or to attend a wedding or a funeral. Before infiltration started, they were couriers who used local smuggling routes, through which shawls and footwear were brought into India from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), and took Indian Army rum to be sold to Pakistani troops manning their positions. Infiltration changed all that. Demands for rum became less because of the radicalisation of the Pak Army. Smugglers faced crackdown on both sides of the border. Spying became the only lucrative livelihood.

“The possibility that it can be one of these couriers who brought the terrorists from Hajipur to Uri and gave details about the camp cannot be ruled out,” says an intelligence source. “Otherwise how can you explain that the terrorists crossed the minefields laid on the border? It has to be someone who knows the area well, every local route, every mine. Someone who crosses the line often.”

The couriers are paid as little as `1,000 by their handlers in the Indian Army. The initiative to smuggle in terrorists is higher. Moreover, what is even more dangerous about dual agents is that they give the same information on Pakistani Army positions, troop strength and status of preparedness to multiple agencies such as the Military Intelligence (MI), Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), Intelligence Bureau (IB), Border Security Force, the Jammu & Kashmir Police and other outfits. The result is that when the reports land on the desks in New Delhi, they corroborate one another.

“Hence, it is easy for disinformation to be planted,” says the source.

There is very little scope to crosscheck information gleaned from dual agents. Current rules mandate that intelligence gathering is restricted to within 14 kilometres of the LoC.

“How do we get actionable intel, then? We have to rely on couriers, after all,” says the source.

Couriers are not a new phenomenon. Then how were they vetted earlier? The MI source says before the Army’s counter-intelligence capability fell to the political war between General V K Singh and General Bikram Singh, experienced officers were the handlers, and they could spot treachery and filter authenticity of information much better. The couriers were never fully trusted. They would bring Pakistan Army soldiers from across the LoC to the local Indian military command as purveyors of low-level intelligence. The MI source also admits that this may be true of Indian soldiers as well.

“They are identified and arrested. Sometimes, they are fingered by the same dual agents who took them across,” the source says. “It’s a dangerous game.”

The dismantling of the Technical Services Division (TSD) by the Army itself, under the aegis of the same Defence Minister, A K Antony, who was part of the decision to set it up pushed Indian intelligence gathering back by decades.

“If they had not tinkered with the organisation, a lot of things that are happening on our borders today would not have happened and that’s a guarantee I give,” Gen. V K Singh had said in an interview.

“It’s not the Pakistan Army that is destroying us, but it’s our own Army,” says an MI officer. TSD was set up after 26/11 Mumbai attacks to gather information about Pakistani plans to attack India.

In the US, which had suffered the worst intelligence failure of the 21st century—the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks—the first serious examination of the intelligence failures was on the Vietnam War. Richard Kevin Betts, the director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies, and the director of the International Security Policy Program in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, used this as an example to develop a theory on intelligence failure. He established that not only failures in intelligence are inevitable and even natural because they happen, thanks to politics and psychology, and not analysis and organisation. Betts holds three faults—attack warning, operational evaluation and defence planning—responsible. There is an evidentiary claim that prior-information on the Uri attacks were given to the Army, but they were ignored. Betts argued that even if evidence of the intended attack existed, the information did not pass quickly enough through official levels and landed on the desks of policy-makers in time to prevent the attack. The official response was not forthcoming because the validity and urgency of the information did not tally with prevailing estimates or assumptions of the threat situation.

The 26/11 Mumbai attacks happened also because warnings were not taken seriously enough by the agencies on the ground. After the massacre, a dismayed security establishment gave the mandate for operations on the basis of deniability.  Then National Security Advisor M K Narayanan called the chiefs of the three forces, IB and R&AW, and asked them if they had the capability to strike back. The answer was in the negative. Narayanan had ordered the TSD created on the lines of the Mossad of Israel. Its mandate was purely Old Testament—an eye for an eye.

“Things happened,” remembers an MI operative.

The 26/11 attacks revealed how the dismantling of intel assets by prime ministers Moraji Desai and I K Gujral over decades had drastically crippled Indian espionage might in Pakistan. A former member of the Cabinet Secretariat recollects how in the 1970s, R&AW was so feared in Pakistan that the ISI chief of the time requested for an unprecedented confidential chief-to-chief meeting to come to an understanding. But that was a tale from the heydays of Indian intelligence penetration of Pakistan when Indira Gandhi was the prime minister. It has taken over three decades for the reconstruction of the system under the current NSA, Ajit Doval, to begin.

The Subrahmanyam Committee, set up in October 1999 to investigate what went wrong in Kargil, notes that the situation then in Kashmir reflected unfolding developments detailed in the war game, “Operation Topac”. The authorship of this game was attributed by top Indian officials and intelligence agencies to Gen. Zia-ul-Haq. In reality, the game was written by a team of retired Indian Army officers in 1989. This reveals how well they had understood the Pakistani establishment’s Kashmir ambitions. Today, the Indian establishment, handicapped by political games played by the generals, had no intel warning about the agitation that has claimed 78 lives so far. When Barack Obama visited India in 2015, Indian intelligence operatives packed Lal Chowk in Srinagar, with Kashmiris shouting slogans against separatist leader SAR Geelani, showing the US President that Kashmiris stood with India.

Says Major General G D Bakshi (retd.), who has commanded a brigade in Kargil: “Over a period of time, R&AW has been getting only political inputs or intelligence related to civilians. Hardly any military-related inputs on the Pakistan army or the ISI is shared by it. Generally police officers work in R&AW, so they do not have military mindset.”

An intelligence analyst points out that the establishment is driven into a knee-jerk analysis whenever a major incident like Uri happens. No one really knows what to do. Agencies have a tendency to treat every threat as genuine, making all of them equally sensitive. As a result, actual threats are not weighed properly.

Many former Army Chiefs of Staff and Directors General of Military Operations had unanimously felt any large-scale Pakistani military intrusion was unsustainable in Kargil because it lacked infrastructure and logistical support. This perception was formed after analysing confrontations in 1948, 1965 and 1971, when the Indian Army dominated Pakistani forces in the area. There was also minimal cross-LOC military activity. Additionally, considering the challenging terrain and weather conditions, the Indian military mindset underestimated the Pakistani threat in Kargil.

Lt. Gen. Tejinder Singh, who was head of the Defence Intelligence Agency, says, “Asymmetric warfare can never be countered with conventional means. We need to have combination of conventional and asymmetric elements in present times. And our external intelligence, which is tasked to carry out subversion and sabotage in enemy territory, has been failed to do it miserably.”

It was not always so. In some cases, one example is enough to prove the theory about both success and failure. Anthony Shimray, an NSCN-IM activist, was nabbed for gun-running in the Northeast, despite the 1975 ceasefire between the Army and Naga insurgents. He was nabbed after an intelligence coup exposed his illegal activities with the Chinese. However, after India’s counter-intelligence power was seriously curtailed by Army politics, guns made their way to India along the same Myanmar-Nepal border route and reached Maoists operating in Chhattisgarh. They were used to attack the convey of Congress leader and former Union minister V C Shukla when Naxalite terrorists attacked his convoy on May 25, 2013.

Intelligence gathering cannot be effective in the absence of information at the block level. A senior analyst says this mirrors the way a political party functions. Which is one of the reasons actionable intelligence was dependable until networks had to be shut down due to budgetary cuts during Gen. Bikram Singh’s tenure.

“If media leaks expose a serving minister of accepting money from Indian intelligence, how does an ordinary informer risk his life and limb?” asks a former operative. The budget squeeze also means less money for Humint—or human intelligence, the soul of spycraft.

“There are no free lunches,” says a retired army officer who has served in Kashmir.

Post-26/11, Indian intelligence had penetrated Pakistan Army GHQ in Rawalpindi to gather operational plans against India using terrorism. PsyOps, carried out against Pakistan, was standard operational policy between the Mumbai attacks and 2010. Today, all these have been abandoned due to little will and money.

“Of course, intel gathering is still on,” says a serving officer. “But what info can an operative gather when he cannot go within 14 kms of the Pak posts? He will count the number of shrubs and come back.” Such information may be good enough for the battalion commander to plan limited positions, which anyway will keep changing from day to day.

With Humint having reduced to an insignificant trickle, Indian intelligence has to depend largely on technical intercepts. Signals Intelligence (SI), which now works under the National Intelligence Agency after it was removed from the control of the MI Directorate, is empowered in two kinds of monitoring—passive and active. The first is off-the-air intercept. The second involves monitoring frequencies of satellites whose footprints come under the surveillance circle. Active monitoring has to be sanctioned by the Home Secretary for the service provider to cooperate. SI handles only J&K and the Northeast.

“Nowadays, we are too much dependent on technical intelligence. Only Humint can yield high grade intelligence to penetrate terror modules. Technical intelligence can never give you the pin-pointed actionable military intelligence,” says Maj. Gen. Bakshi.

There are many in the Army who are worried about India’s reduced intelligence operational capability and the subsequent boldness of Pakistan’s sponsorship of terror.

“We need to create assets overseas, who attack terrorists and their leaders. They should carry out strikes, wherever we want, like on Hafiz Saeed, who is operating from Lahore. Targeting terrorists in their country is the only way to wage a proxy war. We should follow the examples of agencies like the CIA and Mossad,” Lt. Gen. Singh says.

The martyrs of Uri would still have been alive had these tenets been followed. With Indian intelligence gathering in the Army having been dominantly reduced to conducting behind-the-desk ops, the challenge is to prevent such bloodshed in the future.


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