Medalless army

The defence ministry must quickly resume issuing official medals.

Last week, a colleague and I were struck by what we saw at a new military supplies store that had opened in our neighbourhood. Among the usual uniforms, shoes, hats, bags and kit, we were surprised to see medals. Not just the ribbons, but the entire suites of medals ready to be stuck on to uniforms. This struck us strange and dubious.

Dinakar Peri’s report in The Hindu tells us why. It turns out that the defence ministry department in charge of issuing medals has not been doing so. Since 2008. So for eight years, the defence ministry has been awarding medals but not issuing them to officers. That’s so long that many younger officers do not even know that they ought to receive the medals from the defence ministry, and not have to buy them from military stores.

It’s not only sad, but undermines the purpose of medals by devaluing them. The economic reasoning behind issuing medals for service and gallantry is to create a “honour incentive” which can both be stronger and more effective than monetary incentives. If you undermine the honour attached to a medal, you weaken the incentive that encourages the behaviour that the medal recognises. If devalued to the point of become a routine, the incentive fails. The fact that the defence ministry hasn’t bothered to issue medals for eight years is therefore disturbing.

It should be the easiest of things for Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar to do to order the Department of Medals in his ministry to resume issuing medals prospectively, and clear the backlog over time. It’s not merely what society owes to its soldiers. It’s an important step in arresting a drift in professional standards.

A better way of selecting the top brass – 2

Politicisation will limit politicisation

Two of the more thoughtful critiques of the Modi government’s decision to jettison the principle of seniority in appointing India’s next army chief appear in the Indian Express and Business Standard today. Sushant Singh and Ajai Shukla are among the most astute commentators on the subject so it is important to read their arguments with care.*

Sushant’s main argument is that the principle of seniority in choosing the chief must be replaced by an institutionalised due process, and not arbitrary selection by the political leadership. Ajai, though primarily concerned about the politicisation of the army, also criticises the rationale provided by the Modi government in the specific case of Gen Rawat.

A reasonable person will tend to agree with Sushant and Ajai, for after all, it is a good idea to ensure that the selection process is transparently objective. However, the reasonable view in this case might be both unsatisfactory and impractical. It might be a better to allow the political executive the complete discretion to pick from among the available pool of three star officers. If the Cabinet prefers non-military criteria like partisanship, ideology or ethnicity, so be it, as the Cabinet is accountable for outcomes. The lessons of 1962 are not lost on India’s politicians. As I wrote in my first post on this topic, if we can trust the prime minister with a nuclear button, we shouldn’t worry about a much lesser risk as the selection of army chief.

Won’t this politicise the army? Well, the trajectory is unlikely to be much different from what it is now. Moreover, even as Sushant, Ajai and I are concerned about the politicisation of the armed forces at politician-general level, we are also concerned about the politicisation within the army. As Ajai brings out in his article, factional politics among the branches of the army are intense and have ended up in the Supreme Court. It is naive to believe that this intramural politics has been untouched by the country’s partisan politics. I’ve covered this objection in my earlier post.

(*As the two are both friends and sparring partners, this blog refers to them by their first names, instead of formally by their honorifics and last names.)

A better way of selecting the top brass

Nothing is lost by abandoning the principle of seniority, but the armed forces need restructuring

Yesterday, the Modi government decided to supersede two general officers and appoint Lt Gen Bipin Rawat as the next chief of army staff. In a system where seniority has risen from a criterion to the criterion, and where “lines of succession” are drawn in a manner to mirror royal succession in monarchies, the move has shocked many. After all, the last time such a thing happened was in 1981 when the Indira Gandhi government appointed Gen A S Vaidya over Gen S K Sinha’s head.

Here’s the thing: the Modi government has done well to break a norm that had so become an entitlement that it had begun damaging the incentive structures of the the military leadership. The sordid saga of Gen V K Singh five years ago revealed that the army’s leadership was spending undue energy on manipulating promotions and appointments to ensure desired lines of succession. Any organisation whose leadership is engaged in such machinations is likely to suffer loss of professionalism. By elevating seniority to a sacrosanct principle, we might well have depoliticised appointments at the level of the political leaders picking the military leadership. However, it does not mean we have depoliticised appointments within the military establishment. Because of secrecy and respect that the armed forces enjoy, the ‘politics’ within the armed forces is generally invisible to the public. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Just go back and look at the reports that emerged five years ago during the Gen V K Singh’s controversy.

If the Indian armed forces had the luxury of being a showpiece, where they did more ceremonial parades than combat, it might have been acceptable to go by seniority. But India’s armed forces have been fighting wars, proxy wars and insurgencies for ever, and the future presents ever greater risks. In such a context, it is downright absurd to argue the the senior-most officer should become the commander. Furthermore, it is downright absurd to accept that the service chiefs should be both excellent commanders and excellent staff officers: a great military leader need not necessarily be the best military manager. To roll the two roles into the same office is to get a little bit of both, and the best of neither. Jettisoning the primacy of seniority is the first step: the Modi government must use the opportunity to implement structural reforms to India’s military structure. (It’s clear what such reform should entail: see this article)

There are two important objections to non-seniority based appointments. First, that it would upset the army’s internal appointments and promotions structure. Second, that it would allow the political leadership to appoint military leaders based on partisan, ideological, religious, caste or other criteria unrelated to military merit. Let’s consider each of them in turn.

Yes, superseding officers will cause genuine heartburn, embarrassment and grievances among those adversely affected by the move. The retirement or resignation of those who have been passed over for promotion count as a loss to India’s military capital. That, however, is the price we must pay for a competitive military establishment. Much of this cost is one off, representing what behavioural economists call the “endowment effect”. Because officers expect to be promoted on the basis of seniority, they feel what is rightfully theirs has been taken away. If, from now on, officers no longer expect the seniority norm to hold, they will feel less cheated. That said, it is incumbent on the Ministry of Defence and the services headquarters to ensure that the superseded officers are treated with respect and decorum; and if they have years of service left, are re-employed in government positions commensurate with their seniority.

The second objection is more serious: what is to stop the political leadership from appointing military chiefs on dubious, non-military criteria? Well, for one, it is not as if lobbying on such grounds has not been taking place. However, the argument that the prime minister cannot be trusted to properly appoint a service chief sounds pretty unserious when the office of the prime minister has everything from the nuclear button to the validity of all legal tender in his hand. If the citizens of India vote in a government in a constitutional manner, and the ruling party constitutionally appoints the prime minister, who selects his cabinet, then that is that.

Now it is not as if the Cabinet can appoint an army chief without being bound by any constraints: they will be limited to a small number of officers to choose from, and any ideological, partisan or communal preference will be constrained by the fact that the armed forces are engaged in active duty. No Cabinet would want to lose battles or wars, or found wanting in the face of external threats. Parliament must do its job and keep the government in tether: so rather than defend the principle of seniority, concerned citizens must demand the amendment of the anti-defection law that has converted MPs into robots under the control of the party leaders.

The Modi government would do well to follow up its departure from orthodoxy with a sincere commitment to restructure the armed forces. Early in his tenure, PM Modi was reluctant to risk this reform. He should not shy away from it now. The K Subrahmanyam report was almost two decades ago; there have been a few subsequent initiatives to study the matter further. It’s well past decision time.

Tailpiece: My comments on an NDTV show on this subject in February 2012.

Update: Read the second post on this topic here.

ISI’s change of course and other stories

Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex will need more then the prospect of diplomatic isolation to change its policies.

Cyril Almeida’s report reads too good to be true.

Facing international isolation—read lack of support from the United States and even China—Pakistan’s civilian leaders confronted the ISI chiefand got him to permit action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed, and their respective leaders. Not only did they say this to the general’s face, but even more surprisingly, the general tacitly consented to law enforcement action against the groups. That’s not all, he agreed to visit every province, meet the local political, military and ISI leaders there, and persuade them to change course.

The appropriate reaction to this report is: yes, and teenage hippos rollerblade.

Yet, the fact that such a report made it to the press is interesting. Taken at face value, it does suggest that the strategy of persuading Pakistan’s supporters might be working. [I have argued for this before, on Yahoo! and WSJ]

However, it would be credulous to believe that the Pakistani military establishment has decided to change course merely on account of the prospect of international diplomatic isolation. Rawalpindi & Islamabad are masters are exploiting fissures in the world order to survive and promote their interests, and at a time when there are so many growing fissures in the international system, they shouldn’t find it hard to do so. The isolation explanation, by itself, is not convincing enough.

What is more likely is that the military establishment is playing for time ahead of a leadership transition as Gen Raheel Sharif retires next month. All his potential successors need all potential allies within the political system, and at this time, it is unlikely that any of them would want to antagonise their nominal political leaders. Gen Raheel himself might calculate that he needs friends to ensure that he enjoys his retired life.

Ergo, Mr Almeida’s report should not rouse great hopes in India. In any case, what matters are results on the ground; not official statements or unofficials leaks to the media. Worse, if the Pakistani army wishes to retalitate to an Indian surgical strike (that it says did not happen) with a similar strike of its own, for the sake of pyschological parity, then a report like this is just the kind of thing to leak.

What to make of India’s surgical strike?

India’s punitive strike across the Line of Control could set a new norm

Whatever might be the consequences, it is clear that the Indian Army’s operation across the Line of Control in retaliation to a militant attack on its Uri camp is a landmark development. Now, it is common knowledge that both the Indian and Pakistani armies cross the LoC for tactical operations, and have been doing so for a long time.

Such operations, usually, have three characteristics: limitations in the depth of incursion, the extent of damage they cause and the level at which they are officially admitted. While we do not have all the details as of now, last night’s operation appears to have been deeper and more damaging. What distinguishes it from other tactical incursions along the LoC is the level at which they have been admitted: perhaps for the first time, New Delhi has officially announced that Indian troops carried out an attack authorised by the highest political authority.

This is significant because it changes the norm to one where India will use military force across its frontiers to respond to aggression by Pakistan’s proxies. Depending on the Pakistani reaction, the act might vindicate the arguments made by some strategists that India does have space for such punitive operations, within the escalation framework. If so, an important Pakistani bluff — that nuclear weapons will shield its terrorist proxies — will be called. [Related: See this detailed analysis of the India-Pakistan conflict escalation framework]

This, however, is only the story so far. The ball now is in Pakistan’s court. If the Pakistani military establishment continues to hold the position that there was no ‘surgical strike’ at all, and just the usual cross-border firing, then New Delhi would have succeeded in setting a new norm. However, if the Pakistani army decides that it cannot let this insult go unpunished, and responds tit-for-tat — operationally and in public posturing — then it will be up to the Modi government whether it wants to up the ante. There are good reasons for either course of action.

The Pakistani army’s initial reaction is what it is, an initial reaction. It could be used to obfuscate matters to cover a retaliatory attack. Or it could be a signal of not wanting to escalate the situation. At this time, therefore, it would be prudent for the Indian government and media to hold off excessive triumphalism.

A little less conversation, a little more action

Nawaz Sharif must provide credible proof of his intent before New Delhi resumes dialogue with his government

While India’s response to the killing of Indian soldiers in the Poonch region along the Line of Control must be calculated and cold-blooded (see an earlier post), it is untenable to contend, as some commentators have done, that dialogue with the Pakistani government must continue regardless of the provocation.

There is no case for New Delhi to engage the Nawaz Sharif government in serious dialogue at this time. While Prime Minister Sharif has made verbal overtures to the need for better relations with India, he has demonstrated little by way of putting this sentiment into action. Talk is cheap. It is action that matters.

We have seen nothing by way of tightening the pressure on outfits like the Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the prosecution of the 26/11 accused has run aground and the Pakistani military establishment has raised the temperature by attacking Indian diplomats in Afghanistan. On Mr Sharif’s side of the equation, “it’s only words…”. His predecessor, Asif Ali Zardari, did try to match words with actions. Although he didn’t go far enough, although his party colleagues undermined the effort, and some of his associates paid a heavy price for those actions, it made some sense in pursuing dialogue with his government. Mr Sharif’s party, on the other hand, relies on political support from Islamist militants in his home province and has shown no sign of taking on either the military or the jihadis so far.

Maybe it’s too early for Mr Sharif to act in ways that make his words credible. Maybe he needs more time. That’s both reasonable and fair to him. In the meantime, what’s the hurry for New Delhi to pursue dialogue with his government, even if there had been no attacks in Jalalabad and gunfights along the Line of Control? Why not wait to see credible signals that Mr Sharif has the intentions and the wherewithal to deliver on the pre-requisites for a serious dialogue?

There is no case for resuming dialogue—leave alone for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to visit Pakistan—until that time. As even simple people know, it is foolish to make an advance payment to a person who might not actually have the goods he’s promising to sell.

Related Link: Why Pakistan is really two distinct entities—the military-jihadi complex and the putative Pakistani state. The former holds all the cards as far as peace is concerned. The latter is feeble.

Leave it at the tactical

Media-fuelled public outrage must not determine New Delhi’s strategy on the tensions along the Line of Control

Success or failure in a contest between two states is not measured by merely by the relative numbers of soldiers killed or bits of territory gained or lost. It is measured by the relative well-being of the people in the states concerned. What is the national interest if not “the well-being, prosperity and happiness of the nation”? The Arthashastra puts this in pithy terms: “The possession of power and happiness in a greater degree makes a king superior to another; in a less degree, inferior”.

Since the nuclear tests of 1998 and the Pakistan’s invasion of Kargil, leading to a brief border war in 1999, there has been a fairly commonplace lament in the popular discourse that India is unable to “do anything” to respond to Pakistani provocations. Let there be no doubt—Pakistani provocations have been many, they have been systematic and they have caused the nation physical, social and psychological harm. Let there be no doubt that India’s responses have been more restrained than they need to be—not least to a predilection among India’s prime ministers to see the need for “a peace process with Pakistan”. Let there also be no doubt: a flawed logic—the presumption that the Pakistan they do the peace process with is the Pakistan that attacks us—informs this policy.

Even so, by most measures, Indians in 2013 are better off than their Pakistani counterparts (see this Gapminder chart). This is despite the UPA squandering a good part of a benign decade and bringing the economy on the verge of a fiscal crisis. This is despite the neglect of governance reforms and bringing the polity into a wrenching political churn. Pakistan, for all its provocations and too-clever-by-half exploitation of its ‘geopolitical positions’ is back into the international doghouse it was in. It is being devoured by its own domestic monsters, without the need for any help from India.

So folks, we are winning this one.

Back in 2003, in a conversation with Sameer Wagle, a friend and intellectual sparring partner, this blogger had argued that the solution to our problems from Pakistan is economic reform. In fact, as argued in this Pragati cover story, Reforms 2.0 is our China policy, our America policy, our Europe policy and every-other-country policy. From this perspective, the UPA government’s abandonment of the reform agenda is its biggest foreign policy failure.

The purpose of national defence is to ensure that India’s growth and development can take place undisturbed. Defence policy is not an end in itself (a point that Pakistan has missed).

The recent escalation of tactical conflict between India and Pakistan at the Line of Control comes at a time when India is in the grip of a grand moral panic and political flux. The media and public discourse tends to rapidly end up in outrage and anger. For this reason, it is all the more important to be more careful and dispassionate and not precipitate actions that might end up being self-defeating.

First, it is important that the Indian side does not give Pakistan an opening to end the ceasefire along the Line of Control. For if the ceasefire goes, the Pakistani military-jihadi complex will rub its hands in glee and attempt its strategy of the 1990s—essentially infiltrate men and war material into Indian territory under the cover of armed conflict. The broader situation is a lot like the 1990s, as ranks of the jihadi alumni from Afghanistan begin to swell in 2014, and though the Indian armed forces are better prepared than two decades ago, who needs the resumption of a proxy war?

Second, it makes sense not to disturb the adversary when he is making a mistake. Pakistan is in deep turmoil. A number of internecine rivalries are tearing the country apart. It will get worse in 2014 when international troops leave neighbouring Afghanistan and the militants no longer have a foreign enemy to fight. It is hard to predict which way Pakistan might go, but it is smart not to give the warring factions a reason to join forces and focus on a common enemy in the shape of us.

Third, let the armed forces sort out the tactical game along the Line of Control away from the media glare. The Indian Army has been engaged in this conflict for decades and is well-aware, well-trained and well-equipped to handle the matters. General Bikram Singh’s statements make this amply clear. The army “reserves the right to retaliate at a time and place of its choosing”. This is as it should be. It is imprudent, risky and counter-productive for media-fuelled public outrage to force the army’s professional assessment.

None of this is an argument for the manufactured and contrived ‘peace process’ activities. Rather, that New Delhi must use the detente to its strategic advantage. What the public debate ought to be about is not how New Delhi plans to react to a tactical attack but to chart out how it will exploit the detente to strengthen India’s strategic advantage.

Finally, one of India’s strategic projects has to be the systematic containment and eventual dismantling of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex. So much of New Delhi’s policy is short-term, the here and the now. Worse, India’s public discourse is even shorter—momentary surges of awareness and emotion on one issue that quickly lapse and move on to the next one. All the more important then, for thinking Indians, to never forget that the military-jihadi complex must be destroyed.

Counter-posterism tactics

The mindgame of fighting terror

Earlier this week posters appeared in Pattan in Jammu & Kashmir’s Baramulla district, threatening to kill 13 persons for assisting security forces. Here is the poster by a group with a grand sounding title of “Al Mashterqa Lashkar-e-Taiba Hizbul Mujahideen”.

Al Mashterqa Lashkar-e-Taiba Hizbul Mujahideen's Poster

Here’s the Indian Army’s counter-poster.

In the first panel it says “Hey terrorists, why are you fighting these innocent people. Fight with the Army, your fight is with the Army.” In the second it tells the people “Don’t fear these terrorists because the army is with you. Call us for help.”

Now let’s see if the message gets through.

The misleading presumption of a coup

We lose the middle when we debate the extremes

Here’s an excerpt from a report in The Hindu filed by its New Delhi bureau.

Precisely why the government ought to have been alarmed by the presence of two additional formations on New Delhi’s outskirts, when tens of thousands of soldiers are stationed in and around the city, also remains unclear.

Intelligence sources told The Hindu that the political apprehensions might have emanated from assessments given to the government as its conflict with the Army Chief on the age issue escalated in early January. Tens of thousands of soldiers were arriving in Delhi for the Republic Day parade, even as Gen. Singh was preparing to move the Supreme Court, and the Intelligence Bureau feared the inflamed public discourse on his date of birth might spark an embarrassing incident.

The movement of the two units was noted with concern in this context, a senior Intelligence Bureau official admitted to The Hindu, but insisted that “at no stage was the possibility of a coup, or any attempt to overawe the government, ever discussed. We worried about indiscipline, or a show of support by some elements — and it’s our job to consider those possibilities.”

Though the Intelligence Bureau routinely monitors troop movements in sensitive areas across India, the sources said, it had not been conducting surveillance operations seeking signs of threatening military movements. It was only after the 50 Brigade or 33 Armoured Division’s detachments were noticed on the capital’s outskirts that the government was notified of their presence. [The Hindu]

In yesterday’s blog post and tweets, I had warned that the presumption that the Indian Express report only indicated a coup would close our minds to other “in-between” possibilities.

Note what the senior IB official says—it was not a coup they feared, but rather ‘indiscipline or a show of support by some elements.’ Street protests have become increasing common over the last few years not least because the UPA government has succumbed to political negotiations conducted by such means. As the officer said, it’s the Intelligence Bureau’s job to consider those possibilities. The atmosphere of mistrust would have played on those risk assessments and set off the chain of events.

What is of public interest, then, is what caused civil-military trust to break down? What mistakes did the civilian establishment make in the days and hours leading up to January 16/17? What mistakes did the army make? These questions need to be examined dispassionately in order for us to be able to attempt to restore that trust. [Troop movements of the curious kind]

Troop movements of the curious kind

Understanding the unusual movement of two army units towards New Delhi

The byline of the report shows its seriousness. It could not have been filed without the approval of the highest levels of the Indian government. It is deeply worrisome. In January 2012, almost 60 years after the Indian republic was established, some people in the government were concerned about a military c-, well, curiosity.

The report presents a set of facts saying “(it) is too early to answer all the ‘hows, whys and the what-nexts’ of this.” It is not even clear if all the relevant facts are out in the open. Even so, at this time, what should we make of these disturbing revelations?

The two most important questions at this time are the following. First, why were the two military formations moved in an ostensibly unusual manner? Second, why did the government permit this report to be published at all, and why now?

The first question has three broad explanations. The most innocent is that this was a tragedy of errors brought about due to the atmosphere of mistrust between the army chief and civilian government officials. Triggered by the timing—General V K Singh’s petition to the Supreme Court—the civilian establishment panicked and overreacted to the unusual but unthreatening events. A crucial point is the allegation that the army headquarters did not notify the defence ministry of the movements of the two units towards New Delhi, which is the required protocol. Army commanders do not need authorisation to move troops on exercises, but need to notify the ministry when the geography of the National Capital Region is involved.

A less innocent explanation is that the movement of units was deliberate designed to unsettle the civilian establishment and nothing more. The third, and the least palatable explanation is that some people in the army thought they could pull off a political stunt, much like the dharnas, gheraos and public protests that you see in the capital on a daily basis. (No, there is no fourth explanation, this is India.)

While we do not know if any of these reflect what actually happened, the odds are heavily stacked in favour of the innocent explanation. That’s already cause for deep concern. It remains to be seen if the defence ministry will investigate the unusual troop movements further. Ideally, it ought to. At this time, however, it is unclear if this can take place without exacerbating the atmosphere of mistrust that has been created.

The second question is this: why is it that the government allowed this report to be published? On a matter as sensitive as this, it is highly likely that the Indian Express would have accepted a request not to publish such a report if the government would have made it. So why wasn’t such a request made? The honourable reason is that it is just as well that the public is kept informed of the slightest risks to our democratic setup. The political reason might be to get back at General V K Singh.

Again, we do not know the answer to this question either. What we do know is that the situation has been allowed to reach to such a point that the banana flavour is palpable. Things have gone far enough. We need a new Defence Minister. Considering what might come next under this government, it is just as well that he stays on.

Update: Framing the debate

Since this post was published earlier this morning public discourse has gravitated around two issues: on the motives and propriety of the Indian Express in publishing this story and on whether or not a military coup was attempted.

Let’s get the first out of the way—unpalatable, unsavoury and unbelievable as it may well be, the newspaper acted in the public interest by publishing it. You might quibble about the size of the headline or the sensationalisation, but unless you think bad news and potential risks ought to be hidden from public view, it is hard to justify an argument against its publishing. (Full disclosure: I occasionally write op-eds for the paper, including one last week on restructuring the armed forces)

Next, while the article alleges that the army undertook unusual movements without notifying—and notification is different from authorization, a point that many commentators have missed—the defence ministry as it was required to, it does not suggest a military coup. This is a very important distinction. Presuming that a coup could be the only motive behind the alleged mobilisation precludes us from considering other possibilities.

The report is not only about what the army did or didn’t do. It is also about what the civilian establishment did. It should be quite easy to establish whether a terror alert was sounded in New Delhi on January 16-17th, and whether the defence secretary flew back from Malaysia to meet the DGMO and send the troops back. The Indian Express cannot be fabricating these easily verifiable facts. If indeed these events occurred, then the objective reality is that of severe mistrust between the uniformed and civilian leadership in the defence ministry that had serious consequences on the ground.

What is of public interest, then, is what caused civil-military trust to break down? What mistakes did the civilian establishment make in the days and hours leading up to January 16/17? What mistakes did the army make? These questions need to be examined dispassionately in order for us to be able to attempt to restore that trust.

The defence minister dismissed the report as baseless. The prime minister uttered two brief non-committal sentences, warning us of “alarmist reports which should not be taken on its face value” and reminding us of the obligation to “do nothing to lower its dignity and respect in the public”. This is no trifling matter. It behoves on the UPA government and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to spell out—both in parliament and in public—what it intends to do to restore trust between the armed forces, the civilian establishment and the people of India.