An interception in the Arabian Sea

Dissecting the national security issues

The Indian Coast Guard’s interception of a suspect vessel just inside country’s exclusive economic zone in the Arabian Sea, off the Gujarat coast quickly moved from being a national security issue to a partisan political issue. While politicisation of national security is not necessarily bad in itself, the polarised circumstances in which it is taking place leave no space for a reasoned discourse. As of this writing, online outrage was picked up by some of New Delhi’s rageboys for physical protests outside a newspaper’s office.

While partisan politics takes its course, there are two questions of public interest that need to be examined. First, who were the occupants of the suspicious boat, what were they up to, and importantly, how did Indian authorities assess the threat and authorise action? Second, was the Coast Guard right in doing what it did?

Given what we know, and given what the Coast Guard knew at the time, it is impossible to be certain who was in the boat and what they were up to. From the facts that are not in dispute, it is highly unlikely that they were innocent fishermen. They could have been part of a terrorist operation to ship arms, explosives, people, money, fuel or other dangerous material. They could have been part of a smuggling racket dealing with contraband of a similar nature. They could have been both. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said he thinks they were suspected terrorists. Praveen Swami, quoting unnamed sources–and he has among the best ones in New Delhi–suggests that they were probably smugglers. The Defence Ministry is conducting an investigation and we might know in good time, or–given that there’s no physical evidence left of the boat–we might not.

This brings us to the second question: in the circumstances, was the Coast Guard right to act in the way it did? This is a matter of judgement. After the 26/11 attack on Mumbai, the Coast Guard cannot be faulted for being aggressive in neutralising a perceived threat. There has also been an escalation of tensions along the India-Pakistan border, an escalation of conflict within Pakistan, open mobilisation of the Lashkar-e-Taiba leadership and cadre. The impending Republic Day parade and President Barack Obama’s visit to India as the ceremonial chief guest on January 26th are also factors that raise risks for a threat of any given likelihood. The Coast Guard in this context, in The Acorn’s judgement, did well to neutralise a suspicious boat whose intentions are highly unlikely to be bona fide. There might be questions of international law and precedent, but they are subsidiary to national security.

What, then, should we make of this episode? First, The National Security Council must use the opportunity to review and streamline the process that begins with an intelligence input to action on the ground, on in the water as in this case. Credible media reports suggest that there were gaps and jumps. Second, the Coast Guard and the Indian Navy must review procedures pertaining to rules of engagement, and enhance training to handle such threats. In a book published two years ago, this blogger had argued that India’s maritime security forces are sailing deeper into an era of ‘violent peace’, and will see a rise in threats from unconventional mariners. Finally, as pointed out in the same book, the Indian government (and this includes the armed forces) need more sophisticated information strategies in order to acquire narrative superiority. In simple terms, this means acting in ways that avoid controversy.

MH370 and three worrying “ifs”

Implications for India’s diplomacy, national security and civil aviation policy.: my The Asian Balance column at Business Standard.

It was not until Wednesday, nearly four days after Malaysia Airlines flight MH470 was lost over South China Sea, that the Indian armed forces were activated into the search for the missing aircraft. This was well after the crucial first 48 hours and after President Pranab Mukherjee’s offer of assistance. Given that the Malaysian authorities knew — for Royal Malaysian Air Force’s primary radars had detected an aircraft heading towards the Andaman Sea — that there was a chance that the aircraft might have flown westwards, we wish they had requested Indian assistance much earlier.

In his press conference on Saturday, a week after the plane was reported lost, Najib Razak, Malaysia’s prime minister said that “(s)ince day one, the Malaysian authorities have worked hand-in-hand with our international partners – including neighbouring countries…(in the investigation)”, which only implies that the Malaysian authorities did not consider India a neighbouring country either. Given that he also announced the missing plane might have gotten anywhere from the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan border to northern Thailand—which implies overflight or landing on Indian territory — Kuala Lumpur’s lapse was terribly unfortunate.

The underlying message is that India’s Look East policy in general and the Indian navy’s sustained outreach near and across the Straits of Malacca in particular still leaves countries like Malaysia unpersuaded. There are reasons to believe that Malaysia is an exception, but Kuala Lumpur’s delay in roping in India is an indicator that New Delhi must redouble its diplomacy, messaging & capacity demonstration in East Asia.

The human tragedy of the uncertain fate of 239 passengers and crew on the aircraft is bad enough. The possibility that the flight might have entered Indian maritime space, passed undetected over thousands of kilometres of Indian territory or landed somewhere across our borders is disturbing.

From what we know at this time, the probability that the plane flew in India’s direction is only 50% (as there is an equal chance that it could have flown towards the southern Indian Ocean). The probability that it overflew the Indian landmass is lower than that, and that of a touchdown across India’s borders even more so. Even if the chances are very low, that one of the biggest aircrafts in the world might have passed undetected by our armed forces in the Andaman Sea and by both civilian and defence authorities over the mainland should worry us. Risk, after all, is a function of both probability and the potential loss.

The first of the three “ifs” concerns our military setup in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India’s only tri-service theatre command, it is “charged with the responsibility for the defence of the Andaman & Nicobar territories, its air space and waters.” If, and it is a big if, MH370 had indeed flown west or north-west across the Straits of Malacca, it went undetected by Indian military radars. That is a lapse. Admiral Arun Prakash, a perspicacious former navy chief, told the Washington Post that there are only two radars there, focussed on Indian airspace (not the Straits of Malacca) and might not be operate round-the-clock.

Given all the geopolitical turbulence in East Asia and intense naval activity in the vicinity of the Straits of Malacca, India cannot allow its south-eastern gates to be guarded only during daylight hours. If you can’t spot a lumbering elephant the chances are that you can’t spot quick brown fox either. If you miss a Boeing 777-200, you are likely to miss smaller, faster, lower-flying objects too. That’s not a good thing for national security.

The next government must review the capacity of the Andaman & Nicobar Command and allocate enough resources to ensure that our armed forces don’t miss the next bird.

The second “if” involves the missing plane approaching or flying over Indian territory undetected. Yes, the plane’s transponders had been turned off, and secondary surveillance systems wouldn’t have detected it — but how that aircraft could have evaded the many civilian and military primary radars across India is unfathomable. However, if (and note that this is a bigger “if”) it did pass undetected then not only are our air defences weak, our skies are more unsafe for civilian flight than we thought. Should subsequent developments raise the probability of this scenario, the management of our skies will need an urgent reappraisal.

Now for the third and most far fetched “if”. What if the plane was stolen and landed somewhere across our borders? Who might have stolen it and why? Given that there are some very bad answers to these questions, the far-fetchedness doesn’t diminish the risk to national security. Terrorism is political theatre, and if the plane had been hijacked, it makes little sense for the hijackers or their associates not to claim responsibility. One of the questions that leaves us with is what if stealing the plane was the first act of an unfolding drama? We should hope not, but as George Shultz said, hope is not a policy.

The internet is freest in US hands

Internationalising internet governance will abridge liberty and restrict free speech

Edward Snowden’s revelations have strengthened demands for “extricating the internet from US control.” This is not a new phenomenon. Ever since Jon Postel died in 1998, governments and non-government organisations have been engaged in a long, complex and meandering process of somehow taking control over the internet. However, while outfits like ICANN and assorted United Nations forums have gotten into the act of “internet governance”, much of the internet remains in US hands. China might well be the country that has more internet users, but it has locked its citizens behind the Great Firewall and effectively created its own national intranet.

Mr Snowden’s revelations are grave, but shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with national security issues or the communications infrastructure business. So while a lot of international reaction is properly in the Captain Renault (“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”) category, there are some attempts by governments to secure greater control over internet. China, Russia and Brazil are expected to raise the pitch in the coming months.

It would be terrible thing if they succeed. Whatever the imperfections, whatever the US government’s transgressions, we are better off with as much of the internet coming under the US Constitution than the UN Charter.

Why so? Because there is no better political system—the constitution, separation of powers, civil society and citizens—than the United States today that can protect liberty and free speech. Start with Mr Snowden. Where is Russia’s Snowden? Where is China’s Snowden? Where is Brazil’s Snowden? The United States has strong and vocal free speech and privacy advocates who can hold their government accountable without fear of harm. It has a judicial system that is sufficiently independent as to overrule the executive if found violating the US constitution. Despite what cynics in the United States and detractors around the world say, the US system works. To the extent that it does, it protects everyone’s liberties (albeit to a lesser degree than it protects the liberties of US citizens).

For those who contend that this isn’t good enough, consider the alternative. The vast United Nations system that is accountable to exactly no one. The General Assembly has almost two hundred nation-states as members with varying degrees of commitment to upholding liberty. The Security Council reflects the balance of interests its permanent members, where such paragons of free speech as Russia and China have a veto. Let’s say that the UN creates a brand new UN Internet Governance Council to sit at the helm of internet governance. What is to prevent it from going the way of the UN Human Rights Council, where you don’t need any commitment to human rights to be a member, and where you can rule that free speech shouldn’t defame religion.

Now, those who argue that national governments must control the internet because they must exercise their sovereignty over their ‘territory’ of cyberspace have a logical argument when they call for the internationalisation of internet governance. However, it is unfathomable why proponents of free speech and liberty would want the world’s authoritarian regimes to have a say on how the internet is governed.

Calls for “extricating the internet from US control” are effectively facades for authoritarian states to further abridge the liberties of the world’s citizens. That is why they must be resisted. Indians are much better off putting their faith in their freedom-loving American counterparts than participating in grandiose international internet governance schemes.

Cyber security to Cyber strategy

Plans and implementation

India’s National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) has announced a roadmap of action on the cyber security front, involving partnership with the private sector. (See the recommendations of the joint working group and related media reports)

In an op-ed in Indian Express I make two sets of arguments. The first set points out that the government has realised that it needs expertise from outside its cloisters to address contemporary policy challenges and must reform itself in order to be able to use it.

The second set distinguishes three aspects of information policy in the geo-strategic and national security context: cyber security, addressing physical threats that emerge from cyber space and finally cyber-strategy. Much of the emphasis in the government’s plan is on the first of the three. It ought to place adequate emphasis on the other two. Without debating and evolving a new balance on the bounds of government in cyberspace, it will be difficult to manage the threats that emerge from it. Without investing in intellectual inquiry into the fundamentals of cyber conflicts, it will be difficult to shape a cyber strategy that protects and promotes India’s national interests in the international arena. Also, India ought to be wary of both premature and delayed militarisation of cyber strategy. You can read the whole essay here.

Subimal Bhattacharjee’s op-ed in Mint presents another perspective. Mr Bhattacharjee argues that while institutionalising cyber security management in a joint working group under the NSCS is a good thing “the key point is the cohesive functioning of the permanent JWG and the implementation of these recommendations.”

Related Link: My Takshashila colleagues, Srijith Nair & Rohan Joshi responded to the draft national cyber security policy in May 2011.

What’s wrong with asking women to learn martial arts

A government that can’t prevent women from being molested on the streets is unlikely to do better against criminals and terrorists.

Excerpt from today’s DNA column:

Imagine the Indian Army begins to conduct training camps to train all of us on how to use firearms to defend ourselves against foreign attacks. Imagine they provide booklets on how to make grenades that you could throw at invading soldiers. Imagine the army chief saying that our soldiers can’t be expected defend every single part of the country, overstretched as they are, having to go abroad on UN peacekeeping missions, helping census officials, conducting elections, delivering humanitarian relief and constructing buildings for events like the Commonwealth games. Would we buy this logic?

Yet, this is precisely what we are doing with respect to our police forces. In the face of rampant sexual harassment of women (let’s not trivialise these crimes anymore by calling them ‘eve teasing’) the Delhi police force has decided to rely on D-I-Y methods. It is training women in self-defence techniques, martial arts and handing out pepper-spray recipes outside schools and colleges. Some may see these measures as practical and pragmatic, but they should worry us deeply. For they represent an abdication of the State from its fundamental responsibility – using its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence to ensure that there is rule of law. [Read the rest at DNA]

Risk of youth bulge unrest in India

The inaugural piece of my new fortnightly monthly column in DNA

Yesterday, I wrote about how to spot the next revolution. Demographics was one indicator. Specifically the existence of a youth bulge (young people constituting a large fraction of the total population) has been found to be correlated with high levels of unrest and violence.

“What about India?” many asked. At 26, the median Indian is not only older than the median Middle Eastern Arab, but will cross 31 by the year 2026. Rising opportunities, growing incomes, a hopeful mindset, democracy and freedom of expression mean that the chances of mass unrest are slim.

But it’s important not to be caught up with the good news in the big picture, for the macro data masks the variation at the micro level. In the first installment of my new fortnightly column in DNA, I argue that the data are serious enough for us to consider youth bulge violence as a long-term risk to national security, and that the time to take mitigatory steps is now.

The dark side of the demographic dividend: So demographics might partly explain why the countries of the Middle East are unstable, but why should it concern us? Well, because the youth bulge phenomenon might put at serious risk India’s ability to benefit from the celebrated “demographic dividend”. If reasonably healthy and reasonably educated young people do not find enough opportunities then India has an abundance of grievances available to agitate them. While the 15-24 population of India as a whole will peak this year and then decline over the next decade, there are many parts of the country where the age structure indicates the risk of youth bulge unrest.

…the data are sufficient enough for us to regard youth bulge violence as a long-term risk to national security. Going by the National Commission on Population’s projections to the year 2026, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi will experience a net increase in young people. The numbers in the 15-24 age group will grow in Bihar, Assam, Haryana, Uttaranchal, Jammu & Kashmir, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Gujarat. States that cannot both reduce grievances and create enough opportunities are likely to get into trouble. [DNA]

You should also look at Dilip Rao’s insightful post at Law and Other Things that I cite in my article.

The Filter Coffee – a new blog on The Indian National Interest

Perspectives on foreign policy, defence, strategic affairs and governance

Rohan Joshi joins us on INI with The Filter Coffee, a blog “dedicated to raising awareness of issues relating to foreign policy, defense, strategic affairs and governance so that India’s citizens can demand the accountability they deserve from their elected representatives on the pursuit of India’s national interests.”

Smell the coffee. Better still, sip it every day.

The change of NSA is a manifestation of deeper change

India’s national security reform is in the second stage

Going by most media reports, you will be forgiven for believing that M K Narayanan’s movement to West Bengal as governor has got entirely to do with an energetic home minister winning turf battles and the Congress party president going one up on the prime minister. Or even that he was removed for obstructing prime minister’s move towards a (US-brokered) deal on Kashmir. It is entirely possible that some of these reports are true. They are, however, more the consequences of the change, rather than the change itself.

That change—and the India media have missed it almost entirely (save honourable exceptions)—involves the revamp of the national security apparatus in the wake of the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008. The first stage was a relatively quiet series of administrative and operational changes introduced in the home ministry, intelligence agencies and related security forces. Home Minister P Chidambaram’s Intelligence Bureau Centenary Endowment Lecture was titled “radical restructuring of security architecture.” Restructuring in any organisation involves, shall we say, ‘staff movements’, the radical type even more so. Mr Narayanan’s departure and the appointment of a new NSA has to be seen in this light.

How should the NSA’s job description change? K Subrahmanyam makes the case:

The present model gives too high a profile to the NSA, and impinges on the effectiveness of his role.While Kissinger and Brzezinski had high profile roles and were innovators focussing on one policy (Kissinger on China and Brzezenski on Afghanistan), they were not the ideal NSAs for the system. In India, Brajesh Mishra was resented by most Cabinet ministers. Cabinet secretaries are not resented since they play a low profile role. Condeleezza Rice was a prima donna as the Secretary of State and so was Colin Powell. But they played a low profile role as NSAs.

For the new NSA , much of the executive role for intelligence will shift out of his hands and so also internal security management, which will shift to the revamped home ministry.But it is necessary to ensure that all intelligence inputs of DNI are routed to the PM through him. The NSA should continue to have his coordinating role in respect of internal security in order to apprise the NSC of the continuing developments in the internal security situation. Our cabinet system functions on the basis that each minister is autonomous in respect of his own jurisdiction.The NSC concept is based on the recognition that on national security, the ministries need to be coordinated and that responsibility vests with NSA. Shedding of various executive responsibilities and assuming an expanded coordinating role will make the NSA more effective and permit the PM to implement his strategic vision better.

Civil servants have a preference for hands-on administrative roles.The purpose of NSC is to function as a thinktank for the strategic advancement of the nation. Such visions have to come from the political leadership.The most important challenges currently facing India are the rise of China and the new industrial revolution consequent on climate change on the external front, and terrorism and problems of left-wing extremism, ethnic sessionism and good and effective governance on the internal front. For an NSA or NSC to tackle this, India needs more thinking and planning, and a hands-on administration. [IE]

That the UPA government is embarking on a radical reform of the national security architecture is to be welcomed. But to the extent the media focus is on the superficial politics, on ‘frontrunners for the position’ and on perceived turf wars, there is little public scrutiny of the actual reform itself.

Modelling the armed forces on the railways

Mountbatten, Ismay and their outdated legacy

My article in this month’s issue of Pragati, on reforming India’s national security policy, is titled “Start by burying Lord Ismay“.

But who was Lord Ismay and why does he need to be buried? Well, General Hastings Lionel Ismay was a British general and post retirement from the British Army, served as chief of staff to Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy to India.

In a article, Lieutenant-General (retd) Eric A Vas wrote:

Nehru, who was honest enough to admit that he knew little about military matters, left the setting up of the newly established defence ministry to Admiral Mountbatten and Lord Ismay. Nehru was advised by Mountbatten to organise the defence structure on the council system [each of the services having a council, composed of military staff] presided over by a politician and run very much on the lines of the Railway board, with military heads as chiefs of their respective service staff or boards. Under this system, there would be no need for a bureaucratic defence secretary [whoever hears of a railway secretary?] This would require the establishment of a Chief of Defence Staff to coordinate the three services at the defence minister level. But Nehru was unwilling to do that.

Lord Mountbatten has stated in a letter that ‘although Prime Minister Nehru agreed with me in principle, he said it would be difficult at this moment to get through the appointment of a CDS as it would give to the Indian politician the impression of perpetuating the idea of the great Commander-in-Chief in India. Lord Ismay and I worked hand in hand on these proposals but I thought it would come better from him than the constitutional Governor General as I then had become. He [Ismay] also tried to negotiate a CDS but met with the same opposition from Nehru and for the same reason.’ [Rediff]

The higher defence setup in India, therefore, was not only modelled on the Railway Board—even that model was not fully implemented. Nehru might have had his blind spots and valid considerations, but what is truly astonishing is that India has left the system substantially unchanged for the last 62 years.

No one can reasonably argue that a set-up that didn’t even work very well in the twentieth century will somehow be effective in the twenty-first. A comprehensive strategic review is in order: the structure, composition, role, service conditions and pay structure must be reviewed in the light of the twenty-first century strategic environment.

Expensive mistakes on national security

Yes, it was the UPA’s political persuasions that got in the way of fighting terrorists

On June 8th, 2004, the UPA government presented its programme in parliament, in the president’s speech:

My government is concerned about the misuse of POTA in the recent past. While there can be no compromise on the fight against terrorism, the Government is of the view that existing laws could adequately handle the menace of terrorism. The Government, therefore, proposes to repeal POTA. [IBEF, emphasis added]

In his address to the Governor’s Conference, on September 17th, 2008, four years and umpteen acts of terrorism later, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared:

The public debate on the issue of terrorism has, unfortunately, tended to get driven by politics, and has centered on certain laws enacted or repealed by Governments of different political persuasions. Our Government has no fixed, inflexible or ideological view in this regardWe are actively considering legislation to further strengthen the substantive anti-terrorism law in line with the global consensus on the fight against terrorism. [PMO, emphasis added]

Dr Singh’s sanctimoniousness, as usual, is gratuitous. If the issue with POTA was “basically (related) to the procedural aspects of investigation and prosecution of terrorism related offences”, and the need was to “address the apprehensions”, then surely repealing the entire act (instead of amending it) is not merely about the UPA government being wrong its view about the efficacy of “existing laws”. It is about a deliberate decision to subordinate internal security to political persuasions.

As for attributing the need to change to a global consensus, Dr Singh is on an even weaker wicket. That global consensus—to the extent that the term is even meaningful—was much stronger in 2004 than it is now. Even so, that Dr Singh should say—even for the purposes of saving face—that the ‘global consensus’ should determine India’s internal security policies reveals just how lost he and his government are on this subject. (Mercifully, he did not think that the global consensus on nuclear non-proliferation ought to determine India’s nuclear weapons policy)