Chasing the “bandicoot”: All tactics, no strategy, & a no change-regime (after Pathankot)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inspection tour of the Pathankot air base yesterday — the scene of the usual, snafu-ridden, effort to subdue the infiltrating JeM terrorist team, and his endorsement of his NSA Ajit Doval’s handling of the crisis situation (“Noted with satisfaction the decision-making and its execution, the considerations that went into our tactical response. Also noted coordination among various field units”) suggests that, as that song in ‘3 Idiots’ went — “Aaall is welll!!”, nothing needs to be changed.

Implicit then is the belief that because everything worked tickety-boo there is no requirement for reviving the anti-terrorism centre (National Counter-Terrorism Centre) as the central decision-making and coordinating agency, and for instituting SOPs (standard operating procedures) that would apply across situations so every agency with interest/jurisdiction hews to the same response plotline rather than each organization going off on its own or, as happened in Pathankot, standing down, doing very little, awaiting instructions, and being aware enough of Doval to not take initiative for fear of upsetting whatever plan he may have up his sleeve.

In the event, the Pathankot response was a meandering one, wasted valuable time, involved misuse of available resources — airlifting NSG troops rather than using the army units in the immediate vicinity as the cutting edge of the effort (with the Lt. Col. heading the NSG effort ignoring the obvious possibility of the JeM militants boob-trapping their bodies to increase adversary attrition post-their elimination and losing his life in the bargain).

Perhaps, it was silly to expect things would be different after this newest terrorist event. Or that Doval would suppress his RAW/IB “field agent’s” impulses and not insert himself centrally into the proceedings, forsake direct control of the unfolding event by not dispatching NSG rather than working with the proximal army unit through the army line of command, and hence being forced to share the credit, rather than monopolize it. Of course, the downside of this approach is what actually happened — the profusion of command and control mistakes, and the confused ops to flush out and corner the JeM jihadis that prevailed, which is being laid at Doval’s door.

True, Modi had no option than to back Doval and the manner in which the latter tackled the unraveling events. After all as PM, he cannot be expected to be conversant with national security matters in any great detail. Which is all the more reason for PMs to pick persons as NSAs who are conversant with the larger issues in the strategic context. The danger of appointing policemen or militarymen to the apex position is reflected, say, in General Pervez Musharraf’s Kargil adventure — commendable tactics, bad strategy. The negatives were apparent — and so analysed in my new book ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’ during another policman MK “Mike” Narayanan’s tenure as NSA to Manmohan Singh. Mike was mostly preoccupied with placing which policeman in what billet in RAW, IB, here and abroad, etc. When he did venture into the external realm, he ended up pushing the nuclear deal with the US to the detriment of the country’s thermonuclear pretensions and its deterrence stance.

Doval is more ambitious but his limitations are not dissimilar to Narayanan’s in that he believes every problem has a tactical, policing, small-time solution when, in fact, national security policy making should properly be concerned with an instinctive understanding of internal, regional and international developments that meshes with historical understanding of how circumstances may pan out. Doval has been nothing if not vocal. Hear his numerous videographed speeches on, and what you come away with are ideas that have been there in the public realm for a while but now packaged with lashings of Hinduistic ideology and Pakistan-bashing.

And that’s the whole problem right there in a nutshell, isn’t it? Beating up on Pakistan rhetorically and in public speeches, promising retribution, is good theatre but does not make for sustainable national security thinking and policy, not when China is right there, standing with a club in its hands while Delhi chases the local “bandicoot” and ruffles the scenery.

The more debilitating aspect of the Indian reaction to the more important undercurrents is to rely on Washington to “read the riot act” to Islamabad and get it to to respond appropriately. Can there be a more de-spiriting and national self-defeating response than this?

Deal with Pakistan on its own terms with relentless covert warfare actions. Don’t squawk and complain, and act the supplicant, and plead with America to bring the Pakistanis in line. Seeking out Washington’s help in absolutely any circumstances is what Delhi should not ever do because it hands Washington the leverage to use against India. India should take care of its business by itself — the one thing Delhi and Indian governments/political leaders since independence have not done nor, after repeated bad experiences, have learnt to do.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, China, China military, civil-military relations, Culture, domestic politics, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, guerilla warfare, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian democracy, Internal Security, Pakistan, Pakistan military, SAARC, society, South Asia, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Terrorism, United States, US.. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Chasing the “bandicoot”: All tactics, no strategy, & a no change-regime (after Pathankot)

  1. Shalesh jain says:

    Who can be NSA, considering no place for military or police officers?

    • Shaleshjain@ — should have written “most militarymen”. There are obviously some tremendously talented armed services officers, mostly former naval chiefs of staff who’d make great NSAs, for instance, Vishnu Bhagwat and Arun Prakash.

  2. Shaurya says:

    And civilians like Bharat Karnad! OK, if we can find theorists on the modes of Kissinger, who understand the theory and have been practitioners of power. Unfortunately, most ex – IAS do not fit the bill. Best to keep on rotating between ex-MEA, ex-Mil and Civilians. What is needed most NOW is someone who can build institutions for security or ensure the existing one’s work and are invested into.

  3. Bhumish Khudkhudia says:

    We inherited the defence framework from the British Empire. The Group of Ministers headed by LK Advani in 2001 recommended to change the defence architecture. Yet no action has been taken. What according to you are the odds of the Modi Government drastically changing India’s defence framework for better?

  4. As I have said earlier, Mr Modi seems to be a gradualist who believes in the system as-is and relies on the permanent secretariat of the same old babus running the show. So, every indication is change is going to be incremental.

    • Shaurya says:

      Agreed. A mandate wasted, if not changed. It is like a good, honest hard working person in power but without the tools to govern and transform a vexed inherited structure.

      I still think, ABV had a better team and a tall leader. If Modi can walk in his shoes – it will be magical with his political instincts.

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