Questions of intelligence and deciphering hostile intent haunted the establishment in the aftermath of Kargil, and are doing so yet again in the recent India-China border clashes. Reports suggest that the first sighting of troop movement on the Chinese side of the Line of Actual Control came in mid-April, almost two weeks before Chinese and Indian soldiers came to blows. However, this intel never reached the Indian Army.
After Kargil, introspective studies had pointed to the rather dismal record of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), Intelligence Bureau (IB), Army Intelligence, diplomatic sources and the political wherewithal in 'reading' the brewing signs, genesis and the possible implications of Pakistani machinations. It had taken nomadic shepherds to give the first warning of a possible Pakistani intrusion, which then got recognised as a major initiative of the Pakistani Army to interdict the strategic Srinagar-Leh road, internationalise Kashmir, galvanise the mood of Kashmiri militants and also pander to the turf war between the politicos and the military establishment in Pakistan.
It was the heroics of the junior command and ranks of the armed forces, and especially of the Indian infantry units who defied militaristic ratios and mountain warfare logic to win the seemingly impossible. The national euphoria following the victory in Kargil unfortunately drowned the crucial and unmistakable failure of the intelligence collection, assimilation and dissemination to the concerned stakeholders. National sentiment and the political necessities of that time did not warrant such an embarrassing acknowledgement and the overall defiance-of-odds made possible by the steel of the military forces, saved the day for the intelligence framework.
There was undeniably a broader context of the geopolitical angularity to the Pakistani handiwork, and to that extent it was also a failure of preempting and comprehending the Pakistani instinct, by our diplomats and the political classes. Today yet again, similar questions linger about the efficacy of the intelligence inputs in the run-up to the clashes in the Galwan Valley.
That there are clear contradictions in the stated timelines of intelligence-sharing pertaining to the Chinese 'build-up' between the intelligence setup and army authorities themselves, tells a dismal story of misalignment.
There are broadly three possible intelligence concern scenarios. >First, that there was no substantial or actionable intelligence input at all " highly improbable, given the advancements of tech-enabled satellite images that are available to all, including to the military intelligence that has its own mechanisms. >Second, that there was adequate actionable information shared and there was no commensurate reaction to the same " absolutely impossible, given the dynamics and functioning of the military apparatus. >Third and perhaps most plausible, there was sketchy and delayed information (which is usually the case) that allowed the situation to drift towards disadvantageous positions and the subsequent clearances to take remedial action was challenged by politico-bureaucratic interventions and constraints.
The clarity on what really transpired may never be known and will remain a matter of conjecture as the establishment of the day may never allow the details of the same to come out, not just from the convenient standpoint of 'security concerns', but to hush up the inconveniences of the accompanying politico-bureaucratic-intelligence bungling. It is this standard spin-doctoring that manifested in the post-1962 analysis (the fate of the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report is a case in point) or in the more recent Kargil war. Clearly, some things went terribly amiss this time too and no amount of chronological glossing can stitch the narrative, as seamlessly, as is sought. There are contradictions by the political and institutional leaderships that are on record.
Importantly, the much-bandied 'breach of trust' by the Chinese is a matter of fact, but a wholly insufficient justification for the subsequent situation. The ostensible diversion of Chinese troops from a training exercise to the actual standoff sites, the carrying of crude and blunt weapons, or the infrastructure construction activity cannot be wished away to simply a 'breach of trust' " Doka La happened just a few years ago and the dominant impulse and strategic calculus of the Chinese ought to have been known.
On the Indian side, the usual summer practice of bringing brigades from the reserve division for exercises in the region " something that could have matched the Chinese buildup right at the start " did not take place owing to the coronavirus pandemic. And the subsequently buildup was rushed through. The Chinese moved as they always do, latching on to any tactical 'opening'. The initial Indian reactions to the Chinese moves as a 'routine happening', 'we should not read too much into it' or that they were not part of a 'bigger plan' are worrisome.
As in the Kargil situation where it was not just a tactical, operational or the usual cat-and-mouse move on the border, but a more substantial play of sovereign aspirations, the recent Indo-China breakdown needs to be understood in the same contextual sophistry that entails strategic clarity, thought and action from the Chinese playbook. Just as Doka La was not just about disputed borders with Bhutan, but about sending a certain message to Thimphu and New Delhi, the Galwan standoff is a chapter from the same book " one that should have been read fully.
The failure of 'intelligence' in question is not just from the institutional resources or the dissemination framework of the recently empowered National Security Advisor's Office, but about the overall lack of strategic culture (stripped of the political brouhaha) and appreciation of enemy 'ways' that needs to accounted for in the overall governance conscience and planning, including in the security realm.
It is this typical gap between political words and on-ground actions that has resulted in China taking over the sensitive project from India to construct the arterial railway line from Chabahar Port in Iran, owing to delays in the funding of the project from the Indian side. The thunder of India's strategic move in Iran could yet again have been compromised by Chinese swiftness, though now deliberately underplayed, by the Indian establishment. This too is part of a 'intelligence' concern and lack of strategic-culture that besets the Indian security framework " which rides more on jingoism and political passions, as opposed to cold strategic calls.
Nations act and react according to their topical and strategic urgencies that need to be consistently accounted for and attributing the failure to do so on account of any ostensible 'breach of trust', is simply naÃ¯ve and unacceptable, at best.
The author is a retired lieutenant-general and former military secretary to presidents KR Narayanan and APJ Abdul Kalam. Views expressed are personal