July 23, 2007Security

Why oh why can’t we have better defence reporters?

Deterring external threats and combating domestic insurgents are two equally important tasks

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Ajai Shukla, NDTVs defence correspondent and a former Indian army colonel, argues that Indian defence is dysfunctional. That’s because, he says, the armed forces are geared towards invading a medium sized country’ while the real threat to India’s security comes from terrorism and insurgencies. So he applauds a recent speech by Defence Minister A K Antony, who stated that India’s greatest security threat is not Pakistan, China, or nuclear weapons, but the difficulties of meeting the aspirations of all of India’s citizens at a time of rapid modernization.”

Like the pre-Iraq Pentagon and Whitehall, India’s establishment still believes that if the military has credible state-versus-state war-fighting capability, everything else will follow. Most weapons purchases in the pipeline are platforms needed for all-out war…You’d think that India’s last two decades of counterterrorism operations have been a brief interregnum before the military gets on with its primary task of invading a medium-sized country. [WSJ/Broadsword]

The amount of confusion in Shukla’s article is astounding, for he misses the fundamental reason why the Indian armed forces must always be prepared to fight conventional wars—deterrence. It is naive to think that the age of conventional state to state wars are over, just seven years after Kargil. If a conventional state to state war is inconceivable’ today, it is because the military balance is stable. But the balance of power is dynamic and changes over time. It is necessary, therefore, to invest in maintaining this balance. So purchasing modern aircraft, missiles, ships and submarines is not misdirected at all. Rather, it is essential to ensure strategic stability along India’s borders and in the Indian Ocean region. It is unfathomable how Shukla could make such an argument when China’s military modernisation is worrying defence planners as far away as in Washington.

One might expect such an experience to orient a country’s security forces toward counterterrorism, as in the case of Israel. Not so in India, a rising power deeply uncomfortable with acknowledging disaffection and alienation among its own people…Strategy has followed the “foreign-hand” rhetoric. India’s military has directed its energies towards the external rather than the internal threat. Of two million men in uniform, barely 5,000 are counterterrorism specialists.

The argument that Indian armed forces must be refocused towards counter-insurgencies at home is faulty. There is no question that terrorism and insurgencies are major threats to national security. But Shukla’s argument—that the armed forces must focus more on domestic battles rather than deter external aggression—is absurd. India needs to do both. More importantly, as The Acorn has consistently argued, the Indian armed forces must not be called upon to fight their own, albeit disaffected compatriots. It is for good reason that many central paramilitary forces are housed under the home ministry, and not the defence ministry.

(In any case, the UPA government’s approach towards this is confused: on the one hand it wants to abolish the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act that empowers the army to fight armed separatists and insurgents. On the other it wants to involve them in more such operations.)

If its forces are prevailing in the struggle against separatist, left-wing and jihadist movements, this has less to do with equipment and training than with the sheer manpower that the Indian state can deploy: some 1.2 million soldiers and 750,000 paramilitary troops today

While Indian forces fighting terrorists and insurgents could do with upgrades in equipment and technology, it does not change the underlying fact that counterinsurgency is largely a numbers game. As America’s unhappy experience in Iraq shows, defeating insurgents requires boots on the ground and sound heads over shoulders. Moreover, in India’s economic context, labour is relatively more abundant than capital. So it is reasonable that the armed forces will be manpower-intensive. If India is prevailing in its battle against terrorists and insurgents due to the sheer manpower” it can deploy, then that’s in the nature of things.

India’s counterterrorism strategy also suffers from misdirected intelligence gathering. India’s intelligence agencies have successfully infiltrated the decision-making elites of each one of its neighbours. But there has been little infiltration, either through human sources or electronically, of today’s terrorist cells run by radicalized educated professionals.

Shukla blames this external focus for being caught by surprise on the London/Glasgow botched bombings as an example. He also claims that Indian intelligence has failed to apprehend the culprits behind any of the recent terrorist attacks in Indian cities. Here Shukla is clearly attempting to adjust facts to fit his thesis. It is becoming clear that the London/Glasgow plot was the handiwork of a self-radicalised group, with very loose links to major jihadi outfits. That’s why everyone missed them. And that’s probably why they missed their targets too. And as for failure to apprehend the culprits behind the Delhi, Mumbai, Varanasi and other bombings, surely, Shukla can’t be unaware that the UPA government deliberately reined in police and intelligence agencies out of a concern that arresting Muslims would hurt its votebank.

Defence Minister A.K. Antony signalled an important shift in India’s security perceptions from external threats to the internal issues that breed terrorism: communal confrontation, sub-nationalism and lack of governance.

Finally, there is nothing to cheer about in Defence Minister’s A K Antony’s speech that India’s greatest security threat is the difficulties of meeting the aspirations of all of India’s citizens at a time of rapid modernization.” Those are challenges of governance, public policy and maintenance of law & order. While those are no doubt challenges for the Indian government, it would be imprudent for the defence ministry to go about trying to solve those problems. A K Antony should not try to do the incompetent Shivraj Patil’s job.

The task for the armed forces, and by extension the defence ministry is cut out: to ensure that Indian military power creates a stable and peaceful environment without which there can be no development.

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