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Thursday, December 10, 2009

India caught in a terror tangle

India caught in a terror tangle
By Sreeram Chaulia
It is a year since terrorist attacks rocked Mumbai last November, yet the old maladies of inefficiency, turf wars, duplication and functional overlaps that have dogged the Indian national security establishment for decades continue to derail the state's capacity to prevent a repetition of such catastrophes. The Mumbai attacks began on November 26 and lasted until November 29, during which 10 militants killed at least 173 people and wounded at least 308. All but one of the attackers was killed; Pakistani Mohammed Ajmal Amir, alias Kasab, and two Indian co-defendants accused of helping plot the attacks have been charged with 12 counts, including murder and waging war against India. If convicted, all three could face the death penalty. A verdict is due soon. The ills in India's intelligence apparatus were highlighted recently when India's Home Minister P Chidambaram announced a new chief for the proposed National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) project for counter-terrorism. This is an ambitious venture to pool all data and information relating to a person - ranging from bank accounts, rail and air travel to income tax, telephone and Internet usage. Without being obtrusive, NATGRID is mandated to link 21 different databases for the access of 10 security agencies. While it sounds like an innovate idea that could enable the speedy detection and interception of security threats, NATGRID is symptomatic of the troubles plaguing India's divided state. It is the brainchild of the Home Ministry, which sees itself as a veteran in competition with the office of the National Security Advisor (NSA) for the prized position as the lead governmental node handling strategic issues. The NSA, which falls under the all-powerful Prime Minister's Office, already has under its aegis, since 2004, the National Technical Research Organization (NTRO) - a highly specialized technical intelligence-gathering "super-feeder agency" - to act as a clearing house for all other members of the security establishment. Modeled after the US National Security Agency, NTRO had until recently been dubbed "India's newest secret agency". Now, the Home Ministry's NATGRID, or one or other of the ever-mushrooming pet creations of the vast Indian bureaucracy, might vie for this honor as they build their own personnel, budgets and images. The Home Ministry has also just floated the idea of forming a National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC), again borrowing a leaf from the American book, although this new body would have major overlaps in terms of technology and processes with the pre-existing NTRO. In May, just after the ruling Congress-led coalition retained power in general elections, the politically heavyweight Home Ministry began advocating a new Centralized Lawful Interception and Monitoring System that would "monitor all communication traffic to tighten the country's security and surveillance set-up" and catch early warning signals of impending terrorist attacks. These tasks, again, were hitherto being managed by a full-fledged department of the NTRO. There have been 20 major terrorist strikes in India since 2001, including attacks by militants in Jammu and Kashmir and on parliament in New Delhi, as well as bombings throughout the country. Prior to last year's attack in Mumbai, the deadliest strikes was the bombing of several railway stations and trains in the city in July 2006, with some 180 people killed. In May 2008, bombs exploded in crowded markets outside Hindu temples in the popular tourist destination of Jaipur, killing at least 60. In August 2008, National Security Advisor M K Narayanan said that as many as 800 terrorist cells operated in the country. The domestic Intelligence Bureau (IB), which comes under the purview of the Home Ministry, has also been active in the area of Internet telephony and interception of potential terrorist conversations, adding to the plethora of trespassing mechanisms over and above the heads of existing entities. The IB is now readying for the establishment of a new counter-intelligence center under its supervision. NTRO has struggled in other intramural battles with its notionally allied organization in the labyrinthine state security apparatus, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India's external intelligence organization. The latter's failures in detecting Pakistani intrusions prior to the brief 1999 Kargil war had elicited criticism of its monopoly over foreign intelligence-gathering and culminated in calls to detach RAW's Aviation Research Center (ARC) and merge it with NTRO as a single super agency for technical intelligence. This handover has not been fully accomplished to date and continues to keep the scorebook of bureaucratic wrangling open with highly wasteful expenditure and possible national security costs. Often mocked as a "soft state" that has failed to rectify dysfunctional behavior, India can be better understood as a flabby state with far too many agencies, which work at cross-purposes and keep the structure unprepared and uncoordinated for the next potentially devastating blow of anti-national actors. The gaps and loopholes in the state's counter-terrorist response system have ironically grown with the proliferation of more and more agencies and projects. So bureaucratically dense has the web of competing interests and responsibilities within the Indian state become since the Mumbai attacks that the larger purpose of doing social good by advancing protection of citizens has been subsumed by a "me too" attitude in which everyone and anyone who has some clout within government will press a finger into the pie. In this game of bureaucratic politics, who gets which piece of the cake in terms of influence and counterbalancing "pull" (a uniquely Indian term referring to leveraging power) has overshadowed the core mission of finessing state responses to multifarious threats. Indian's melee of multiplying committees, bodies and agencies scarcely boosts the average citizen's confidence that he or she can be safer after all the revamps and "shakeups". A state is not a monolith but a vast constellation of loosely allied institutions, organizations and centers of power. Visualized from the summit or the apex, the state reproduces itself like hydra into smaller ramifications that carry the seal of sovereignty into the spaces that are inhabited by citizens. The give-and-take between these state agencies and the public is theoretically based on mutual trust and need. Unfortunately, the one-upmanship games bedeviling the Indian security structure have not done justice to this quid pro quo, which lies at the heart of contemporary political life. One pattern emerging from the mess of the flabby Indian state is the attempt of its top echelons to emulate the United States in terms of merging, refurbishing or creating anew specialized agencies to tackle emerging security risks. What Indian policymakers may have missed in the process of learning lessons from the US is that the latter has been historically bogged down with the same severe symptoms of bureaucratic politicking. The legendary tussles over policy and privilege between secretaries of state and national security advisers (William Rogers vs Henry Kissinger during the Richard Nixon administration, Cyrus Vance vs Zbigniew Brzezinski under president Jimmy Carter), as well as between the dovish secretary of state Colin Powell and the neo-conservative defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in the George W Bush presidency, have hatched countless instances of bungling and failure. Currently, the US intelligence family is trapped in serious internecine squabbles, with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) locking horns with the Director of National Intelligence over rights of appointment of operatives in some foreign cities. US Vice President Joseph Biden intervened on behalf of the CIA, but the fight is still on, according to a Time magazine scoop. Foreign Policy magazine reported in November that the State Department and the Pentagon are now waging "a full-fledged fight over money" for foreign aid and security assistance programs. From available open sources, it is also evident that the CIA is battling the ultra-secretive National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which builds and operates spy satellites. NRO's ex-inspector general is suing some senior CIA officials with claims that they conspired to remove him from his office due to a "personal vendetta" - a throwback to over a decade of institutional jousting and stepping on one another's toes. The Indian and American examples of disarrayed security systems suggest that most states (especially democratic ones) are prone to infighting and reinvention of the wheel and that nothing really can be done to repair this intractable structural disorder. But simply recognizing the "nature of the beast" and moving on does not cure the core illness of flabby states and leaves citizens highly vulnerable to terrorist attacks. In India, ultimately, it is incumbent on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has overriding authority, to intervene to set the cacophonous security house in order before it is too late.
Sreeram Chaulia is associate professor of world politics at the OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat, India. (Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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