Is R&AW really better than Pakistan’s ISI? The jury is still out

Former R&AW chief AS Dulat’s recently published memoir, 'A Life in the Shadows', highlights the absence of a national security doctrine or strategy and Indian establishment’s obsession with Pakistan

A.S. Dulat, a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), India's premier spy agency
A.S. Dulat, a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), India's premier spy agency

Aakar Patel

In concluding his chapter on intelligence agencies and their manner of functioning, former RAW chief AS Dulat wrote in his recent book that RAW is ‘pretty good, better than the ISI’. He left it at that, without explaining in what way and it would be interesting to learn how he arrived at this conclusion.

To know whether something is good, bad or indifferent one must first ask what it is intended to do. What are the outcomes that are sought to be achieved? For the ISI, it has been two things.

First, to tie down its giant neighbour so that the military and economic asymmetry is neutralised. Second, that it control its western neighbour through proxies. That is to say that primary national security objectives of Pakistan were tasked in large measure to the intelligence agency.

If it is possible for one to be a dispassionate observer in this matter, it appears that both the desired outcomes have been achieved by the ISI; indeed, achieved so comprehensively that they have managed to get to the minds of the adversary and switch off his thinking, as Dulat’s book reveals, and as I wrote about in this column last week.

Is R&AW really better than Pakistan’s ISI? The jury is still out

To draw a comparison, we must first know this: What are the outcomes RAW seeks to achieve? This is not clear because we have no national security doctrine or national security strategy. A ‘defence planning committee’ under the current national security advisor Ajit Doval was tasked five years ago to write up the doctrine and strategy; but the committee has not done it yet.

While we have not defined what the threat is in terms of doctrine, we know who the enemy is by instinct. Addressing his first combined commanders conference in October 2014, the Prime Minister said ‘the threats may be known, but the enemy (terrorism) may be invisible’.

His NSA has spoken of, though not written about, something referred to as the Doval Doctrine. It also identifies Pakistan as the national security threat and terrorism as the primary problem. His solution is to do to the enemy what the enemy does to you, though he does not reflect on what that might mean in the long term.

To be clear this focus on terrorism is not just about the current government. Going back to 1990, the Indian state determined that Kashmir was where its national security strategy would be centred. The army raised units called Rashtriya Rifles which would focus on counterinsurgency rather than on war. The Line of Control and bits of the international border were fenced off in a defensive act.

The intelligence agencies would be focused on counterterrorism. As head of RAW, Dulat refused to let go of the Kashmir portfolio he held in the Intelligence Bureau. Why the agency tasked with external intelligence (spying on other nations) was intruding into the space of the agency working on internal intelligence (tasked with internal security) is not explained. But it doesn’t have to be. For the entire Indian state apparatus, Kashmir and Pakistan were the obsessions.

This has been rudely taken apart by happenings on the eastern front. Till the clash in Galwan in 2020, out of India’s 38 divisions only 12 faced China, while the rest were ranged against Pakistan. Today 16 divisions face China with more on the way. We have been yanked into a military posture that is conventional again. India has been compelled to do this against its will though there is of course no media uproar over why we were wasting time obsessing over the wrong thing.

For decades, instinctively and in a sort of primitive manner India showed laal ankh to Pakistan. Years of refusal to engage with either the insurgents or the separatists mean that we no longer have a meaningful intelligence game in Kashmir; and of course, we have no agency to act either except through force.

It is disappointing that this is how a democracy and a modern state responded but it is not surprising. Obsessing over something but also refusing to deal with it is a strange paradox but understandable if one is familiar with the Indian psyche as it has evolved on the communal question.

Refusal to hire minorities, and especially Muslims, has in all likelihood also affected counterintelligence and espionage and operations capabilities. How many individuals in RAW and IB have sufficient knowledge of Urdu and Pashto (or Mandarin)? It would be interesting to know.

Dulat’s book tells us that the approach by intelligence agencies including RAW followed that of the military. In the absence of defined threats and a national security doctrine, the system fell into a sort of sleepwalk mode. The political establishment and the media enthusiastically barked up the wrong tree.

Building intelligence capability now to counter our primary threat — China — will not be easy. We will need to write the doctrine and the strategy and that will not be easy for a government that prefers certitude over doubt.

It will require above all for the nation to be weaned off the ideas that the problem is terrorism and the adversary is Pakistan and the belief that the current policy in Kashmir is meaningful or sustainable. None of this is of course going to happen.

For this reason we will bumble along till forced to do something or compelled. The light that Dulat shines on the state of affairs is at once bright and illuminating but also depressing and scary.

(Views are Personal)

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