Lt.Gen Manoj Mukund Naravane, Vice-Chief of Army Staff and the Chief of the Army Staff designate, gladdened the hearts of intelligence operatives on December 21, by saying that the Indian armed forces owed their success to the contributions made by intelligence agencies.

“I dare say that none of our military operations would have been successful had it not been for the support we got from various intelligence agencies including the Research & Analysis Wing,” the General said while speaking in Pune during the release of a new book “R.N.Kao-Gentleman Spymaster” by veteran journalist Nitin Gokhale on the founder of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), our external intelligence agency.

But it was not always so. Intelligence agencies were blamed for the 1999 Kargil attack. “The Kargil Review Committee” had also concluded that no agency or individual “was able to clearly assess before the event the possibility of a large- scale Pakistani military intrusion across the Kargil heights”.

This writer had contested this conclusion at that time and said that it was not strictly a failure by individual agencies but the lack of intelligence “coordination and arbitration” by the National Security Council (NSC), which had met only on June 8, 1999, a month after the incursion was noticed. 

This is because intelligence agencies collect information on parallel tracks on a “need to know” basis in bits and pieces, not revealing the full picture, especially when the trends are short term like border skirmishes. On several occasions agencies produce incomplete or even conflicting reports.

For example, when I was in service, there was a dispute between RAW and military intelligence on the number of Chinese divisions in Tibet. Such issues can be settled only by an empowered “arbiter” who can access even unprocessed intelligence from different agencies and also to insist on feedback to bridge the gaps to complete the picture.

Strategic intelligence becomes “actionable” only after an alchemic process of collation, analysis, dissemination, arbitration, policy adjudication and decision making. That was why we had set up a highly powered NSC on 19 November 1998 as a full time think tank, intelligence arbitrator, policy adjudicator, decision maker and performance monitor.

The NSC should have started the process of coordination and arbitration by wider investigation when the initial driblets of Kargil incursion were received from May 3, 1999. Instead, it left it to individual agencies to operate on parallel tracks with none to “Stitch the seams” to evolve a holistic picture.

Such institutional failures have happened even in Western countries with older NSC systems. While the 1990-91 “Desert Storm” against Saddam Hussain operated with text book precision, the March 2003 Iraq War to effect “regime change” went into convulsions while facing insurgency after Saddam’s ouster, leading to severe acrimony between different organs of the US government, including intelligence agencies. 

In 1990 the CIA was able to issue alerts weeks before Saddam launched attack on Kuwait on 2 August. The Agency repeated this warning on 1 August too. After CENTCOM established its headquarters in Saudi Arabia, CIA deployed JILE (Joint Intelligence Liaison Element) teams as conduits for providing intelligence information to the deployed US forces.

Three maps of “Orbat” were supplied in October 1990 along with “key strengths and weaknesses” of Iraq ground forces, the locations of “Scud” missiles and Chemical & Biological weapons. “Streaming Intelligence” was supplied on the mine fields and location of “silkworm” anti-ship missiles.

It was the reverse in 2003. Former CIA Chief Robert Gates had to be recalled by President George W Bush to take over as Defence Secretary in December 2006 after severe controversies had rocked the Pentagon when Donald Rumsfeld was the Chief. His mammoth memoir “Duty” (2014) gives details how he had to undo many of the damages caused earlier.

What he does not mention was the colossal harm done to the established NSC system by Rumsfeld’s illegal spy agency “Office of Special Plans” (OSP) which had undercut CIA and Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) to influence White House decisions. Not too long ago we too had a similar experience.

The morale of the story is clear: Established protocols on relationship between the armed forces and intelligence agencies should not be tinkered with, unless approved after careful deliberation.