Congress' Accusations Of Intel Failure Are Vacuous

The Congress party's response to the recent terrorist attack in Punjab was at once predictable and vacuous. Senior Congress leaders immediately criticized the government for an alleged "intelligence failure". This was predictable inasmuch as it has become almost de rigueur for the opposition to proclaim an intelligence failure after every major terrorist strike. Recall only the huge uproar on this score after the Mumbai attacks of 2008. It is vacuous insofar as the idea of an intelligence failure has been emptied out of all meaning. The very occurrence of an attack is apparently enough to prove that there was a failure of intelligence. This stems from a gross misunderstanding of the nature of intelligence and its role in countering terrorism. 

For starters, it is worth noting that most alleged failures of intelligence in our history have not been failures of intelligence collection. Post-mortems on events as different from one another as the Chinese attack of 1962, the Pakistani incursion into Kargil in 1999, and the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in 2008 have shown that the intelligence agencies had provided significant inputs in advance. The problems were usually in the domain of intelligence analysis and policy response. 

While it is too early to undertake a detailed assessment of the intelligence about Monday's attacks in Gurdaspur, it seems that the agencies did provide a string of inputs and warnings. Earlier this month, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) reportedly issued multiple warnings about threats to military installations in Jammu and Pathankot in the form of suicide attacks along the lines of what eventually took place in Dinanagar. An IB report apparently even warned of a Fidayeen group preparing to travel east from Gharota in Pakistan. Although there was no specific information on the possible target or the exact date of attack, these inputs were reasonable enough. They were certainly akin to what the agencies normally provide by way of credible intelligence. The simple fact is that most intelligence inputs are inconclusive.

In the wake of the attacks, it has also emerged that the agencies had intercepted some radio chatter about alternate routes to enter India, possibly through Punjab. It is easy to argue that the agencies should have "joined the dots" and predicted the attack. But this is simple only in retrospect: the dots can be joined in many different ways in prospect. We can be reasonably sure that if the agencies went back to their recordings of intercepts, they would find some chatter about infiltrating across other parts of the international border as well. 

There are several other reasons why predicting the eventual attack might have been difficult. Take just one of these. Intelligence is about figuring out the behaviour of another entity, which is also responding to your moves. This inter-dependent nature of intelligence can have paradoxical effects. The effectiveness of our response to earlier attacks along the IB (especially near Jammu) may have convinced the terrorists to move further South. Now, it could be argued that we should have anticipated this and beefed up security along the Punjab border. But this would have required diversion of resources. Moreover, the mere fact of our enhanced preparedness could lead the terrorists to drop the idea of attacking in Punjab. This, in turn, might have led us to reconsider the need for devoting security resources to Punjab in the absence of an attack. A lowering of guard on our part may then have set the stage for a terrorist strike. This is the paradox of the "self-negating" prophecy. The idea that we should be strong everywhere is nice in principle, but unworkable in practice. The unpleasant reality is that failures of intelligence and response may be unavoidable.

Similarly mistaken is the notion that every terrorist attack can be prevented. It is easy to proclaim - as our politicians are apt to do - that the state has zero tolerance for terrorism. As a normative idea, this is entirely correct. But in practice, all societies live with a degree of risk. In fact, eliminating all risk might entail transformations of a kind that we would not want. 

Consider an analogy. In a recent speech, the Prime Minister noted that there is a death in India due to road accidents every four minutes. Indeed, the number of victims due to such accidents far exceeds the lives lost to terrorist attacks. Can we drastically reduce the number of fatalities on our roads? Yes, provided we make 20 kilometres per hour the maximum speed limit, ask all vehicles to double the size of their bumpers and fenders, and announce ten years imprisonment for anyone who breaks these rules. The reason we don't adopt such steps is that they would almost bring our lives to a juddering halt. Similarly, complete elimination of terrorist attacks will require far-reaching changes to our lives and liberty. As in most public policy decisions, there are competing values in play.

This is not to make a case for complacency. Rather it is to suggest that instead of making unconstructive allegations about intelligence and security failures aimed only at scoring political points, it would be useful if the opposition got the government to focus on recurring problems such as poor weapons and equipment with the police, and the lack of proper coordination between the police and the army. It would also be useful if the government used this opportunity to re-examine our intelligence assessment capabilities - as opposed to our fixation on collection and sharing - and sought to improve the analytical skills in our system.

(Srinath Raghavan is Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi)

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