In intelligence, perils of poor judgement - Hindustan Times
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In intelligence, perils of poor judgement

Apr 30, 2024 11:13 PM IST

The Pannun plot was an instance of overreach and misjudgment. But its aftermath reflects the strengths and depth of India-US ties

According to The Washington Post, Vikram Yadav was the mid-level Indian intelligence official who allegedly directed the alleged plot to assassinate Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, the terrorist that the United States (US) and Canada have awarded their citizenship. Western intelligence agencies also believe that the then Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) chief Samant Goel approved the plot.

US NSA Jake Sullivan with Indian NSA Ajit Doval(HT File)
US NSA Jake Sullivan with Indian NSA Ajit Doval(HT File)

The report excavates more details, from the western perspective, of a storyline that has now been known since the end of last year. The Indian government — either due to its political instinct that incentivises a certain aggression; or due to the spike in Khalistani activity; or due to the constellation of actors from Punjab that dominated R&AW under Goel; or due to a political-security assessment after the 2020-2021 farmers’ protests that Khalistanis abroad had gained the ability to shape domestic political events — decided that these extremists posed a direct threat to India’s security.

Either because it was frustrated by the unwillingness of western law enforcement to take action, or due to a prior assumption that western law enforcement would not take action, a segment of India’s security apparatus decided to respond to this threat through extra-territorial action without exploring all diplomatic options.

At the very least, Indian agencies were enmeshed in the diaspora networks of extremism and criminal networks, as any smart intelligence agency must be to get political or operational intelligence or even keep a pathway open for future political dialogue. The line between what is official and unofficial, legal and illegal, intelligence collection and intelligence operation is almost always blurred and every intelligence agency, including the Central Intelligence Agency, operates in this grey zone.

But it appears that the Indian agencies weren’t just in touch with criminal networks or aware of the world in which the Khalistanis operated outside. The American (and Canadian) allegation is specific. India went a step beyond to directly seek to eliminate what it saw as threats through action that clearly violated the sovereignty of a partner country. Encounter killings within one’s country aren’t acceptable, but they assume a deeply offensive character when attempted outside one’s country.

If these allegations have merit, then it is a story of Indian overreach. No cost-benefit assessment can justify plotting to kill a Khalistani terrorist in New York when weighed against the enormous value of the US-Indian strategic partnership. It is a story of Indian incompetence. Serving and retired intelligence officials, in private conversations, have said that if true, they were stunned by the shoddiness of the operation, both in its conception and execution. It is a story of Indian hubris. Yes, they admitted, the western world does this too, but hypocrisy is the fundamental feature of the international system, power determines your ability to preach one set of norms and practice another, and India isn’t powerful enough to play this game outside its immediate neighbourhood just yet. And it is a story of Indian misjudgment, they reasoned, listing out the damage: Delhi’s carefully constructed international reputation as a responsible power externally has taken a blow at the very time its reputation as an internally robust democracy is under strain; it is unfairly getting clubbed together with countries that practice “transnational repression”; and it has given a coalition of actors from Chinese and Pakistani proxies in western capitals to ideological critics of the Indian government a key issue to campaign around.

But having said all this, three elements of the episode stand out.

For one, the fact that neither Washington nor Delhi allowed this issue to interrupt bilateral ties is a remarkable testament to the strength of the Indian-US relationship, the level of trust that exists between the top political leadership, the openness and candour with which discussions happen, and the ability of both governments to remain laser-focused on the big strategic challenge and threat of the times: China.

The striking feature of this story is not that the US is unhappy. The striking feature is that the White House has been aware of the issue since at least last July, yet the American political leadership maturely decided to compartmentalise the issue from the rest of the relationship. It has sought accountability from India and warned, in explicit terms, that this must never recur. But Joe Biden and his team have continued to support India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s diplomatic ambitions (think the G20 in September), India’s ability to cope with China (military intelligence-sharing continues; high-level diplomatic and security exchanges have only deepened; defence deals are on track), India’s wider integration into the western institutional apparatus (think of something as mundane but critical as India participating in the Minerals Security Partnership), and India’s quest to be a high-technology power (think of the continued work on the initiative on critical and emerging technologies in general and space and semiconductors in particular).

Two, this also suggests that those who run foreign policy in America are aware of who within the Indian system knew about the operation — and all indications are they don’t think National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was among them. Even the Post report hedges its bets in the case of attributing responsibility to him; there is no evidence at all to link India’s topmost national security leadership to this excess.

Top American officials have indicated to this writer that at the exact time this operation was being planned in June, they were struck by Doval’s remarkable work with his counterpart, Jake Sullivan, in deepening the strategic relationship during Modi’s State visit. US officials appear incredulous that Doval would have done anything to undermine bilateral ties given what was at stake, especially with an operation of this quality and nature. Tellingly, Sullivan and Doval have continued to maintain this relationship of trust and engagement and discuss developments in every global theatre with candour. The US system also accepted the legitimacy of a Doval-led committee to investigate the allegations, another marker of trust.

And finally, the story isn’t over yet, for the US demand to see legal accountability fixed in this case is colliding with India’s willingness to take internal administrative action but probably go no further. More broadly, there will continue to be reputational consequences for India in the wider public sphere in the West even if systems are more closely aligned than ever before. But what is critical is that India learns the right lessons, proceeds with a careful set of intelligence reforms and exercises more discerning judgment to deal with threats outside the borders especially at a time when its actions are under much higher scrutiny.

The views expressed are personal

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