Evolving a robust national security doctrine

In a tweet unbecoming of any professional armed forces’ disciplinary etiquettes, the Pakistani Inter Services Public Relation DG had praised actor Deepika Padukone for ostensibly “standing with youth and truth.” While the tweet was deleted afterwards, this seemingly gratuitous applause reveals the extent of threats to national security from sources which are nefariously committed to a multi-dimensional assault on our nation. The “youth” in reference here were protestors against a democratically enacted law— the Citizenship Amendment Act.

Why was the official spokesperson of the Pakistani Armed forces praising their action and those who stood with them? Since the CAA is a municipal law which is in no way inimical to the existence of Pakistan, the only plausible reason is that our implacable neighbour does not want to let go of any opportunity to sow chaos and disaffection in the country.

As professionals committed to upholding national security, we see a very different world in comparison to civilians— a world that requires us to be ahead of both veiled and overt threats. I remember a speech made by the character “M” in the movie Skyfall that captures our sentiments accurately. In that speech M identifies that “our enemies are no longer known to us, they do not exist on a map… our world is not more transparent now, its more opaque, its in the shadows and that’s where we must do our battle. ”Therefore, today the concept of national security is multi-dimensional wherein a compelling doctrine is warranted to ward off threats from pandemonium-inducing bad actors. The old paradigm of ‘external security’ as distinct from ‘internal security’ meriting differential approach by different agencies is redundant.

The Purulia arms drop incident is a case in point. When the arms found their way into the hands of common but hardened criminals who used them for acts of criminal violence without triggering external security flags overtly, it became clear that security can no longer be regimented into notional boundaries of internal security and external security.

Tackling Sharp Power

Dr. Joseph Nye had coined the term “soft power” in 1990, wherein a nation uses its political and cultural values to advance its foreign policy objectives. Of late, India’s soft power coupled with its burgeoning hard power has moved it closer to its goal of becoming a steward of global commons— a role which had traditionally been the exclusive domain of western powers. Three decades later, two analysts (Ludwig and Walker) have identified a worrying trend that many nation states are exercising, writ large with a view to erode soft power of their rivals and create fissures in the global order. They refer to this trend as “Sharp Power” wherein unscrupulous nations like China and Pakistan are increasingly using disinformation with the help of mass communication technological tools to disrupt news cycles, change perceptions and indoctrinate the youth. With this dimension added to national security, its entire paradigm has changed. We are faced with myriad of threats ranging from ceasefire violations on the Western borders to salami slicing on Northern borders to active and passive encouragement to insurgencies in the North-East to cyber attacks on our commerce to misinformation that causes disaffection towards the State. Even the homegrown Maoist insurgency is often found to be seeking support from outside the country as much as from within from sympathisers as far afield as Delhi and Mumbai.

To address this problem, the Government took a monumental decision by banning 59 Chinese apps that ostensibly threatened India’s sovereignty and national security. For example, a seemingly innocuous app called CamScanner was being used widely not only by individuals but also many organisations both in private and public sector. Many a government functionary would generate near-scanner quality pdf documents of official documents using this app not necessarily realising how susceptible it is for misuse. With the advances in computing capacities and ability of the modern systems to handle multiple petabytes of data and process the same using data analytics or even AI, the entire country can be at risk if an enemy gains access to discernible patterns of a nation’s security, business, monetary and demographic strategies.

Cyberattacks emanating from Pakistan and China are becoming more commonplace. Even defacing of government webpages is done with a symbolic intention. It conveys the impression to the public that the government cannot be trusted to maintain its own digital assets, while the truth is that any nation has these vulnerabilities but also has necessary safeguards to detect and rectify the same before any palpable damage is done. Such attacks can be from sources which are untraceable to any known geographical location. Within the country the security regime has to contend with not only direct and indirect threats to people and crucial installations but also against agent provocateurs who can spread at best rumours and fake news but, increasingly, widespread disaffection based upon systematic creation of false narratives. The recent countrywide agitation against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act is a prime example, where discussions at many levels were used to rake up old fears and insecurities in certain sections of the people and opportunistic bad actors attempted to vitiate the atmosphere by indulging in violence and pursuing seditious motives. A vast and diverse country like India which constitutionally devolves power to the people through democratic process from the national to the panchayat level will necessarily be an open society. Openness is the biggest strength of governance and is always the biggest target for enemies of the society. It is, therefore, important to empower the society with reliable information to enable the populace to form an informed opinion. The operative word here is informed opinion and not shouting matches that go on in the TRP-driven audio-visual media. This is itself is not a panacea and our evolving strategy needs to invest in technological tools to detect and thwart such acts of information warfare effectively.

The Uncivil NGO Lobby

Self proclaimed “public-spirited” civil society groups have often been seen to be working covertly against the extant system of government, irrespective of who is in power. They have seductively crafted names seeking to convey their role as champions of the downtrodden but many have access to resources from nefarious interest groups. Many of these groups have also been captured, with direct evidence, by those who are known sympathisers of seditious elements.

In fact, one of the recommendations made by the Financial Action Task Force relates to the potential for misuse of non-profit or non-governmental organisations. Research of links between NGOs and apparent front companies engaged primarily in import-export operating across different jurisdictions along with linkages with other significant sources with other criminal offences revealed three primary models of misusing humanitarian organizations to support terrorism using typical money laundering methods: – a terrorist infiltrates an organization, as an activist, lecturer, organizer or distributor and then gains the trust of the leaders and takes over the organization – an office of the organization supports terrorism in some country without the knowledge of its headquarters – the entire organization supports terrorism.

The outcomes provided an insight into the relative ease with which suspect terrorists and terrorist organisations from several jurisdictions gained access, set up organisations and networks and almost at will frequently disappeared and resurfaced in different jurisdictions. Despite this knowledge, evolving adequate indicators or red flags from the financial analysis perspective poses a major problem and even FATF is struggling to evolve viable global standards for tackling the problem of leakages here as the sheer quantum of NGOs in most jurisdictions along with multiplicity of regulatory authorities and funding sources frustrates any meaningful oversight. While a ready solution would be in terms of more stringent audit procedures, emotive issues involving perceptions of religious and other biases often complicate this in several countries. India recognises this threat but needs to develop more focused regulatory standards for NGOs that strikes a right balance between national security and free speech.

Feeding on Misplaced Fears

In addition to direct action by such groups a more sinister method adopted by some is to create societal tension in the name of “rising intolerance” by creating an entire ecosystem of insecurity based on false narratives.

India can ill-afford breakdown of social cohesion to satisfy the egos or lust for power. National interest has to be paramount. A generally acceptable paradigm on what constitutes national interest and what threatens national security is required more so than ever. An interesting quote in this regard comes from the former Nepali Minister and currently opposition Parliamentarian, Minendra Rijal, who is reported to have said, “I’m one of his (PM KP Oli’s) fiercest critics but my opposition to him ends at Nepal’s international borders.” This statement underscores the primacy of national interest unbridled by ideological leanings.

Our dissenters need to exercise the same degree of circumspection. The governments and their allied machinery in Pakistan and China are today so quick to attempt to drive a wedge between the government and voices in opposition by extensively quoting all statements of the latter which are directed against the PM in the context of bilateral relations between the nations and even on domestic issues. Let there be no doubt that they do so not for love of any section of Indian society but to nurture saplings of resentment in our society. The famous speech of former Prime Minister Late Atal Bihari Vajpayee recounting how the then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao had asked him to represent India in Geneva to put forth the nation’s case and how everyone has a constructive role to play for the country is a pointer to national interest being paramount.

Towards a Doctrine of Pre-Emption

Another aspect of national security that requires deeper deliberation is the ability to take pre-emptive coercive action against the enemy. Balakot and the surgical strikes, though audacious, were still punitive actions in response to below the horizon aggression. Doklam falls in the realm of speedy pre-emptive action. The only way to respond to Pakistan’s thousand cuts policy is to consolidate our strategic response capabilities premised on pre-emptive strikes against terrorist outfits. China is different yet, not unassailable or indomitable. After all, the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu had said, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

India is recognising the need for an integrated approach towards national security that challenges conventional theories and practices. The institution of the National Security Advisor seeks to provide such support to the government. In the context of recent events in Eastern Ladakh, both the MEA and the MOD have been speaking in distinctly similar language. These actions demonstrate a maturing of the doctrine of National Security. We need to evolve this doctrine further to address national interest dimensions in ICT, commerce and economics. There is no escaping the need for multidisciplinary security set up under the NSA, which can identify risks in advance and deploy covert and overt capabilities to decimate such threats. Similar unity of purpose and expression requires to be adopted by citizens. Debate and discussion are the hallmark of a vibrant democracy. Informed criticism is also a sign of an alert citizenry; but pedantry and scoring points is not.