Thousands of miles separate the Iranian desert from Abottabad in Pakistan. It took the Americans a little over two decades to cover this distance and come into their own. Few will remember how the U.S Special Operations Forces (SoF) went into Iran in 1980 to rescue hostages from the U.S Embassy in Tehran. The area where the U.S SoF would land and launch their rescue was code-named Desert One and this is where Operation Eagle Claw became an unmitigated disaster.
As the U.S SoF lost their way in Desert One, their helicopters began to crash into each other and the Hercules 130 carrying the SoF returned back to base. The operation cost President Carter his bid for a second term in the White House and eventually led to the major reforms in the U.S military. After a comprehensive study by Admiral James L Holloway III, the U.S Congress began the road to a major restructuring of Pentagon. Born out of that failure was the Goldwater-Nichols Act and a few years later senators Sam Nunn and William Cohen added an amendment to that Act which ended up re-organising the Pentagon. This amendment was the birth of SOCOM, the U.S Special Operations Command.
On May 1, as a crack unit of the elite US Navy S.E.A.L.S went into Abottabad, they were covering a massive distance, both in terms of time and history. They were going in to get Osama, usually referred to as “UBL” (The Americans insisted in calling him Usama-Bin-Laden). This operation was the culmination of an effort that began more than a decade ago in a small windowless room.
Room 1W01 was a window-less room four stories underground in the central Intelligence Agency’s new Headquarters Building. Designated as ‘Alec Station’ it was a sub-division of the CIA’s counter-terrorism efforts to “find, track, capture or kill Osama Bin Laden.
While the U.S SoF was busy learning from the mistakes of Op Eagle Claw, the American intelligence community was in the throes of change. The Indians had surprised them by conducting nuclear tests in may 1998 and a man known as Osama Bin Laden had launched a series of attacks against their warships and embassies across the world. The cold war was long over and the emergence of non-state actors like Osama was giving them nightmares.
When Alec Station was born, it created a stir within the U.S intelligence community. They, like their brethren across the world, hated anyone to encroach on their well-protected turfs. Alec Station was an attempt to demolish walls and ensure a turf-free task force that could hunt down “UBL” and then bring him home. Ironically it was Alec Station that received the first reports on the coming attack on the World Trade Centre. But it also became complicit because of its inability to share the information in real time.
By late December 1999 the National Security Agency (NSA) had picked up intercepts that indicated that the Al-Qaeda was meeting in Malaysia -- it involved 11 people who were planning a possible attack on the United States of America. The report, pointing out that one of the terrorists had a multi-entry visa to enter the United States of America, landed up at the desk of Doug Miller, one of the three FBI officials who were on loan to Alec Station. Ideally, Miller’s report should have travelled to his parent cadre, the FBI, but didn’t. The FBI was in a position to ensure that an alert was issued to all immigration authorities. They could have also issued a country-wide alert to all concerned agencies that could track the movements of any possible terrorist threat emerging within the country and connected to the information already available to Alec Station.
But the report never went to the FBI. It stayed within Alec Station and was soon forgotten in the mass of data that would stream into the station on an hourly basis. On hindsight, as the 9/11 Commission began to delve into the details of the intelligence available to the various security agencies before 9/11, they discovered that enough was available to prevent the attack. But key procedural failures prevented key officials from connecting the proverbial dots. As the airplanes crashed into the World Trade Centre on 9/11, the face of terrorism and its potency changed forever.
Seminal moments in the history of the intelligence community are few and far between. Failures, when they occur, are usually spectacular. Clearly, the U.S intelligence community and its associated security agencies failed to connect the dots. But instead of drowning its failures in secrecy and security jargon, the U.S went about reforming its systems. A Director of National Intelligence was appointed, and two plans were rolled out – the 100-day plan and the 500-day plan to improve their intelligence and ensured that systemic failures could be weeded out.
While luck plays an enormous role in the business of intelligence gathering, the systems have to be in place to ensure that the fruits of good luck can be translated into actionable intelligence. What happened in a large compound in Abbottabad in the early hours of May 2 is clearly the finest validation of the systemic changes and reform that has been attempted in the two decades between the disaster in Iran, the 9/11 attack and the subsequent war against terror in Afghanistan. In fact, the coming together of the U.S intelligence community and its SoF community is easily the single-biggest achievement in its counter-terrorism efforts in the last two decades.
In India, sadly, the story is very different when it comes to reforms in our security architecture. Our political class has always chosen politics over strategy and has allowed petty political gains to dictate our strategic mindset. As a result, the reforms in our security structures that should have dominated successive governments have always been drowned in the politics of convenience.
Take our special forces and the utter neglect that has crippled them for years. While the men who serve in our special forces are easily one of the finest in uniform, the political and military leaders they serve have always failed them. For years some of the Indian army’s finest generals have argued for training, equipping and tasking our special forces for the roles they are ideally meant for. Lt Gen R K Nanavatty, who retired after heading the army’s sensitive Udhampur-based Northern Command has been a consistent champion of bettering our special forces. As a young colonel, posted in the military operations directorate he helped prepare the first comprehensive study on reforming our special forces. Nanavatty’s efforts in 1988 led to several successes in the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) operations.
Subsequently, other fine generals such as Lt Gen Hardev Sigh Lidder from the elite 9th battalion of the Para (Special Forces) and Lt Gen P C Katoch of the 1st battalion of the Para (Special Forces) made tremendous efforts to improve the fate of our Special Forces units. Both were veterans of the 1971 war, the IPKF operations, and Lt Gen Katoch had also led the 1 Para (SF) team into the Golden temple and taken three bullets during Operation Blue Star.
But their efforts went in vain and the political and military leaders chose a myopic view and instead chose quantity over quality.
Similarly, our intelligence reforms that began during the NDA government after the systemic failure in Kargil came to a crashing halt after the NDA government was voted out of power. Since then failure after failure has seen little systemic changes and we have seen half-hearted and piecemeal efforts to bolster our counter-terrorism efforts. Ironically, after every terror attack, while the BJP would scream for PoTA, the UPA government would scream back that they had set up National Investigation Agency (NIA). Both failed to realise that counter-terrorism has to be pre-emptive and not post-attack since the controllers of terrorism in India were sitting across the border.
Therefore, when 26/11 occurred, neither our intelligence community, nor our special forces were in a position to take any pre-emptive action. While a full-fledged commission should have gone into the details of the attack and drawn comprehensive results and suggestions, we saw nothing. A cabinet minister was moved out and another one brought in. Monthly report cards were presented as a symbol of the systemic changes that were apparently taking place. But little has changed on the ground and while our intelligence agencies should be talking to each other and not at each other, this is clearly not the case. Meanwhile, our special forces continue to languish in a mindset that is at least 60 years old.
A nation becomes great when it can exercise its comprehensive national power. But to make it comprehensive all its agencies must work in sync to ensure that the grand strategic interests are met without fail. Unfortunately, in the cacophony of political convenience, our security agencies continue to fight a losing battle.