These are interesting times for India’s security establishment. Ajit Doval, a decorated police officer, takes over as the new National Security Advisor (NSA) in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new government. After M.K. Narayanan, he is the second NSA to be appointed to the post from the elite Indian Police Service.
A former Director of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Doval is a legend in the Indian intelligence community for his undercover operations. Unlike his predecessor, he is expected to focus on internal security to build a robust security-intelligence setup. Moreover, as former Director of the New Delhi-based think tank Vivekananda International Foundation, he is expected to be more amenable to policy prescriptions from think tanks.
As NSA, Doval is expected to:
- Strengthen India’s counter-terrorism apparatus, which is mired in turf battles between the two premier intelligence agencies: the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the IB, resulting in many near-misses on the counter-terrorism front;
- Reinvigorate the role of the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) in decision-making; the NSCS was supposed to act as the government’s ‘in-house think tank’, but has remained limited and largely dependent on the NSA;
- Finalise the long-overdue and embattled creation of the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC), meant to be a powerful counter-terrorism body with operational powers;
- Develop a human intelligence network in Pakistan, which we have neglected for decades and as a result developed a dependency on open source intelligence; and
- Quickly implement the Bharatiya Janata Party’s poll promise of creating a National Maritime Authority to focus on coastal security, and prevent a repeat of the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
At present, there are too many bureaucratic bottlenecks and institutional barriers to quick decision-making on critical issues, such as the creation of the NCTC and coastal security.
However, with the Modi government’s clear electoral mandate and even clearer focus on securing India’s interests, NSA Doval is expected to move forward quickly on these matters.
His approach will be complemented by General (Retd.) V.K. Singh, Minister of State for the North-East, who will shape a firmer Indian response to repeated acts of Chinese aggression in Arunachal Pradesh, and strengthen border infrastructure in the region.
Interestingly, Doval’s appointment coincides with a seminal event in our neighbourhood: the release, by U.S. President Barack Obama, of five senior Afghan Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay.
Dubbed by U.S. officials as Mullah Omar’s ‘kitchen cabinet’, the Taliban leaders have been exchanged for a captured American soldier. The swap was made without consultations with key stakeholders- Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Russia and India.
This is a déjà vu moment for India and Doval – and his first test.
In 1999, in exchange for passengers on board a hijacked Indian Airlines plane, IC-814, in Kandahar, India released three terrorists- Maulana Masood Azhar, Omar Saeed Sheikh and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar. As a key IB official, Doval was one of the lead negotiators for the exchange.
The consequence of this was deadly for India and the world. Two years after the release, Masood Azhar, founder of the Jaish-e-Muhammed, ,attacked India’s Parliament in 2001. Omar Saeed Sheikh played an important role in the 9/11 conspiracy in New York, and was involved in the abduction and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl.
The possibility of the recently-released commanders re-joining Taliban ranks appears remote, since they are to remain in Qatar for a year. But NSA Doval will keep the Kandahar hijacking and the lessons learnt from it at the back of his mind as he steers Indian security in this troubled neighbourhood.
Thus, the NSA’s priorities would be to address the basic issues afflicting India’s security establishment, and make sure that India doesn’t appear as helpless and feeble as it did in responding to the Kandahar hijacking or the Mumbai attacks.
Sameer Patil is Associate Fellow, National Security, Ethnic Conflict and Terrorism, at Gateway House.
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