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The Rediff Special/ Major General Ashok Mehta

The dead horse

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For years one had been told that the National Security Council will be the talisman for the country's defence and national security ills. So, what an anti-climax this Taliban of an NSC created last month by an executive order. The BJP national security manifesto and the government's agenda for governance had made much of the NSC -- "we will establish an NSC to constantly analyse security, political and economic threats and render continuous advice to the government." The operative word is 'advise.'

The NSC bestowed on the country is not the one sought or required but a mish mash of the dysfunctional model inflicted on the nation in 1990, thanks to the unquestionable supremacy of the bureaucracy. This 'dead horse,' 'dead mouse' NSC is an insult to the cerebral task force which produced a perfectly sensible variant which this government has shamelessly discarded. Instead it has revived a self-destruct apparatus in which bureaucracy will rule the roost and become keepers of the keys, US shorthand for the NSC and its custodian, the low profile but all powerful national security advisor.

The NSC, it was hoped, would cut ad hocism, ensure coordination and streamline decision-making with the military so far 'ignored in defence policy planning' now being given a voice in the NSC. The task force spent several weekends holding closed door darbars and open seminars in producing its report.

It recommended that the NSC exist within the constitutional framework and all decision-making stays within existing ministries and departments, with the NSC acting as a facilitator in coordinating an integrated approach. In other words, it would function within government and be answerable to Parliament and the Cabinet system. This took care of rules of business and the parliamentary system.

With the Cabinet committee for national security at the apex, the recommended framework for NSC consisted of three divisions; intelligence assessment, futuristic planning and coordination and implementation under the NSA to the prime minister. The PMO in its lunacy has dumped this NSC in the dustbin. Instead, it has resurrected with cosmetic changes, the aborted 1990 version of a strategic planning group and a national security advisory board staffed by the joint intelligence committee. All this overseen by an NSA under a six-member national security council which is the existing CCPA plus Jaswant Singh, deputy chairman, planning commission. This is a Houdini which raises comment and questions.

Except for the NSAB and the NSA other entities of the proposed NSC are already there. The SPG is an enlarged cabinet of secretaries -- in fact a gallery of secretaries who are constantly looking at their watches -- in which the service chiefs have been retained instead of being elevated as invitees to the apex NSC. Their voice will be further stifled in this crowd. The SPG is chaired by the Cabinet secretary. Will he now report to a former bureaucrat from the foreign service, the NSA?

The JIC meant for intelligence review and analysis has been headless for more than a year and to make matters worse, converted into a secretariat for the NSC. It is now to be led by a foreign service officer. The question is who will now do the national threat evaluation, the pre-requisite of the much talked about strategic defence review. Surely not the SPG? And more surely, not the former JIC?

It is useful to recall the experience of the multi-disciplinary defence planning staff created in April 1986 with more or less a similar mandate for an SDR, but with a less grandiose title of long term perspective plan. The DPS got stuck in the very first stage in the absence of a government approved long-term threat assessment on which to develop policy and plans. There were, at that time, varying threat appreciation's from MoD, the chiefs of staff committee, MEA, RAW and JIC. These had to be coalesced into a national evaluation.

Since there were no takers for this task, the DPS drew a law of averages and with its own assessment, produced a national threat document. For good reason, therefore, the task force had stipulated a threats divisions in its model which is missing from the one created.

What is the mandate of the NSAB which is to be from outside government, who will head it and who will it report to? The answer to the last presumably is the NSA. In all likelihood it will be like the railway board or a board of eminent directors, scrutinising inputs emanating from the SPG and advising the government. But how much can the SPG be expected to deliver? The crowd of secretaries in this committee has its platter full.

And finally, the keeper of the keys, the NSA. How can a full-time principal secretary to the prime minister also wear the additional hat of the NSA? He will end up doing justice to neither. No matter how talented the keeper, the NSA is not a dual-key job.

In the US, chairman, joint chiefs of staff, is by legislation the principal advisor to the president on defence aspects of national security. However, the NSA is only a presidential appointee serving at the pleasure of the president. The NSC consists of the president, vice-president, secretaries of state and defence. In practice the NSC consists of the president, vice-president, secretaries of state and defence. In practice the NSC is the NSA and his staff of nearly 300 experts constituted in six functional divisions. All proposals on national security and defence emanate from the joint chiefs of staff, are filtered through the relevant NSC division, repackaged into actionable options for the president.

In UK it is the defence and overseas policy committee, headed by the prime minister, which handles national security. The chief of defence staff and individual service chiefs are invited to join when required. In addition there is a defence council headed by the secretary of state for defence.

The only redeeming virtue of the imperfect Indian model is the fact that it has been established at all. It will no doubt by trial and error, be reengineered to permit it to take off. Presumably the SPG will be made into a full-time long-term planning group, so also the NSAB, both under the one-hatted NSA.

The NSC, as it has been grafted, is a misnomer. No one is happy about its design and structure. The most unhappy and least satisfied about the NSC are its principal users, the armed forces. The service chiefs are livid about it.

Yet two other steps need to be initiated to get the NSC notionally ticking. First, restructuring the MoD, integrating service headquarters with government. And second, energising the COSC by integrating the services under a permanent chairman, COSC, call him the CDS. Pakistan only last year, made its army chief the permanent chairman of its joint chiefs of staff. India too can follow the Pakistan example.

The three rightful tiers of higher management of defence and national security are NSC, defence ministers' committee and a revamped COSC under CDS. When this happens most else will fall in place.

The author was a general officer commanding of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force in southern Sri Lanka. He is the founder member of the defence planning staff of the chief of staff committee.

Kind courtesy: Sunday magazine

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