Barely a week before Donald Trump assumes office of the President of the United States, relations between him and US intelligence agencies are at their lowest ebb, with little signs of a rapprochement anytime soon. What could be more disturbing than intelligence agencies not being on the same page as the new president? It will have a direct impact on governance and sensitive issues of national and international security.
The main reason for this avoidable impasse seems to be the Russia factor. American intelligence agencies, professionally sound, have been alleging blatant Russian interference in the US presidential elections, ensuring Trump's victory and Hillary Clinton's defeat.
Reinforcing these claims, the Director of National Intelligence recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he was "even more resolute" in believing that Russia not only hacked the computers of the Democratic National Committee and others, but also disseminated classic propaganda using fake names. It is also alleged that Trump, during his campaign trail, openly encouraged Russia to spy on Clinton, hacking as many as 33,000 emails.
Judging by these circumstances, it would appear that Russia is in possession of something crucial, which is not only inhibiting Trump from taking Putin head-on, but also keeping him from supporting intelligence agencies' claims of interference by Russia on sabotaging the elections. Now what is this crucial factor that's putting Trump on the defensive? That's a trillion dollar question.
In this aspect, it appears pertinent to note that one of Trump's direct campaign managers Paul Manafort had worked for Putin's interests, and in connivance with the President-elect, is making marked efforts to appease Moscow. Also, Trump's NSA designate Lieutenant General (Retd) Michael Flynn enjoyed proximity to Putin to the extent that he was regularly appearing on Russian television and making frequent visits to Moscow at regular intervals.
There is, however, some inconsistency in his approach, as he privately condemned Russia cozying up to Iran. Other than him, secretary of state designate Rex Tillerson has also been claiming his own closeness to Putin. His business interests are borne by the fact that he, being CEO of Exxon Mobil, is thought to be commencing a $500 billion venture in Rosneft, a Russian oil giant with major shares held by the Moscow establishment.
Meanwhile, on Trump's part, he perceives that the office of the Director of National Intelligence had become "bloated", calling for a complete overhaul, including restructuring of the CIA. Ad interim, however, the relationship between Trump and the US intelligence outfits are of unease and deep mistrust.
This is being underlined here because a tentative rapport between the two has far reaching implications for India. India relies heavily on US intelligence inputs to preempt terror, specially terror emanating from Pakistan and IS. The flow of intelligence must continue to stem the global terror tide. Given the ambiguous, half-hearted and often conflicting overtures by Trump, Indian intelligence agencies must ensure cooperation for its own security interests.
It was perhaps a wise and swift step on part of National Security Advisor (NSA) AK Doval to have taken the initiative in meeting his US counterpart Michael Flynn preceded by a longish phone chat. Flynn, besides being head of the Defence Intelligence Agency (2012-2014), had served in Afghanistan and interacted with the Pakistan intelligence agencies (2009-2010). New Delhi sees in Flynn an Afghan and Pakistani hand who can be useful in sharing hard intelligence with India, especially because Indian interests and facilities on Afghan soil have been targeted time and again. An effective relationship between the two NSAs would make Indo-US cooperation professionally very useful.
Another key player in Team Trump is Defence Secretary designate Gen James "mad dog" Mattis, who had worked rather closely with the Pakistan military and intelligence establishments, during his tenure (2010-2013) as chief of the US Central Command. Importantly, Mattis had also used his good offices in facilitating a secret agreement with Pakistan to provide landing beaches and airstrips during the 2001 Afghan war. Mattis is known for his deep professional involvement, and the story goes that he exhorted his troops to grow beards to develop affinity with the Afghans.
In other words, both Flynn and Mattis merit deft handling with finesse to ensure Indian security interests remain intact and their past association with the Pakistan ISI and military don't prove to be impediments in strengthening Indo-US ties in the field of intelligence and security.
With Putin in de facto control of major geopolitical spaces, and given his interest in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a proactive intelligence tie-up with Washington seems a priority. It should also be remembered that Putin, though younger than Trump in age, has the advantage of vast presidential experience, and more significantly in this context, comes with a KGB background. The way he is seen to checkmate the US and its intelligence community, he will have a thick edge in the coming years. The Russia-China-Pakistan-Iran axis needs to be monitored and that too rather closely. There will be a huge responsibility on the shoulders of the man pitting himself as the world's most powerful leader.
The writer is a retired IPS officer, a security analyst, and senior fellow with the Indian Police Foundation
Updated Date: Jan 13, 2017 15:46 PM