When Indian Special Forces, CIA Agents, and Sherpas Worked Together

Feat image should be: Master Sgt. Rose Reynolds/ Public Domain
For a brief period during the Cold War, India was a base for covert American operations against China.

Mere months after China tested its first nuclear bomb at Xinjiang, a Lockheed U-2 ‘Dragon Lady’ took off from a runway in Orissa. The high-altitude endurance spy plane was a staple of the Cold War, and its presence in India was a marked shift in U.S. foreign policy towards the country.

China, then emerging as the USA’s newest threat after the Soviet Union, was flexing its muscles and the USA wanted to run reconnaissance missions over Chinese territory. But on returning to the World-War-II-era Charbatia airfield in Orissa, the plane had a bumpy landing – and got stuck in the slush. Extricating it from the mud and out of the country without any of the press finding it gave the CIA nightmares. From then onwards, the Dragon Lady only flew from bases in Thailand.

It’s a telling analogy for the state of Indo-US cooperation during the cold war. These stories only came out in 2013, with the declassification of old CIA documents. But in the larger picture, it was an unlikely alliance that fell apart with time. But while it was alive, it was a tale of espionage in the Himalayas.

This espionage had its costs. Looking at the reasons and rhetoric behind China’s aggression in 1962, it’s clear that they viewed India as a threat in Tibet – where they made clear their position that armed uprisings against the Chinese were fuelled by a foreign hand. That the CIA was involved was a given; recruits were taken as far away as the Rocky Mountains in Colorado to be trained. Many newspaper articles and documentaries testified to the CIA’s role in the Tibetan uprisings – particularly the 1959 uprising.

But India’s role is questionable, even today. Given Jawaharlal Nehru’s predisposition towards non-alignment, an Indo-CIA connection is difficult to envision at the time.

John Garver writing in the ‘India Review’ takes on the three feasible theories of Indian participation in the CIA’s Tibetan insurgency: that India was vaguely aware of CIA actions but that the CIA sought to keep the country uninvolved, that India worked with the CIA on the basis of existing military deals and that India knowingly turned a blind eye to CIA activities.

Verifying any one theory hinges on how seriously Nehru took non-alignment – a debatable question even today. But the asylum granted to the Dalai Lama in 1959 more than made up for India’s neutrality in Chinese eyes. The 1962 war was a payback of sorts.

Post-1962, however, there was a definite change in stance. India, having squandered many of the years since the 1950 Chinese invasion of Tibet, adopted a more proactive stance towards insurgency and regime change. The CIA’s Tibetan army grew into an Indian one – the Special Frontier Force or “Establishment 22”. Recruiting from Tibetan Resistance Fighters (likely trained by the CIA), they started with a force of 12,000 men, armed with American weapons.

Their missions were highly classified and coordinated by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and later the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW). Unlike the CIA, RAW does not declassify their missions.

One mission we do know of was a joint operation with the CIA, to place a sensory device on the 7.8-kilometre high mountain of Nanda Devi. A plutonium-powered device was chosen for its long life and lack of moving parts, designed to be placed at a high altitude so it could sense Chinese missiles being tested at height.

The mission, however, failed in the first attempt due to inclement weather. The team left the device in a crevice, hoping to return the next Spring and place it properly. However, the follow-up Indian team reported that it was missing – a radioactive CIA listening device was now buried in the depths of Nanda Devi.

This, combined with the failure of the U-2 missions from India, meant that the CIA had to explore other technological options. And they did – with the rise of satellite imagery, there was no longer a need to risk their aircraft or special forces in deadly missions to catch a glimpse of covert enemy activity. The Sino-Soviet split also exposed an opportunity for the United States – who adopted a rapprochement with the Chinese following a bout of what was called ‘ping-pong’ diplomacy.

It was a betrayal for the Tibetans, who like many insurgents raised by the CIA, were abandoned to the forces of their enemies. It also left India with nowhere to turn but the Soviet Union. Indeed, India had already put the Special Frontier Force to use in the 1965 and 1974 conflicts with Pakistan. They never got to fight their intended enemy – China – and naturally frustrated, seem to have carried out unauthorized raids along the border with Tibetan-China. This led to a ban on their presence within 10 kilometres of the border in 1975.

They remain in service to this day, considered among the hardiest and most secretive of Indian forces – reporting directly to the Prime Minister’s Office. The Americans might have regretted abandoning their Nanda Devi missions, for even with satellite imagery, they completely missed the signs of India’s 1974 nuclear tests.

Interestingly, it was a Soviet-captured U-2 Dragon Lady that led to the development of the Mig-25 – the world’s fastest interceptor aircraft. India was an early customer, keeping it a guarded secret, and using to carry out high-speed reconnaissance missions over the borders with China and Pakistan. Neither country could shoot the plane down, which was capable of hitting speeds up to Mach 3.2.

Technology and espionage switched sides seamlessly during the Cold War. In today’s international climate, the lines are less clear between adversaries. The line between insurgent and terrorist remains unclear. And the Tibetan Freedom Struggle seems a lost cost with no major nation backing it.


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