India needs to reboot its counter-insurgency doctrine
Our adversaries have attained much higher agility and diversity in operations, whether in using social media as propaganda or civilian rage as the first tier of defence. Fighting the last war, instead of preparing to win the one that saps us in the present, is strategically corroding us in perpetuityUpdated: Jul 15, 2019 21:51 IST
The old military proverb that “Generals fight the last war” illustrates a common trap of strategic thinking – the propensity of expending energy on past battles, instead of reorganising for new challenges. This manifests itself in a classic paradox; nations with large armies lose small wars.
The mighty American army — which bludgeoned its way through German defences on D-Day, wrested Europe from the Nazi control and crushed the Third Reich — is haplessly embroiled in Afghanistan. Before them, the Soviet Union, which held more than a dozen nations in its iron grasp, could not subdue a ragtag of Afghan warlords who pushed back the mighty Soviet army with World War II weapons.
Closer home, the Indian armed forces, which routed nearly a 100,000 Pakistani troops and sliced Pakistan into two halves’ in 1971, has been struggling with insurgency in Kashmir for over two decades now.
Large nations lose small wars because of three reasons. The first is because they don’t even acknowledge that they are losing. Or that the tactics of the ‘last war’ no longer hold relevance for the next one.
The classical war model of two or more nations pitting its military against each other is long passé. Yet nations and armies continue to prepare, arm and organise themselves exactly along the lines of large scale pitched battles, while facing a dramatically different guerrilla warfare on the ground in Kashmir Valley.
So a tense, fragile state of no war, no peace, barely held together by several divisions of troops is celebrated as a victory. And tactically, maybe it can be called that. Our junior officers have shown remarkable courage and sense of responsibility in field operations. It can be considered as a victory even at an operational level in that the Army has adapted itself to a very different sort of operations than what they were trained for. For instance, the strike formations (tanks, propelled artillery, mechanised infantry, etc) are trained and equipped for massive operations spreading across thousands of square kilometres of theatres – facing similar formations on the other side. And yet, thousands of those troops serve in counter-insurgency operations within a densely populated Valley basin no bigger than 135 kilometres in length.
However, this agility and adaptiveness notwithstanding, at the strategic level, our adversary has managed to tie down and erode a massive proportion of our resources at a negligible cost to itself. And that is the strategic purpose of any war.
The second reason that India is locked in a Kashmir status quo is because of inherent flaws in the old-style counter-insurgency strategy (COIN). The COIN recognises that the insurgent or terrorist has the capability to blend into the local population, and any attempt to liquidate this enemy is fraught with collateral damage. Hence, the entire strategy hinges on sourcing information, surrounding a village with several cordons, and then searching every suspected individual or house. If the information is precise — which is rare — and the troops can move undetected — rarer still — then the troops occasionally score a tactical victory. But the cordon and search approach — increasingly interrupted by agitations, violent protests, civilian unrest and sometimes even civilian deaths ù only serves to exacerbate the problem and aid the enemy rather than attrite him. The strategic picture remains the same, with new players taking the place of fallen terrorists despite over 700 of them being killed in the last three years.
The third reason that most COIN strategies don’t work is because they were designed for a different era. The foundation of the COIN strategy was developed by a French colonel, David Galula, during the 1960s to control external colonies. These strategies have a benign and a hard side. The former seeks to isolate insurgents but win over people with welfare efforts. The tough side involves the kind of crackdowns no modern democracy could condone.
Some countries like China and Russia exercise control over disputed zones with relatively hard approaches that focus on the stick rather than the carrot but, as evidenced in the internment camps for Uighur Muslims, those strategies have a very high cost of human life and erodes the very idea of a democratic nation. Others like the United Kingdom and United States try to win over the hearts and mind with incentives, but these have long gestation periods and no defined timeline of success.
Unfortunately, most of our COIN strategy still carries a bias towards kinetic options rather than leveraging a full spectrum of grand strategy. The training of our troops, their organisational structures as well as operating procedures reflect a bias towards militarising what should essentially be a political, social, commercial, cultural and psychological action. There are obvious examples of this strategic meandering.
Almost 27 years into the insurgency and we still haven’t focused on training troops in local languages, dialects and culture in any meaningful fashion. Our lumbering procurement processes are designed for large scale wars while our frontline troops await basic tools of war like modern assault rifles. The ministry of defence reforms languish amid inter-services satrapy rather than strategic implications. Despite the fact that the future of war is irregular, special forces officers are conspicuous by their absence in the uppermost layers of our Army’s leadership. Instead, our military leadership is being groomed in scenarios of massed tank battles under the nuclear threshold. This may be important war-gaming for external threats but has little application to our most consuming asymmetric war.
Our adversaries have attained much higher agility and diversity in operations, whether in using social media as propaganda or civilian rage as the first tier of defence. We are still stuck in time. Fighting the last war, instead of preparing to win the one that saps us in the present, is strategically corroding us in perpetuity.
Raghu Raman is former CEO of Natgrid
The views expressed are personal
First Published: Jul 15, 2019 20:13 IST