Security personnel at the site of Maoist attack at Sukma-Bijapur border on April 4. (File photo)
Security personnel at the site of Maoist attack at Sukma-Bijapur border on April 4. (File photo)

Insurgencies are distinct from wars. India needs new strategy to battle Maoists

Conventional wars pivot around geographical resources. An insurgency, on the other hand, is a competition between the insurgent and the government or support of the local population
By Raghu Raman
PUBLISHED ON APR 12, 2021 02:49 PM IST

Colonel Harry Summers, a Vietnam veteran and author, once recounted a conversation he had with his North Vietnamese Army counterpart a week before the fall of Saigon.

He said, “You know, you never beat us Americans on the battlefield.” “That may be so”, the NVA colonel replied. “but it is also irrelevant”.

Conventional wars pivot around geographical resources. Be it capture of a ground of tactical importance, or victory at a theatre level, conventional war aims to destroy the enemy’s troops & resources and dominate areas previously controlled by the enemy. That is the pattern of conventional wars.

An insurgency, on the other hand, is a competition between the insurgent and the government or support of the local population. Superior kinetic energy and operational intelligence enabled Americans to win almost every battle in Vietnam but that very force and ruthlessness alienated the population, losing their support. That is why the NVA won the war, even though it lost most battles in purely military terms.

What makes an insurgency different

The centre of gravity in an insurgency is always the local population because an insurgency is essentially a political movement. It is a violent process by which at least a section of the population seeks to achieve “just cause”, which they feel the State denies them through the normal political process. As the proportion of dissatisfied section increases, they indoctrinate or coerce the remainder to their cause. A “just cause” therefore is the principal requirement of any insurgency.

The second is inherent weaknesses of the State. Its inability to address the cause of the population, ignoring the ramifications, not only failing to nip the insurgency at the nascent stage, but also aggravating it by using only force are necessary conditions for an insurgency to mature to a level where the latter seeks pitched battles with State forces.

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Paradoxically, an insurgency environment is the opposite of a conventional war which most security forces are trained for. Conventional conflicts are shorter, more intense and have decisive instances where one side can bring overwhelming force to deliver the knockout blow. Insurgencies foment for decades, waxing and waning but never entirely disappearing until the last stage is successfully achieved by either the insurgent, when they attain their objectives, as in the case of Nepal, to a partial extent or the movement is exterminated by the State, as in the case of some insurgencies in the Northeast.

Conventional war is relatively unidimensional, where armed forces seek to destroy the enemy, political leaders facilitate the environment during the war and negotiate terms at the end of it. Counter-insurgency, however, is smorgasbord of kinetic operations, developmental programmes, propaganda, political jousting and even some stakeholders who benefit from status quo and thus work at counter purposes, all acting out simultaneously.

The battle between order and disorder

But the most important difference is that an insurgency unlike conventional war, is a battle between order and disorder.

The rules of conventional war are equally applicable to both sides. However, in an insurgency, the contestants fight by rules that are not applicable to the other. As David Galula, the French scholar warrior puts it, in a fight between a fly and a lion, the fly cannot deliver a knockout blow and the lion cannot fly. It’s the same war in terms of time and space, but different warfares for the two contestants.

While at the tactical level, the State can copy the insurgents as the Russians did in Afghanistan by inducting the Spetznaz (Special Forces who moved in small teams living off the land, much like the Taliban) or the employment of greyhounds in Andhra, at the strategic level, the State, by definition, cannot use instruments of intimidation or disorder.

The insurgent’s objective is to create disorder and challenge the State’s writ. He can do so easily using intimidation, bombing, assassinations or public executions. It’s much easier to create disorder than order. This handicaps the State, because its mandate is to maintain order which is more laborious and time consuming. If insurgents calls for a bandh, all they have to do is carry out a few exemplar executions. If the State wants the population to defy the bandh, it has to provision far more resources, political clout, assurances of safety and incentives.

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That is the Achilles’ heel of the State because unlike the insurgents who can make good on their threat in a matter of hours, the State has to rely on promises of a better future. When faced with the choice of life and State propaganda, the constituent population will choose the former.

The challenges of counter-insurgency

The doctrine of counter-insurgency warfare is mature. Building on the work of thinkers like David Galula, Sir Robert Thompson and of course own experiences, Indian security forces know what to do. The devil, of course, lies in the fact that this is not a war that can be won using only force, or within a short time or without collateral damage.

The classical counter-insurgency model — some variant of which is followed by all countries — has eight broad phases. It begins with destruction or expulsion of the insurgent’s armed forces, deployment of static security units in sanitised areas to prevent the re-entry of insurgents, control of the local population to identify sympathisers and ideological leaders, destruction of the insurgent’s political organisation, holding local elections, testing and empowering the local leaders, organising a formal political party and finally winning over or suppressing the remnants of the guerrilla.

In these eight steps, only the first two (and to some extent the last) are addressable by security forces. The remaining six require intense administrative and political participation. The first two steps are the hammer and the remaining phases act as an anvil. Increasing the size of the hammer achieves little if the anvil is weak. The advocates of giving security a “free hand” miss this point. No matter how many more boots are placed on ground, winning the territory from the insurgents and winning the population within the territory, are two different strategies which require completely different skill sets.

The first phase requires lightly armed infantry-based troops who will attack insurgent strongholds and wrest back control of territory. Phase two requires paramilitary which will set up pickets in the freed territory to prevent them from returning. They also provide the vanguard of intelligence gathering, control of the population and other rehabilitation efforts.

However, the tipping point can only be achieved when the constituent population is convinced about enduring victory of the State over the insurgents and making good on the promises made by the former. This requires politicians, administrators, policymakers, activists and the security forces to work in congruence, which is a challenge for many reasons.

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Take the Maoist problem, for instance. A myriad of state and central forces are deployed in a swathe of area that falls under several different administrative borders. Unless there is synchronicity of command, operations in one theatre will merely push the insurgents into another theatre, an example being security forces’ action in Andhra which drove Maoist cadres to less dangerous states or underground, but did not exterminate them.

Secondly, the constituent population is unsurprisingly suspicious of government assurances and more scared of the insurgents. This is exacerbated by frequent changes in the last mile connectors of the government machinery. Building intelligence networks, identifying potential leaders, inspiring confidence to participate in a political process, rebuilding of infrastructure and communication etc., all require continuity of policy, command and implementors. That is rarely the case. Policies are switched, priorities and leaders changed and resources diverted from one operation to the other, frequently.

The third challenge is that many constituents of the counter-insurgency operations work at seeming cross purposes. The security forces may arrest an insurgent sympathiser at great risk only to find the politicians intervene on his behalf or judiciary release him within hours. But that is necessary if the government is seen to be lenient and fair. An iron treatment only plays into the hands of the insurgent’s narrative.

Similarly, any excess of force by security personnel has to be punished exemplarily to instil confidence in the State’s jurisprudence without which there is no possibility of population’s support. However, security forces will see this as a curb on their efficiency and fight it tooth and nail.

Focus on winning tactical battles obfuscates the desired end of war. Revenge reprisals, heavy militarisation, population control measures such as identity cards and curfews can never pummel the population into supporting the government. At best, the people will go through the motions, and at worst, opportunity seekers who wish to ingratiate themselves with the State, will get power, thus further maligning the State’s reputation of unfair play.

Getting to the core cause

The only possible and desirable end to an insurgency is to negotiate the elements of its core cause. A best-case scenario is to reduce the military power of the insurgents while simultaneously elevating the political moderates, thus assuring the population that their representation is better done by the latter than the former. To achieve this, the State has to execute a delicate, well timed and synchronised strategy.

First, it has to limit the security forces’ operations to the minimum and focused on the hardcore elements of the insurgents. Unfortunately, getting to the core requires pressure on a scared or participative population which in turn further alienates them. Once an area is freed of insurgents, the situation should transfer to civilian administration at the earliest. However, in most cases, the civilian rebuilding tasks are handed over to the security forces, thus increasing their engagement and dichotomy. A villager doesn’t forgive a soldier who interrogated his son, just because he helped build a school in the village.

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Secondly, transition from the security phase to the building phase requires very different skill sets. In a war-like situation, a soldier is trained to retaliate with all his firepower if he is fired upon. In an insurgency, the very opposite is needed. To paraphrase Galula, an internet connection may be more useful than a machine gun, a soldier trained as a paediatrician more important than a weapons expert, cement more wanted than barbed wire and a soft-spoken multi-lingual empathetic officer far more effective than a badass one from the Special Forces.

Thirdly, this transition necessitates immaculate timing. Played too soon, the insurgency comes back with a vigour and playing too late, alienates the population and prolongs their trauma. Also, the build phase must be implemented with a sense of urgency, because the credibility of the state depends on it. This is where three major flaws of the state machinery — credibility, inefficiency and corruption —create massive faultlines.

Politicians and administration have a poor reputation of keeping promises even among their own voters. For their own reasons, political leaders often make promises which they are not able to keep, at least in totality or within the timeline promised. When coupled with the inefficiency and corruption quotient of any administrative organisation, the government invariably comes short on its promises, thus reiterating the insurgent’s narrative. The gap between propaganda and reality is the operating ground of the insurgent.

Unlike terrorism, insurgency is an easier beast to contain, even if it might be more difficult to defeat. Terror can be carried out by a small group of people like 9/11 or 26/11 who might be rogue elements within their own organisations. Insurgency on the other hand, has an ideological and military centre of gravity, an area under contest which the insurgent eventually intends to hold as a bargaining chip, safe haven or a launchpad for expansion.

A five-pronged strategy

Which is where the State can create some advantages using this five-pronged strategy.

Firstly, the State needs to accept and educate the citizenry that the Maoist insurgency cannot be solved with swift military options. It has taken decades to mature and will take time to be resolved completely. This timeline enables the state to design long-term reforms rather than short term scorecards.

Secondly, there is no skirting the “just cause”, which is the pivot of the insurgent movement. Thrusting down fiats will never eradicate the cause. Agreeing to the acceptable elements of the just cause is the only way to remove the locus standi of the insurgent. Unless that is done, the seeds of dissent will continue to foment and the State will pay a price in perpetuity. That is usually the most insurmountable challenge especially in an environment of extreme inequity in developing countries like India. Inequity is the root of all revolutionary movements. There has to be genuine dissent to compel people including women to take up arms, live a life of extreme discomfort, and risk to life. Denying that is delusional, self-serving and in the end, self-defeating.

Thirdly, while the security forces have to be subjugated to the political administration (after all, insurgency is a political problem, not a military one), the political leader must be astute and educated about counter-insurgency at a strategic, not just at the operational military level. If the briefings are dominated by security operations without the accompanying social, political and infrastructure progress, then the first two phases are being prolonged – which is a victory for the insurgent.

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Then, there is the problem of focus and continuity. While states have set up Maoist focussed security structures and commands, the political and administrative attention remains defused. While major instances like the recent one, seize the chief minister and prime minister’s mindshare and apparatuses, they are temporal in nature. A political crisis in state or Centre will push back this mindshare in an instant. There is need for a credible, strategically educated and empowered political leader who focusses on this issue relentlessly, on a long-term basis. Without this unified and broad-spectrum, long term command, tactical military successes will masquerade for victory.

Fourthly, while there is no organisation without its share of inefficiency and corruption, in an insurgency, its implications are fatal for the state. The state’s forces and its administrative elements are fighting a moral battle against the insurgents. The insurgent’s high command ruthlessly enforces austerity and rules such as tobacco and alcohol abstinence, to reinforce this moral high ground as much as for disciplining the cadres.

Every act of corruption on the part of the state’s representatives erodes the state’s moral ground and strengthens the insurgent’s cause. Corruption can range from excessive use of force, diversion of funds, partisan decisions or misreporting ground reality. Each of these and several more examples must be equated to high treason, because they undermine the state and derail its strategic intent. This is why the participation of neutral observers is essential. Without it, the political high command has no visibility of the reality which will be invariably camouflaged by the functionaries for extended periods.

Similarly, operational inefficiency must be removed ruthlessly. Unless the State implements a zero-tolerance attitude to material, moral and ethical corruption and punishes professional inefficiency – the constituent population will not support it.

The last step will undoubtedly ruffle feathers among the State’s elements -- but it is a mandatory requirement and in the long run, boosts the morale of counter-insurgents as well.

Also Read | Drone shows tractor trolleys used to carry up to 20 dead Maoists: Officials

Lastly, but most importantly, is the issue of reframing the mindset of the elements fighting insurgency. It is ironic that a battalion deputed for a United Nations mission in Congo will scurry around learning French and the social and cultural history of that country, but officers and men who are destined to spend at least half their career is Kashmir or Maoist areas will not bother to do the same for those regions. Military academies teach foreign languages to the cadets to prepare them for the one odd opportunity that some officers might get to serve abroad but don’t train them in the languages of the state that they will be baptized in professionally.

There is no formal training for critical counter-insurgency skills such as deep knowledge of the local culture, languages, ethnic histories, social dynamics, negotiation skills and appreciating compulsions of the constituent population. As a result, the state’s elements deployed in insurgency areas view it as a “tour of duty” that must be endured, not a process they need to carry to a planned end. They view the constituent population in black and white. Those supporting them and everyone else. The latter unfortunately happens to be the majority, so the state’s forces begin the war by losing the most crucial battle, that of the population’s tacit support or neutrality. Galula prescribes an ideal counter-insurgency force as lightly armoured equipped with a surplus of interpreters, civil affair specialists, and engineers. I would add, psychologists, social scientists, NGO’s and corporate CSR efforts to that composite force.

Our training establishments, ranging from the military to bureaucracy need to accord importance to the kind of warfare that our next generation of soldiers and administrators will encounter. Despite having two nuclear powered and heavily armed nations as our adversaries, we have been engaged in small wars for the last four decades. Yet our instructional syllabuses bask in the yesteryears narratives of theatre level battles and wargames. Not a single institution conducts training wargames of counter-insurgency in totality. Sure, the military and paramilitary establishments have training capsules on counter insurgency operations (COINS) but they are limited to tactical exercises like cordon and search and roadblock drills. Where is the training of winning over the population, of negotiation, of joint-manship between the security forces and the bureaucracy? Who indeed can even act as Red Land or genuinely represent the population in that notional wargame?

It is an irony that respective premier institutes which train the military and administrative officers of our country are located 25 kms to each other as the crow flies and yet they meet for meaningful collaborative training after 25 years of service in the National Defence College.

The biggest hurdle to the battle against counter-insurgency is the lack of imaginative strategic thinking. And that is why a few hundred flies can run circles around the lion for decades.

In 1917, Thomas Edward, a young maverick British officer was tasked to conduct an irregular campaign against the Turks in Arabia. Thomas went on to create a guerrilla operation that became the stuff of legends, and was so lethal that he felt sorry for his victims recording their plight in his memoirs titled the Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

He wrote, that the guerrillas were like vapour, appearing at will, and congealing in front of the enemy, striking them and disappearing like a ghost. He sympathised with the Turks, remarking that “war on rebellion is messy business, like eating soup with a knife”. Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, couldn’t have described the war on Maoists any better.

Raghu Raman was the founding CEO of Natgrid

The views expressed are personal

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