Homeland Security

Insurgency, Counter-Insurgency and Peace - II
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Issue Vol. 27.1 -Mar 2012 | Date : 25 Mar , 2012


Counter-insurgency is a complex phenomenon demanding a complex solution. Any attempt at reductionism can be an invitation to disaster. Although it is very much a form of warfare fitting into the description given by Jomini as ‘wars of opinion’ or Clausewitzian ‘wars of resistance’, these are inadequate definitions and it is better to treat insurgency as armed politics and a distinct form of warfare that needs a separate set of principles of war.

Principle of Adequate Force

In a state based on the rule of law, there is a well-defined doctrine of using force against unarmed but violent mobs. The principle is to use ‘minimum force’. This is defined as a short-term antidote to bring the mobs to their senses. In case of war or open conflict, the doctrine of ‘concentration’ or maximum force is in operation. In the case of insurgency, as the aim is not ‘destruction’ but persuasion; the counter insurgents are expected to use ‘adequate force’6 i.e. adequate to defend themselves but ensuring minimum collateral damage or casualties. The other consideration is that the force used must be ‘qualitatively’ superior, morally due to it being used under a strict legal regime or superior precision technology.

Counter-insurgency has no place for heavy weapons like the artillery or air power.

The overall aim is to achieve psychological domination over the insurgents. Learning from the American experience in Vietnam where the former ended up in a quagmire, the South African armed forces deliberately chose a model of creating high-tech, hard-hitting helicopter-borne teams to hit at the guerrilla bases and headquarters in lightening raids. These forces never held ground and avoided prolonged engagements. The tactics were akin to the ones followed by the Israelis. But the South Africans never even attempted to win the hearts and minds of the people (neither did the Israelis). The end result was that while the apartheid regime was militarily strong right till the end, it lost all legitimacy and international support. A balance has to be struck between what is militarily desirable and politically acceptable. Successful use of force has to be accompanied by political, social and economic measures. The stark ideological illegitimacy of the apartheid cause was the ultimate undoing of the South African regime, not resistance by the ANC.

It is due to this consideration that counter-insurgency has no place for heavy weapons like the artillery or air power. Adequate force is not an easy concept to define especially when the opponent may well take recourse to modern weapons. Matching the insurgents would be entirely justified in such situations. This is of particular relevance when the insurgents act as a ‘proxy’ of some other nation. But if the counter-insurgents desire to create a psychology of ‘no win’ in the opponents then qualitative or quantitative superiority has to be created. During the Vietnam counter-guerrilla operations, many American analysts came to a conclusion that 30:1 superiority is necessary for countering guerrillas and achieve success. A complex question that military commanders are confronted with is the adequacy of force which depends on many other factors including tactics of both and the state of morale.

Accurate intelligence, or lack of it, plays a crucial role in both the counter-insurgency and counter-guerrilla operations.

Accurate intelligence, or lack of it, plays a crucial role in both the counter-insurgency and counter-guerrilla operations. Most of the times, the armed forces are tactically blind and act more like a bull in a China shop. One solution that has been found, by what one can call lazy Generalship, is to induct large number of troops in the area and hope that by their sheer presence chance encounters will take place and armed forces with their superior skills, better weaponry and unlimited supply of ammunition, will get the better of the guerrilla/insurgent. To some extent, this did work in Kashmir in the early 1990s as well as in Iraq during the so called ‘surge’ phase. However, the same strategy failed miserably in Sri Lanka when the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) tried it as well as in Afghanistan since 2010. Difficult terrain and skilled guerrilla fighters were the possible reasons for this apparent failure though the jury is still out as far as Afghanistan is concerned. But even more importantly, the political leadership that lays down the deadline for withdrawal/completion of operations is responsible for forces to get demotivated to give their lives for a lost cause. This degrades the force employed in terms of quality and effectiveness. One has already seen earlier that adequate force concept is related to both the quantity and quality.

In the last several decades the world has not seen a large-scale conflict like the two world wars of the twentieth century and hence most of the political leadership has very little or no experience of war. There is a tendency to treat a soldier like a robot. As an infantry soldier with some experience of live fighting under his belt, the author wishes to debunk this notion. At a crucial stage during a fire fight a soldier is lonely and advances only if he is convinced of the righteousness of his conduct and the influence of his immediate leadership. Else, most of the patrols and ambushes, bread and butter operations in counter-insurgency, are carried out only on paper! The morale aspect is crucial when we consider whether a force is adequate.

Multi-Pronged Approach

In the art of war, ‘Selection and Maintenance of Aim’, ‘Concentration of Force and Flexibility’ are some important principles. In the insurgency warfare however, a multi-pronged approach is not just desirable but also necessary since it is a multi-dimensional conflict. The multi-pronged approach automatically gives a degree of flexibility to switch the effort from one objective to another or switch the emphasis from one field to another.

Multiplicity of agencies is a norm in counter-insurgency.

It has already been mentioned earlier that an insurgency may well have its roots in social, economic, political or psychological problems. Many a time, a revolt may start due to economic distress, as in the case of Mizoram in 1966, but later become a struggle for identity. It is well nigh impossible to accurately assess the root cause of trouble. Thus, peace-enforcing and peace-making by addressing the root problem cannot be treated sequentially but must run parallel. This is akin to a ‘broad front’ strategy of conventional war. Any attempt to concentrate excessively on the military aspect, as was the case in Vietnam, can only lead to assured failure.

At any given time, in case of long drawn out insurgency, the dominant cause may well be entirely different than what it was in the initial stage. A counter-insurgent has to be mindful of these subtle shifts and be sensitive to it. Accordingly, the emphasis has to shift from economic to political or psychological, as the case may be. It is this dynamic relationship between the cause and effect that makes insurgency a much more difficult proposition than conventional conflict, where the military element predominates.

Insurgency versus counter-insurgency is a struggle between romanticism and realism.

Another dimension of the broad front approach is multi-agency operations. In all endeavours, whether military or civil, multiple agencies or departments have to work towards a common goal as for instance, intelligence agencies whose work is integral to any military operation. But in case of counter-insurgency, this has an added reason and that is that often the state has to simultaneously pursue contradictory policies or strategies. For instance, while the armed forces may well be engaged in military action against the insurgents, the intelligence agencies may well be in contact with the same organisation and carrying on secret negotiations. This has been particularly the case in North East India where the Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau (SIB) was in constant touch with the rebels even as the military operations were in full swing.

Similarly, while the political talks were going on at government level, the economic and other developmental work was sought to be delinked from success or failure of negotiations. Multiplicity of agencies is thus a norm in counter-insurgency and a certain degree of autonomy is granted to each. This permits the counter-insurgents to carry on contradictory strategies and lends flexibility.

As the aim of counter-insurgency is to bring about a behavioural change and not destruction, rebel morale is of critical importance.

There is a major debate as to what agency/organisation must be used and for what task. There is a marked reluctance on the part of the armed forces to get involved in a domestic quarrel where there is no clear external element. The Para Military forces are expected to carry the major burden of fighting such wars. But there is a major problem here. At the section or platoon level, where the guerrilla war is fought, these operations are in no way different from similar operations in conventional wars. The Para Military forces are neither trained nor equipped to fight a war and are often found wanting in this respect. The ‘Principle of Adequate Force’ also implies that the armed forces cannot use their full range of equipment, a sort of fighting with one hand tied behind one’s back. A way out of this dilemma is a middle path wherein the armed forces act in support of the police or the Para Military. For instance, the searches and neutralisation may be carried out by the Police, while the armed forces lay the outer cordon to prevent escape. The South Africans faced a similar problem when they faced the ANC-led sabotage and subversion operations inside the country while a full-blown guerrilla war was going on in South West Africa and Angola.

This worked since the ANC was unable to launch guerrilla war inside South Africa. But the South Africans created special police units, which were organised and trained on the lines of Special Forces of the army to do this task. South Africa also consciously took a decision to not occupy territory and instead organised mobile, high-tech company groups to hit at the rebel bases and keep them off balance. This was a lesson from the Vietnam War where the Americans entered the swamps and fought the guerrillas on their own terms. It is very difficult to make any definitive judgement on this issue but suffice it to say that counter-insurgency must be fought as a multi-agency operation and with a suitable mix of military, police, intelligence and high-tech Special Forces.

Loss of external support can quickly lead to the collapse of insurgency, as witnessed in both Nagaland and Mizoram after the 1971 War destroyed East Pakistan.

Readers may have noticed that the oft used cliché ‘winning the hearts and minds of people’ has not been used anywhere in this work. This phrase conjures up the insurgency and counter-insurgency as akin to two lovers vying for one maiden! Yes, it is true that both the parties to conflict do try to win the people over to their side but the process at least for counter-insurgents is also a struggle between heart and mind. Since the insurgents paint a romantic picture of a utopia of paradise on earth, it is futile for the counter-insurgents to compete with them on this. What the counter-insurgents can achieve is to convince the minds of general people that the goal of the insurgents is unattainable, and that the available alternative is not bad. When privations brought upon by long periods of fighting begin to bite, while the heart may still be swayed by the romantic notions propagated by the insurgents, the mind overcomes the heart and accepts the reasonable compromise. Insurgency versus counter-insurgency is, therefore, not only like a competition between two lovers but also a struggle between romanticism and realism. In most cases, where counter-insurgency has succeeded, it has been a triumph of realism over idealism.

External Influence and Sanctuaries

Insurgencies all over the world have an element of foreign support with varying degrees in each case. It was less in the case of revolts in the North East, while it is a dominant factor in Kashmir and South Africa. Without Pakistan’s support, the Kashmir insurgency would not survive. The initial steady support by the Soviet Union to the ANC did much to sustain it through difficult times. This external support can be military, diplomatic, economic or moral. In Kashmir, besides the Pakistani support, the US consistently gave its moral backing to the Islamists right up to 2001. At a particularly important stage in the 1990s, when the insurgent morale was low after the surrender at Hajrat Bal shrine, the US Secretary of State, Ms Albright, came out in support of the separatists. In a frequent occurrence in Kashmir valley, separatists would demonstrate shouting slogans praising the then American President Bill Clinton.

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In such circumstances, it is impossible to achieve the perception of a ‘no win’ situation. Loss of external support can quickly lead to the collapse of insurgency, as witnessed in both Nagaland and Mizoram after the 1971 War destroyed East Pakistan. It is axiomatic that for any remedial measures to be successful, violence has to be reduced to an acceptable level. This becomes a virtual impossibility if the inimical external power continues to pump in arms and also offers sanctuary. As the aim of counter-insurgency is to bring about a behavioural change and not destruction, rebel morale is of critical importance. In order to achieve the aim, counter-insurgency has to ensure that the external support is cut off from the rebels.

In the case of South Africa, the universal support to the anti-apartheid movement played a major role in bringing home the fact that South African government was on the losing side.

Even in the Irish insurgency, it was the ultimate denial of continued support by the Irish Republic to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) that paved the way for the truce in early 1998. The proactive role of the US during that period also closed the tap of support from American Irish community. The relative peace in Northern Ireland would have been impossible without these two measures.

The ending of external support is also important to create a psychological ‘no win’ situation. For so long as external support exists and the state that gives support is perceived as strong, no amount of countermeasures would weaken the morale. The psychological dimension of the external support to insurgents is as important as the supply of arms, ammunition and finances. Interestingly, one of the reasons for the collapse, or near-collapse of the insurgency in North East India was the 1971 Indo-Pak War that saw the emergence of Bangladesh. The Mizo as well as Naga insurgents never recovered from this blow. Within a few years, the major Naga groups gave up the struggle and signed the Shillong Accord of November 11, 1975.

The Mizos began serious negotiations in 1979 and finally signed the Mizo Accord in 1986. After the loss of East Pakistan support, the insurgents turned to China. But the Chinese, while willing to supply arms and equipment, were not ready to openly champion the rebels’ cause. Thus, the morale downslide of insurgents could not be checked. On the other hand, the open Pakistani support to the insurgency in Kashmir has ensured that despite the successful operations against the insurgents, their morale remains high and insurgency continues. In the case of South Africa, the universal support to the anti-apartheid movement played a major role in bringing home the fact that South African government was on the losing side. In addition, steadfast military support by the Soviet Union and many other countries such as India to the ANC also played a role. Thus for counter-insurgency to succeed and the creation of a ‘no win’ mind-set, external influence has to be ended.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col Anil Athale

former Joint Director War History Division, Min of Defence. Currently co-ordinator of Pune based think tank 'Inpad' that is affiliated with Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.  Also military historian and Kashmir watcher for last 28 years. He has authored a book ‘Let the Jhelum Smile Again’ and ‘Nuclear Menace the Satyagraha Approach’ published in 1996.

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