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Counter-Insurgency Best Practices and their Applicability in the Northeast

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  • July 27, 2012
    Fellows' Seminar

    Chairperson: General Satish Nambiar

    Discussants: Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, Military Secretary, Integrated Headquarters (Army), Ministry of Defence
    Prof. Rajesh Rajagopalan, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

    Dr. Namrata Goswami’s paper defines insurgencies as violent struggle against the state for legitimacy and influence over relevant populations. In order to win against any insurgency, the first core insight for any counter-insurgency force is to gain the support of the population. Coupled with population support is the criticality of efficient intelligence though these are not the ultimate required measures. Dr. Goswami’s paper discusses counter-insurgency best practices and the means to operationalize these practices on the ground by identifying nine best practices.

    The paper selects the best practices based on a literature survey on counter-insurgency theory, doctrines and manuals of the Indian, British and US military and also on the field experiences of the author in Northeast India to have a more focused study. The author affirms that insurgency is unique after having conducted work on the ground in the conflict affected states in Northeast India. But, there are certain common features of counter-insurgency that are valid across time and space as indicated by the literatures on counter-insurgency which is used as the frame of reference by the author in the paper. Based on the works on counter-insurgency which have been utilized in this paper, the author has identified nine best practices spanning across time and space for detailed study in this paper: Primacy of Political Goals; Centre of Gravity; Population; Counter-Propaganda; Resolute Leadership; Intelligence; Unity of Effort; Appropriate Force Structures; Rule of Law; and Operational Clarity. The paper offers to test the applicability of these counter-insurgency best practices to the Northeast of India. For the purpose of the paper, counter-insurgency is defined as “those military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat an insurgency”.

    • Primacy of political goals: It involves planning, preparation and execution of counter-insurgency within political framework. The role of the military in flushing out insurgents from certain areas is considered to be a supportive role. For instance, British, U.S. and Indian military forces have signified the importance of military. However, citing the cases of Mizoram and Assam, Dr. Goswami emphasises on the importance of political goals. In the paper, she has pointed out how the Mizo National Front (MNF) became a platform to express against the heavy response of the Indian military. It was during the strong political leadership of Pu Laldenga of MNF that the Mizo conflict was resolved in 1987 through staunch negotiations.
    • Centre of gravity-population: Insurgent groups aim to persuade the population by utilizing the strategy of coercion and intimidation to generate support for their political cause. While countering these insurgency groups, the operation of the armed forces should be carried out in a civilian landscape, not in military camps, and the counter-insurgency forces need to know that such operations are people-centric operation. For this, there are certain practical ways of gaining support of the population, namely, having day to day contacts with the population, organising collective work, identify local cells of the insurgent, prevent too much movement, and finally provide security to the population. Besides this, there is also a need to gather information on three different types of population in any insurgency-affected areas, namely, minority support base for the insurgent; a passive neutral majority; and a minority which is against the insurgency. According to this paper, insurgency groups such as United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), and MNF have all garnered support from the people. But, over the period of time, support for these groups has dwindled down. Insurgency will continue unless security is guaranteed to the population in this region.
    • Counter-propaganda: the insurgency groups intend to impose control over the population. These groups aim to win over the people by propagating their political cause, often by promising them better political empowerment, better economic status, better security etc. Such propaganda appears an easy task to the insurgency groups as they do not have to deliver any of those promised goals in the near term. However, countering such propaganda remains an arduous task for the counter-insurgency forces. For this, the strategy for counter-propaganda should be focused on exposing the weakness and false promises made by the insurgents. This strategy can only be materialized by ‘by obtaining the neutrality of the population, visible presence of counter-insurgent forces to provide security, establishing the authority of the state by providing basic needs, propaganda directed at insurgent rank and file, followed by an effective surrender policy’.
    • Resolute leadership: In order to carry out a successful operation, the involved leader must possess a clear conceptual understanding of the mission. For this, he or she should have a thoughtful understanding of the nature of the problem. The leadership should exhibit ‘resoluteness, act in an ethical manner and always keep the national priorities and goals in clear perspective’. His or her leadership qualities should also be shown at all levels, and the leader should able to synchronise with various agencies with the aim of protecting the population and instilling in them a sense of security.
    • Intelligence: This is one of the most important counter-insurgency measures. The absence of thorough and specific intelligence would only make the counter-insurgency operations ineffective. For this, the commander needs to form a sound intelligence network with the involvement of intelligent staffs possessing a ‘clear understanding of the operational environment, physical geography, the external influence, role of media and internet’. Means through which intelligence can be gathered are: lines of communication, belief systems, values, identity, culture, social norms, grievances, insurgent strength and vulnerabilities, safe havens, insurgent intelligence network, etc. Intelligence should be used to understand the root causes of the insurgency.
    • Unity of effort: There needs to be an integrated approach in counter-insurgency. This involves ‘showcasing of administrative capacities, economic resources, propaganda, military superiority and the like’. Operations in such cases should be guided by a single strategic narrative that is visible across all lines of operation. This practice involves the coordination of political, social, economic and the military aspects of the counter-insurgency. The author specifies the roles of politicians, bureaucrats, army, police, local leaders, NGOs and media. A successful unity of effort can be achieved if there is a single command and coordination centre. Furthermore, civil-military relations are also important in this context.
    • Appropriate ‘military’ force structures: It is important that the force is used to its minimum. This is because operations should aim to neutralise insurgents and not eliminate them. Also, minimum force should be used in order to reduce the fear that civilian population experiences due to the heavy presence of armed forces. The force structure should be able to respond to given context even though it is a small operation team.
    • Rule of law: The counter-insurgent forces need to act according to certain accepted rule of law. Any operation in a given region should be within the framework of a legal mandate and conduct must meet the highest legal standards. With such rules, the involved forces can avoid any disproportionate use of force. This will not breed alienation amongst the civilians. Forces have to be briefed about the rules of engagement with regard to arrests, searches, warrants, interrogation techniques, intelligence gathering by issuing a Standard Operating Procedure. Acts such as Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 amended in 1972 are perceived by the common people as neutralising their fundamental rights granted by the Indian Constitution. It is difficult to control population under distress and the state must offer its people ‘a good deal working within the rule of law’ in order to isolate the insurgents.
    • Operational clarity: It is important to have clarity of purpose in any counter-insurgency operation. There has to be a unified command structure with only a single direction. The political aims should also be crystal clear. Further, the armed forces should clearly map the conflict zones. Involved forces must be clear about their allocated tasks, and short and long term targets. For all these, the most significant clarity is that the forces should be very clear that these operations must be people friendly ones. Challenges with reference to clarity of operations arise due to prevalence of multiple levels of decision makers in the insurgency-affected states like in the North East.

    The author reemphasises in the conclusion that the aim of the insurgents is not to kill but spread parallel government to establish their own legitimacy. Hence, the aim of the counter-insurgency forces should be to root out these parallel structures of government.

    Major Points of Discussion and Suggestions to the Author:

    • There are dissimilarities among insurgencies but many general practices can be applied anywhere. There has to be no uniform approach to stages of insurgency rather different approaches to conflict.
    • The success story of Sri Lanka where controlled empowerment of the security forces was utilized has to be referred.
    • Proper identification of current stakeholders in engagement of counter-insurgency has to be taken into consideration.
    • There has been a role of media and civil society but a larger involvement is required to have major impact on civilian population.
    • The aspect of winning hearts and minds with more emphasis on the physical, psychological, social and economical factors has to be utilised for defeating insurgency. Attitude within the military has to change and it has to be reiterated that they are not just for kills. Home and heart battalion has to be engaged.
    • Centre of Gravity as one of the best practices consist of both strengths and weaknesses be it physical, psychological, philosophical and ideological.
    • It is difficult to define the best practice of resolute leadership where military leadership has been tenure based.
    • There is a need to incorporate more technical intelligence and information operation in counter-insurgency measures.
    • There has to be more operational clarity in the practices and continuity has to be maintained.
    • If the mentioned features are best practices or best principles has to be reflected on again.
    • Concession is the key to strategy and the hardcore best practice has to be to wean away support and the ultimate solution has to come from political front.
    • Sealing of borders will be difficult to achieve instead the borders need to be secured.

    Report prepared by Srishti Pukhrem, Research Assistant, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.