Following the Bastar setback inflicted by the Maoists, it is important to reflect on the ways and means of enhancing our strategic effectiveness in counter-insurgency operations.
The last thing that a security force wants after a reverse in the field is, unsolicited advice from anybody. Yet, an analysis of such a loss may be a better way of allowing the negatives to sink in. Besides, it also serves as a reminder to the security practitioners about the critical areas in which they need to concentrate.
The context of this statement is Saturday’s unfortunate incident in which Chhattisgarh’s Special Task Force’s (STF) 60-man elite squad, led by its Platoon Commander Shankar Rao, was ambushed 11 km inside the thick jungles in Sukma area of South Bastar. Seven good men lost their lives and 11 were injured in the worst loss suffered by the security forces battling the Naxalites in the so-called Red Corridor.
It is almost crystal clear that the Maoists are following the tactics and dictum that the LTTE did in Sri Lankan jungles, both, against the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) and the Sri Lankan Army. The IPKF remained more defensive, fighting without using heavy weaponry with a vague aim of curtailing the LTTE’s military power to force it into a political compromise.
The SLA had no such qualms. It waited patiently for over 20 years after the withdrawal of the IPKF: 20 years in which the LTTE tried all kinds of strategies to weaken the Government’s resolve and the SLA’s capability. Finally, the Sri Lankan government decided to use the pure kinetic route, empowering its military to finish the scourge of the LTTE once and for all.
The SLA succeeded because it treated the problem as a military one, in opposition to a political one, while evolving its strategy. It thus used the combined might of its forces and treated the campaign as one of conventional warfare, drawing the LTTE into near-conventional battles and decimating it as it tightened the noose around it. That the final victory has to be political in nature is not the issue here. The SLA amply demonstrated that military focus with complete political backing can lay bare the fighting capability of a supposedly iconic guerrilla-cum-terrorist force.
Cut to the situation in India’s Red Corridor. The Maoists have demonstrated outstanding military capability in terms of guerrilla warfare, exploiting the extremely difficult terrain which abounds with thick jungles. The area of operations, spread over a large section of central, south and near east India, is most dangerous in the militant-infested areas of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.
While the government makes attempts to ameliorate the conditions of tribals as well as solve the conventionally identified social problems, this is a long-term plan which requires land reforms, social engineering and a transformational change in administrative and policing norms.
In the interim, the taste of power has been felt by militant leaders. The macho image of the AK-47 is a dangerous one on disaffected young men and not easy to erase once it casts its spell. There are many who will not agree with this, but a kinetic jolt that is missing at the moment is absolutely necessary.
It is debatable as to who can give it. Getting the Army and its Rashtriya Rifles units is the first temptation, which is probably the worst option. Using the SF units of the Army is an alternative because they are highly trained and very adaptable. But anyone who knows the psychology of men under arms will tell you that SF units would never wish to be involved without the bases and backing of the regular Army.
The Army’s point about not involving itself in these operations makes a lot of sense; during the UPA rule, former Home Minister Chidambaram tried his best to get the Army deployed. The Army invariably quoted the rational concept of not being involved in heartland insurgencies; its responsibility being border (rimland) insurgencies where its deployment ensures stabilization. It also makes sure that its readiness to go to conventional war is not hampered by the prevalent insurgency.
Logistics installations and lines of communications have to be protected at all times, especially these days when the nation could well be forced to go to war at a short notice after a high-profile event sponsored as part of the proxy war. The only option is to strengthen the existing police forces involved in the counter-insurgency operations.
They have been doing this thankless task in one of the most difficult terrains with aplomb. But to take their effectiveness to a next level of efficiency, there is a need to go back to many of the lessons from Operation Pawan (IPKF), which most analysts have unfairly pushed out of sight and mind on the basis of a perceived failure. The IPKF’s troops were quick learners, but much of their experiences have been lost at the altar of imprudence judging their operations as a failure. This is a classic case of forgetting that failures teach us a lot more than successful operations do.
The nation is probably being unfair to its police forces performing the most difficult duty, since they need greater backing and attention to perform their arduous task. While minor tactics and use of ground plus individual valor are all of a higher order, it is the dynamism in learning lessons and the mid tactical level understanding of some concepts that can be debated, not questioned, because the man on the ground ultimately knows what is best.
Operations in the jungles, for instance, are not conducted with the base as far as 11 kilo meters away, without setting up interim temporary bases where reserves are located so that casualty evacuation becomes accessible and easy. The deeper you go in the jungles, the greater is the need for reserve. Secondly, without the availability of combat helicopters, conducting jungle operations in modern times is rightly seen as a superannuated approach.
Thirty years ago, the IPKF employed Ranjit helicopters, simply improvised Cheetahs with a weapon mounting for the 7.62 MMG. It had a terrifying effect, especially under adverse circumstances when a negative contact had to be broken. Para SF and other units involved intensely in jungle operations in Sri Lanka would recall that the weapon of the jungle was the 84 mm Rocket Launcher (RL).
As a young tactical leader, I would readily sacrifice some ration and even waterproof equipment to accommodate extra rockets of the RL as these helped break contact if surrounded by a larger force or to destroy insurgent hideouts. I am not sure about extent of reliance on this weapon, by the police forces. I am not sure about how effective UAVs and drones have been in the forested areas. However, without rotary surveillance, combat, liaison and logistics support, I do not think that the police forces can make an optimum impact at the ground level.
Helicopters are in short supply in all the three Services, but some of these resources can be surely diverted for national causes even as fast-track acquisitions are being sought. There is an urgent need to follow the Rafale example with helicopters since, without them, the overall effectiveness of the Services and the CAPFs will always be suspected.
The Defence Minister is doing outstanding work by facilitating the acquisition of Apache attack helicopters. Older helicopters with the IAF could well be used in light combat role in the jungle operations by the IAF. However, creating an air arm for combat in the CAPFs is certainly not recommended.
(The writer, a former GOC of the Srinagar based 15 Corps, served extensively with the IPKF and in subsequent counter insurgency operations)
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