Monday, 12 June 2017

An Army to fear: The Army's future?

The jury is out on whether the army chief was put up to it by his political masters or whether his rewarding the protagonist in the infamous ‘human shield’ case was of his own volition. From the broadside by one commentator likening the chief to General Dyer, it is clear that there are some who believe that the army chief acted on a suggestion from his superiors. That broadside from an academic would likely have been directed, less at the army chief himself, as much as the one whose bidding he was doing. But with the army chief going out on a limb (yet again) with his defence of not only the indefensible action of Mr. Tactical Innovation himself, Major Leetul Gogoi, and his own award, it is quite clear that the army chief has the courage of his conviction. That is the good news.
The bad news is that the conviction is itself wrong-headed. Courage of conviction in such cases leads to persisting in the wrong direction. Precedence in the case of a predecessor of his pursuing an age related case for a year’s extension at the helm of the army suggests as much. Incidentally, that general titled his memoirs, Courage and Conviction. Worse could follow. The generals of the First World War were not for nothing dubbed ‘donkeys’, for their outsized determination in trying to breakthrough trench lines with tactics that failed to work for several successive years at the cost of a million lives.
The pattern of persistence in wrong headedness in Kashmir is discernible. There has been a reversion to cordon and search operations. The unwritten ceasefire dating to end 2003 is in tatters. Just as the army went after the JKLF in the early nineties, believing it was wrapping up the indigenous insurgency then, this time round too it has a list, a score entries long of local militants it wants to take out by summer’s end. The army chief has warned off people from complicating military operations, lest they be taken as overground workers. Since it is well known what happened to overground workers, among others, through the nineties, he is harking back by a decade and more. The earlier measures having failed to end the insurgency, it beats imagination as to how these can possibly succeeded in their second iteration.
This time round the difference is in the army chief setting the tone out loud. He has required that the army be feared. Earlier - at least up front - the army preferred being respected, if not quite loved. It certainly wished to inspire fear in the enemy. This enemy was usually the adversary state across the border and its army, and in Kashmir, the jihadi mercenary, usually Pakistani Punjabi.
However, in terms of internal security, Jawaharlal Nehru had early on clearly spelt out how the army needed to be appreciated in such circumstance as a protector of the people. The then army chief taking cue in sending the army into Nagaland in 1955, had in his Special Order of the Day phrased the political terms of reference given out by Nehru in these words:
You must remember that all the people of the area in which you are operating are fellow Indians. They may have different religions, pursue a different way of life, but they are Indians and the very fact, that they are different and yet part of India is a reflection of India’s greatness. Some of these people are misguided and have taken up arms against their own people and are disrupting peace of this area. You are to protect the mass of the people in the area from these disruptive elements. You are not to fight the people in the area but to protect them.
General Rawat has upturned this. He has pronounced that ‘Adversaries must be afraid of you and at the same time your people must be afraid of you. We are a friendly army, but when we are called to restore law and order, people have to be afraid of us.’ He argues that the proxy war the army is coping with is a ‘dirty war’. He cannot have people throwing ‘petrol bombs and stones’ while his soldiers ‘wait and die’. He needs to keep their morale up by allowing them to fight innovatively, including through use – in the incident that prompted his defence of himself – of human shields.
Happily, he was quick to clarify that, ‘It (human shield) is not a general norm. As a practice it is not supported.’ What he misses is that tactics is to be guided both by norms and the humanitarian legal code, be it in war or internal conflict. Situations cannot guide tactics. Tactics are responses to situations that have to be ethically and legally compliant. By shifting the goal posts the army chief is arbitrarily changing the accepted doctrinal principles of Indian army in subconventional operations. 
This could possibly be on his initiative. His extensive experience in counter insurgency that got him his job, perhaps persuades him that the doctrinal principle of ‘one hand tied behind the back’ is superfluous. It was never quite popular within the army, with its counter insurgency trope largely bewailing the imposition. This is what prompted the army’s somewhat tough approach and action in the nineties in Kashmir, such as through use of proxy groups as Ikhwan, disappearances, firing on LC without concern for collateral damage etc. The new fangled technique - perception management - was to manage the fallout. The army’s flagship publication on subconventional operations - ‘iron fist in velvet glove’ - coincided with the start of the decade long hiatus of peace in Kashmir. It is apparent that the tenets on the use of force in the document are liable to be liberally interpreted by those who have cut their teeth in counter insurgency operations, such as the army chief.
In other words, has the army dropped its veneer? Though veterans with equal claim to operational experience are aghast at the brazen shift, that its slip is showing does not appear to embarrass the army any.
This brings one to the second possibility. The shift away from the central doctrinal pillar of people-friendly operations is perhaps an imposition by its political masters. They have chosen well in choosing an army chief with like sentiment. The government is explicit that talks are not the way out, even if its home minister promises a solution to the troubles in Kashmir. The army will therefore be held to the till. A tough line to go with the image of its national security minder – the national security adviser - and his boss - the prime minister - is politically useful. In any other dispensation, even if it was not knocked on its knuckles privately, the army could not have been this willful.
The problem with doggedness is that it can be in the wrong direction. The army in Kashmir is on such path. It mistakenly insists that it is confronted with a proxy war. There is surely Pakistani chicanery, but a decade long talks process with several false starts cannot but have let Pakistan continue as an  interested party and ill motivated player. The equally long and coextensive engagement with a political solution in Kashmir has been abandoned, leaving the people – even girls - with little choice than to take to stones. Whether this is a product of information war on social media - as the army chief suggests – is up for debate.
Instead, a self-fulfilling prophesy will likely develop, with a jihadists supposedly in search of Khorasan overrunning the indigenous dimension – yet another throwback to the mid nineties when the JKLF was eclipsed by the Hizb and the late nineties  when the Hizb was outshone by the Lashkar. This would be welcome in New Delhi. Turning the army into one feared by people would be small price to pay and it would exactly what is needed by an authoritarian regime. Hopefully, this is not a future the army envisages.   

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Book Review 
Armed Forces and Insurgents in Modern Asia, Kaushik Roy and Sourish Saha
The book is a product of collaboration between an unlikely duo: a history professor at Jadavpur University and a bio-statistical consultant for pharmaceutical companies based in the US. It began in a conversation over coffee at Kolkata’s Park Street in which the two discussed governance, poverty and armed rebellions in India, with the discussion expanding to include comparisons and contrasts with the experience of insurgency and counter-insurgency across the globe. In the event, the two restricted the scope of the book that emerged to Asia. They intended the book as a ‘sort of reference book for researchers’ (p. vii). The bibliography at its end covering 19 pages makes this claim plausible.
Professor Kaushik Roy’s academic contribution to Indian military history has included many works of considerable length and depth over the past decade. While the division of labour between the two authors is not known, the book’s introduction bears an academic’s stamp in its synthesis of thinking on insurgencies and their counter. Thoughts on rebellion ranging from Clausewitz to Mao and counter-insurgency thinking from Kitson to Kilcullen are touched upon. It is a sound background chapter on which to base the rest of the book, backed as it is by 82 footnotes citing the well regarded sources on the subject.
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There are eight chapters covering sequentially the insurgencies and counter-insurgencies in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaya, Vietnam, North East India, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iraq. The authors acknowledge that this is not an exhaustive coverage of Asian internal conflicts since some significant ones such as the Maoist insurgency against the Kuomintang and the Japanese; the several sites of insurgency in South Asia such as Punjab, Kashmir and Balochistan; Turkey’s engagement with the Kurdish question; the Palestinians against the Israeli occupation, do not find mention. In a way, it is a subjective selection on studies included, but these suffice to give a taste of various aspects of rebellions, how militaries have coped and statecraft. This is therefore a useful introductory volume for students not only of internal conflict as a phenomenon but specific insurgencies covered such as that of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.
The volume succeeds in bringing out the scope of insurgencies—its multiple forms and variants ranging from nationalist inspired such as in Vietnam to current day religious inspiration of the Islamic state in the Levant. Alongside, there are several models of state counter action such as imperial policing with militaries exhibiting a constabulary ethic to an annihilationist model persued by the Sri Lankan army against Prabhakaran’s beleaguered Tigers in 2009. The authors are agnostic on how success obtains to an insurgent and a counter-insurgent, but lay out the factors that influence the balance. For instance, the situation had turned decisively against the terrorist tactics adopted with the 9/11 attacks. This enabled the Sri Lankans to turn the screw without anyone, including India stepping up to bail out the Tigers. However, an annihilationist model has not succeeded elsewhere, howsoever much the ordnance delivered has been upped, for instance in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The book’s historical sweep covers a century from early last century to the current day. For instance, the chapter on India’s North East contrasts the British approach to pacifying the North East with Independent India’s approach. Since there is a lot of ground to be covered, there is a tendency to compress the material, with the time span of India’s military involvement in the North East from the mid-fifties to today being covered in a mere three pages. Sometimes this ends up as a staccato barrage of facts and figures, which is difficult to systematically put together analytically.
The readers can engage selectively with the book, dividing it into chapters of individual interests. Some are topical in that the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan continue unabated. The chapters therefore are a useful backgrounder, covering as they do the historical background to how the current day imbroglio came about and the current status of the insurgency itself. This is a rather ambitious project, but the authors make no claim to comprehensive treatment, but to bring to the fore the salient features and some nuances in the light of space constraints. For instance, in their chapter on Iraq they discuss the efficacy of the ‘surge’ that is credited with ending the earlier Sunni rebellion contrasting the two theories on its end, whether it can be attributed to American upping of their numbers under Petraeus leadership or of Sunni tribes themselves rolling back the Baathists and Al Qaeda elements within them.
The concluding chapter carries a view on the future of insurgencies and their counter. They highlight the dangers of urban insurgency, with the location being along seaboards in the light of global littoralization. Then there are the problems of weak, dysfunctional and failed states tackling population growth, slow economic development, social divisions, inadequate governmental penetration of areas and weak polity. The headlines-making Islamist terror also figures as a threat that will persist into the future. What is certain is that Kilkullen’s concept of ‘war among the people’, forged late last century in the face of the fissiparous wars in the Balkans, shall remain relevant into the future.
The book would be of interest to students of strategic and peace studies. Practitioners in uniform might like to broaden their understanding of their own experience by taking a look at examples from outside. Policy makers will find comparisons possible between the sites of insurgency useful, as also any best practices that can be gleaned from the case studies. By this yardstick, the book could find a place on bookshelves on internal armed conflict.
The book is also a contribution to Asian studies and development of an Asian perspective. This is all for the better since Asia is the least integrated continent in the world. It being the most populous and spread over multiple subcontinents, it is also the most militarized and has raging across it the most significant of today’s conflicts. For instance, Islamism—that is prophesized to figure in future conflicts—has a presence ranging from its Mediterranean shore to the Pacific. It is therefore important to begin seeing Asia as one, so as to emulate Africans who urge ‘African solutions to African problems’. On this count, the book appears a step in the right direction.