Friday, 17 April 2020

Yelena Biberman, Gambling with Violence: State Outsourcing of War in Pakistan and India, New York: Oxford University Press, 2019, pp. 220, ISBN 9780190929978
The book is an outcome of the dissertation of the author, Yelena Biberman, at Brown University, under tutelage of Prof. Ashutosh Varshney. Varshney is also series editor of the Modern South Asia series of which the book is the fifth product. The slim volume encompasses work of eight years, covering field work in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and archival research in three continents. The book was completed at Skidmore College, where the author currently teaches. Her inspiration appears to be her family’s experience as refugees fleeing persecution from her place of origin where even discussion of politics in private could prove fatal. For these reasons, the book’s simple and honest coverage of the illicit activity that attends counter insurgency needs taking seriously in our part of the world, the focus of the book.
Two of the in-depth case studies on the use of irregulars by the state security forces are centered in South Asia: by Pakistanis in East Pakistan in the run up to and during the 1971 War and the employment of the Ikhwan in Kashmir against Pakistani proxies in the nineties. Two further case studies are dwelt on in one chapter: the resort to lashkars by the Pakistani army to roll back the Taliban and Islamist intrusion into the areas along the Durand Line and the use of the Salwa Judum by India to combat the Maoist insurgency in Central India. To highlight that such manner of resort to local fighters in an armed group affiliated with the state is not a typically South Asian counter insurgency innovation, the author also touches upon the experience of the Turkish military in deploying irregulars in their containment of the Kurdish insurgency and of the two rounds of Russian military intervention in Chechenya wherein the Russians liberally employed Chechen fighters with allegiance to them against their compatriot Chechen insurgents.
The six case studies between them cover most conceivable issues that arise from a political, strategic and human rights perspective. The book is on this count a recommended read for both practitioners and academics since it elaborates on a topic usually touched on in hushed tones and of which little is known. It is significant for the light it casts on both major militaries in South Asia – the Pakistani and Indian military and security forces – in revealing perhaps for the first time in one set of covers their use (and abuse) of proxy armed groups. Clearly, the foremost take away from the book is that the practice of raising, deploying and employing such armed groups is a bad idea and must be struck of the counter insurgency repertoire at least in India, a self-regarding democratic state. That the practice is shady and the knowledge of which leads to these groups being abandoned after use is at variance with democratic ethic. The tactical and short term gains accruing on the security front – a questionable proposition - are at a cost of induction of anti-democratic biases into a military’s organizational culture.
The case study on the Ikhwan illustrates this point. The army was in a bit of a fix rolling back Pakistan’s proxy war in Kashmir. It wanted to keep its redoubtable infantry free for a conventional retaliation against Pakistan in case it failed to keep the proxy war below a certain threshold of tolerance. Therefore, it raised a new counter insurgency force, the Rastriya Rifles. Though the force is now institutionalized to an extent, in the days when the idea of the Ikhwan was thought up and acted on, it was a fledgling, rather ungainly force. The army therefore had to resort to unorthodox means to take on the Pakistani challenge. It turned to turn coat militants, the Ikhwan, who were then let loose on the Pakistani sponsored groups, over ground workers and the population in general. The state terror they inspired over time enabled a semblance of stability, wherein assembly elections were held for the first time after outbreak of troubles. Eventually, the proxy group were merged into the police as the notorious and dreaded, special operations group. The leader of the group tried his hand in politics and was later assassinated. The sorry story has a telling climax in the stronghold of the group, Hajin, currently a hotbed of Pakistani proxy groups.
The story of India’s resort to the Salwa Judum is even more sordid. The author makes a significant point in highlighting the link between India’s attempt at opening up the Central Indian forests to exploitation by corporate entities and the displacement of the vulnerable tribal populations from their lands. The Salwa Judum was at the forefront of this bit of unacknowledged ethnic cleansing by India. It is only later when the Supreme Court stepped in at the behest of concerned academics and activists who petitioned it and pursued the case, that the state changed gears. Even then, it merely transferred the illiterate fighters, usually recruited as child soldiers, into new forces, colourfully called Koda Commandoes etc. It has continued its strategy of appropriating tribal lands for capitalist penetration under a larger deployment of a paramilitary of questionable capability for jungle operations and a deafening media silence. The author informs of poetic justice catching up with the founder of Salwa Judum.
The Pakistani, Turkish and Russian experiences are instructive in only reinforcing the point that the tactic is unsuitable for democratic militaries, particularly since the three are the best company to be in for a liberal democratic state as India. The Russian experience is decidedly the most repulsive. The Russian military was at its lowest ebb in the nineties when it ventured to retake Chechenya from the rebels. It eventually got its act together, but succeeded in gaining control of the rubble that its military resort, supplemented by proxy fighters, left behind. The case study from Turkey indicates how a secular Turkey associated with Islamists to cow down Kurdish fighters.
The lesson for readers here is that if a military route is not possible without the sacrifice of democratic credentials then it should not be taken, but substituted by political means involving where necessary, suitable concessions. This observation has bearing on the current day lock-down – at the time of writing - ongoing in Kashmir. Underlining this is necessary since the use of proxy groups figures in the first iteration of India’s subconventional operations doctrine as force multipliers. Under the current dispensation, when India is turning to a harder strategic line, it can be easily inferred that the state will not be chary of going to any lengths in the name of security. Proxy fighters will therefore remain as an enticing option, but the military – and other security forces - need warning off. Towards this end, the book is timely. The author’s revelations help debunk the understanding, held in sections of the military, that the use of proxies is a replicable tactical innovation. This explains the apt title of the book. For a nation with a robust military, national security cannot be gambled away for questionable tactical gains enabled by proxies.