Developing a counterinsurgency strategy that actually works

Any strategy to counter left-wing extremism would need to have the dual objective of defeating the insurgents militarily and fully quelling insurgent impulses.

The killing of 22 security personnel by Maoists in Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh serves as a grim reminder that left-wing insurgency continues to be one of the biggest internal security threats for the country. Initial reports suggest that security forces in Chhattisgarh had launched a massive operation on April 4, after there were intelligence reports about the presence of top Maoist commander Hidma along with 60-70 Maoists in and around Tekulugudam Hill in Bijapur. As the forces reached the top of the hill and were combing through the intended “target” (Tekulugudam Hill), they came under heavy fire. It was then the forces realised that they had walked into a trap. The initial assessment indicates that there were around 300 Maoists, which included men and women belonging to the local tribal militia.

In the past few years, Maoist violence seemed to have been on a downward spiral. The government has, in fact, had some major successes in the form of arrests and surrender of important Maoist leaders. The figures associated with the key indicators of violence like the number of incidents also support the contention that “insurgency is on the downward spiral”. However, some experts believed that it was too early to sound the last post and cautioned that this drop could be the result of a “tactical withdrawal” by the Maoists, something which they have done in the past as well. The attack should thus serve as a wake-up call to those who had begun to get complacent about the Maoist threat. It appears that Maoists continue to hold on to their key strengths which include: (i) a robust and efficient intelligence network; (ii) the devolution of authority to local commanders; (iii) an ability to quickly readjust their strategy; (iv) extensive support from local tribes and the ability to organise them into a tribal militia for short-term tactical purposes and (v) domination of the local landscape.

This brings us to the most important question about the nature of the Counterinsurgency (hereafter COIN) strategy, which governments both in the states and at the Centre are adopting or should adopt. Debates about the utility of different COIN models in the Indian scenario have continued since India began dealing with its first full-blown insurgency in Nagaland in the 1950s. One school believes that given the Maoist insurgency posturing itself as a “people’s war”, the mandate is for a people-centric approach of “winning hearts and minds” that is built on the notions of competitive state-building to address economic and governance deficiencies.

The other school argues that an enemy-centric approach predicated on kinetic operations is best suited for the Maoist insurgency, where the fear of the population seceding from India is remote. The success of the erstwhile state of Andhra Pradesh in curbing the Maoist problem is often attributed to this enemy-centric approach. However, there is robust scholarly work available that shows that the Andhra government based its COIN strategy on a judicious mix of the enemy-centric and population-centric approaches. The successes achieved by the Greyhounds, Andhra’s elite special forces, could only be consolidated through the robust implementation of short-gestation-period developmental works in the Maoist-affected rural areas. Moreover, the erstwhile state is also the first state to have a comprehensive surrender-cum-rehabilitation policy.

After the 2014 guidelines of the central government were brought out, many states have crafted attractive surrender and rehabilitation policies. Odisha, for one, seems to have achieved fair success in its surrender policy but this was possible only after successful kinetic operations against Maoists. It is fair to say that a surrender and rehabilitation policy only works when there is sustained military pressure on the Maoists.

Another important question is whether the government should keep the option of talking to Maoists open. Debates about negotiating with insurgents and terrorists are often met with anger and, at times, disgust, at the possibility of sitting across a table from individuals who were responsible for some horrific violent acts. The US government had to share a table with the Taliban, which played host to al Qaeda as the latter prepared to kill thousands of innocent Americans. The willingness to talk to rebel groups seems to incentivise insurgents and may demonstrate that violence pays. Yet, time and again, governments face the distasteful reality of engaging with groups that have been involved in violent attacks against their forces and citizens. History is replete with examples that show the goal of ending terrorist violence or bringing an end to civil war invariably involves negotiating with the enemy, even the worst ones. And Maoists may not fall under the “worst” category, as successive governments have labelled them as “misguided” youth. Even the present central government’s surrender policy guidelines are aimed at bringing these “misguided” youth into the mainstream.

In the last decade or so, insurgency-affected states have started to undertake serious efforts to defeat the Maoist insurgency. Most of these states have raised special forces on the lines of Greyhounds, and are being given rigorous training in “counter-guerrilla” tactics and jungle warfare. A Maoist guerrilla can only be countered by a state guerrilla. The operating environment of these special forces has to demonstrate the employment of superior tactics to defeat the insurgents, something which at times seems lacking. Besides, the Maoists have mastered the art of exploiting the grey zone areas. The jungles around the interstate borders have always been the preferred hiding spaces for the Maoists. Soon after decimating the top state Congress leadership in Darbha in Chhattisgarh in 2013, the assault group moved to the Chhattisgarh-Odisha border to avoid any kind of kinetic response from the Chhattisgarh police. States must do more to synergise their efforts by launching coordinated operations, thereby denying Maoists any space for manoeuvrability. These efforts need to be supplemented by well-crafted development schemes. Proper implementation and timely disbursal of benefits add to the credibility of the government policies. It is also important to segregate the population from the insurgents both operationally and ideologically. The hawks and the doves need to be viewed and treated differently.

Indian counterinsurgency has to work with a dual objective of defeating the insurgents militarily and fully quell the insurgent impulses. This will need institutional overhauls. The conflict over the distribution of resources can be mended with economic development, but the bigger challenge would be to create a system where the tribal population feels that the government is representative, not repressive. Opening negotiation channels and policies like surrender and rehabilitation can give such a representative sense to the rebels that the government cares for them if they (rebels) are willing to shun the violent path. Lastly, the asymmetry in the distribution of power cannot solely be ironed out by just economic policies, it is critically important to create a system where the distribution of power is not controlled by the traditional elite.

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 9, 2021 under the title ‘Layers of counter-insurgency’. The writer is a senior IPS officer of the Madhya Pradesh cadre and a PhD scholar in Security Studies at Princeton University. Views are personal

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