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Spare Army counterinsurgency tasks, police does it better. Look at Punjab, Andhra, Tripura

Indian experience points to the need for a nodal role for the state police in counterinsurgency operations. Military involvement is neither necessary, nor desirable.

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In an article for ThePrint, Professor Rajesh Rajagopalan highlighted an important issue about  the need to take the Indian Army out of counter-insurgency tasks. This makes tremendous sense, given our severe defence vulnerabilities that stem from limitless Chinese expansionist ambitions and Pakistan’s belligerent designs; and these are compounded by the ‘collusive threat’ of a two-front war from this inimical duo. The Army’s undivided attention is needed to counter these.

I would like to highlight some more factors that are equally, if not more, compelling, which should persuade our security planners to take Prof Rajagopalan’s suggestion seriously. Foremost among them is the Army’s basic mandate, which is to fight external aggressions. Fighting the country’s own citizens is an outright antithesis of its primary mission. The Army’s training is geared to its basic role of fighting conventional wars and does not fit well with any extraneous functions that involve combat-like situations with native people. Often, in such situations, the dividing-line between combatants and non-combatants gets blurred, which makes it difficult to avoid collateral damage.

Insurgencies fall in the realm of internal security and have to be fought by police forces, largely using the tools of law enforcement and criminal justice.

Next, protracted deployment on internal security tasks can compromise the Army’s battle-worthiness in the long run. Its long-term presence also often engenders alienation of the local population – certainly not a good augury, particularly in and around the areas of likely theatres of war.

Last but not least, lack of familiarity with the local terrain, language, culture and ethos poses a major impediment for Army troops deployed in zones of internal conflict. The gathering of tactical intelligence – a sine qua non for success of operations – also consequently becomes a problem.

Also read: Take Indian Army out of counterinsurgency. It has to tackle leaner, modern PLA

Army in insurgencies – worldwide experience 

Post-World War II history is rife with armed insurrections and insurgencies engaging armies: the Jewish insurgency in Palestine, the Malayan insurgency, the Kenyan insurgency, Cyprus insurgency, and so forth, through the 1960s and 1970s, besides the prolonged armed conflict in Northern Ireland, all of them involving the British Army; the insurgencies in Indochina and later in Algeria, fought by the French army; the insurgencies involving the United States in Vietnam and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These cases have been studied in detail by expert security analysts and their findings are available in public domain. Significantly, most analytical accounts have concluded that internal conflicts are very different from conventional wars in complexion and characteristics, and that counter-strategies for such conflicts have to primarily focus on the population rather than the ‘enemy’.

Analysing American counter-insurgency operations in Philippines, Afghanistan and Iraq, Eliot Cohen et al emphasise that to establish legitimacy, security agencies must move from the realm of major combat operations into the domain of law enforcement. That when insurgents were dealt with under an established legal system, they would be seen as criminals and hence lose public support; whereas the legitimacy of the government would be enhanced.

Discussing counterinsurgency in the context of legitimacy and rule of law, Thomas Nachbar stresses that counterinsurgency is an unusual form of warfare, in which law and legitimacy prominently figure as means to defeat the adversaries. The insurgents, even though conspiring against the State, must be dealt with in accordance with the rule of law.

Reviewing the American intervention in Vietnam and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Kalev Sepp argues that law enforcement functions to build people’s confidence in the government, and that honest, well-trained, robust police forces can easily gather ground-level intelligence that helps in detecting insurgents for arrest and prosecution. The military and paramilitary forces can only support the police in the performance of their law enforcement functions.

Montgomery McFate and Andrea Jackson observe that militaries are trained, organised and equipped to fight wars and thus, have a natural tendency to misread the adversary during counterinsurgencies as ‘enemy’. This is counterproductive, because the use of excessive force causes the State to lose legitimacy, besides legitimising the insurgents.

Finally, a Rand Corporation study of “Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan” identifies the importance of a competent local police force in dealing with insurgency as the most significant lesson from Afghanistan. This is because, unlike the military, the police have i) a permanent presence in cities, towns and villages, ii) a better understanding of the threat environment and iii) better intelligence. While advocating focus on improving training, mentoring and equipping the police, it suggests that the US government create police units within one of their federal law-enforcement agencies that could be deployed abroad “as and when needed”.

Also read: India’s Maoist strategy needs a reset. But will Modi govt change its muscular approach?

How armies got roped into counterinsurgencies

A quintessentially internal-security task, why, in the first place, did armies get involved in those counterinsurgencies? Partly because in nearly all those situations, it was either a colonial or an interventionist regime fighting rebellions in an alien country. Obviously then, the aim was to effectively crush any uprising, at whatever cost. The other reason was that their local police forces were much too weak to effectively deal with armed insurrections.

Unfortunately, in the absence of any alternative model, this became the template for all nations to follow when faced with violent rebellions. Notwithstanding that this was absolutely incongruous in democratic nations!

India too followed suit and repeatedly tasked its Army to deal with insurgencies, starting with the Naga revolt in the 1950s.

India’s own experience 

Within India’s valuable experience in dealing with insurgencies, it is possible to discover three exemplary and decisive successes– Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, and Tripura. Remarkably, in all these states, police primacy was the template, with final responsibility of operations vested in the District Superintendent of Police, under the overall command and direction of the State DGP. In Andhra Pradesh and Tripura, the Army was not commissioned at all. In Punjab, it was assigned only a supplemental role.

In Andhra Pradesh, noteworthy contribution was made by ‘Greyhounds’, a special force raised and trained as an integral part of the state police itself, with handpicked and highly motivated young volunteers from among the police personnel. Paying attention to day-to-day policing – alongside relentless counterinsurgency operations – helped garner public support, which in turn boosted gathering of hard tactical intelligence. Utmost care was taken to avoid collateral damage and consequent alienation of the population. Finally,  the Andhra Pradesh Police were able to gain an upper hand and stamp out the decades-old, festering insurgency.

In Punjab, where “Operation Blue Star” and “Operation Woodrose” had provided quite the impetus to terrorism and insurgency, tables actually turned with the police taking the challenge head-on. The police leadership focussed their strategy on organising, training and equipping the police force into an effective fighting unit. Systematic intelligence-gathering helped clinical targeting of terrorists/insurgents. “Operation Black Thunder” – a joint endeavour of the state police, central police forces, and National Security Guard, with the State DGP in the overall command – was a thundering success.

The police strategy in Tripura prominently included setting up a large number of ‘police camps’ and ‘special police pickets’ (SPPs) in far and wide strategic interior areas. This network created a substantial force structure at the command of each district SP, which helped in area domination, besides generating large volumes of intelligence and also improving police-public interface. Targeted legal action was taken against over-ground collaborators providing logistical support and intelligence to insurgents. This multi-pronged strategy led to the conclusive defeat of entrenched insurgents, despite the vigorous support they enjoyed from Bangladesh.

Also read: Burden of India’s internal conflicts are on smaller states with limited political clout: Data

Lessons from India’s success stories 

These happy Indian experiences clearly point to the need for a nodal role for the state police – especially the civil police – in counterinsurgency operations; military involvement is neither necessary, nor desirable.

Having said that, our police forces that have long suffered acute neglect, need determined efforts in their capacity upgradation – as imaginatively done in Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Tripura.

Given the multitude, magnitude and complexity of internal-security threats in India, enabling and empowering the police is a task that cannot be overemphasised and it warrants the nation’s urgent and focussed attention.

The author is the ex-Director of National Police Academy, and Former Vice-Chairman, UN Commission on Crime Prevention & Criminal Justice. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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