Counter Insurgency 101


War, as defined by Clausewitz, in a simplified form, is politics by other means. Historically, many a leading minds in the domain of Strategy and Operational Art, have tried to simplify it as a game of Chess, played theoretically between two opponents, whose stress is on manoeuver and force accumulation/consolidation at an appropriate time, to deal a fatal blow to the opposing force in order to ‘kill’ the opposing King.

While the above simplification is apt to understand the broad concepts of war fighting, what remains unsaid, is that no chess player has found a sure way of winning from the first move itself, thereby rendering the game itself susceptible to a multitude of variables, which may/may not be within the control of the player, and may, at times, leave the player in a position beyond an ability to conduct any logical analysis to extricate from/take advantage of an emergent situation.

Broadly speaking, the laws of war can be summed up as under:

1. The belligerent with the larger force, usually wins.

2. If both the belligerents have equal forces, then the one who is more resolute, prevails.

3. If both the belligerents have equal resolve, then the one that seizes the initiative and continues to hold it, wins.

4. Surprise always plays a decisive role in any confrontation.

Now, if we were to further take our analogy of defining war in terms of a game, then war, perhaps, can be best defined as a combination of Chess and the Chinese game of Wei Qi (Japanese and International Name “Go”), where in, the run up to a successful campaign involves a multitude of manoeuvres to gain a strategic “edge” and then only to seek a confrontation, when the diplomacy fails.

These tenets of war, broadly speaking, hold true even in a Counter Insurgency Operation. To ignore them, is a step that a Commander (or a Political Leadership) undertakes at great peril where the stakes can be as high as the Nation itself. However, unlike in a conventional war where these tenets hold for either side, an insurgency may have these variables working in favour of one only.

In the succeeding posts over the period of time, I shall try to extrapolate the above tenets in the context of Indian experience specific to Kashmir itself.

Insurgency & it’s characteristics

Revolution, plot (or coup d’etat), and insurgency are the three ways to take power by force in any scenario. Concerning ourselves only with insurgency, with a history of India of waging counter insurgency operations in various parts of the country since independence, one can simplify an insurgency into a protracted struggle conducted methodically, step by step, in order to attain specific intermediate objectives leading finally to the overthrow of the existing order.

Contrast this with a revolution or a plot (coup d’etat). A revolution usually is an explosive upheaval — sudden, brief, spontaneous, unplanned and unpredictable. In a revolution, masses move and then leaders appear. On the other hand, a plot is the clandestine action of an insurgent group directed at the overthrow of the top leadership in its country. It is slow, nondescript in planning, but quick and maybe extremely violent in the act itself. By the inherent nature of it being a clandestine act, the masses are not involved.

Reverting back to an insurgency, there are two belligerents in any insurgency: an insurgent, and a counter-insurgent. Since the insurgent is the ‘initiator’ in the whole scenario, the initiative rests with the insurgent.

By the very fact of the the initiative resting with the insurgent, the insurgent can choose the time, place and tempo of hostile actions to be undertaken. Since the world is far more complex than the above simplicity, external factors may play a significant role in determining the time, place and tempo, depending on the desired results of the external supporting nation/agency.

Until the insurgent has clearly revealed the intentions by engaging in subversion or open violence, (s)he represents nothing but an imprecise, potential menace to the political authority in power/counterinsurgent and does not offer a concrete target that would justify a large effort. Yet an insurgency can reach a high degree of development by legal and peaceful means, at least in countries where political opposition is tolerated. This greatly limits pre-emptive moves on the part of the antagonist political authority/counterinsurgent. Usually, the most any political authority/counterinsurgent can do is to try to eliminate or alleviate the conditions propitious for an insurgency.

An appreciation of the contending forces will indicate that the insurgent is the ‘outside’ force while the established political authority/counterinsurgent is the ‘inside’ force, deriving it’s legitimacy from the established political order in the country/territory. They have the necessary diplomatic recognition, a legitimate power in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the country/territory, a control of the administration and police (necessary for ‘civil’ control of the population as a whole), the financial resources, the industrial and agricultural resources at home or ready access to them abroad; control of the transport and communications facilities; use and control of the information and print/broadcast media; command of the armed forces and the possibility of increasing their size and scale of equipment, in short, an absolute control of all the resources of an established nation state at it’s disposal.

On the opposite side, the strength of the insurgent is in ‘intangibles’. It may have a limited but very strong support bordering on near fanaticism, a support base (or an ‘ideological base’ invariably supported by an external agency or a nation/nations; as seen in the world today), which may increase with passage of time/scale of influence dissemination. The counterinsurgent has a very heavy liability in the inherent asset — he is responsible for maintaining law and order throughout the territory/country. The insurgent’s strategy will naturally aim at converting his intangible asset into a concrete one, every action will be directed to wrest the advantage in own favour and deny the inherent “ascendancy” in the struggle to the established political order/counterinsurgent; the counterinsurgent’s strategy at preventing his intangible liability from dissipating his concrete assets; something he expends a substantial portion of available resources in terms of political, diplomatic and economic capital, to ensure. The insurgent thus has to grow in the course of the war from small to large, from weakness to strength, or else he fails. The counterinsurgent will decline from large to small, from strength to weakness, in direct relation to the insurgent’s success or reverse.

Faced with a formidable array of instances against itself, the insurgent aims to attain a position from which (s)he can fight in a manner so as to negate the advantage of the counterinsurgent. This is where, the objective of any counterinsurgency operation becomes pre-dominantly -population.

If the insurgent manages to dissociate the population from the counterinsurgent, to control it physically, to get its active support, he will win the war because, in the final analysis, the exercise of political power depends on the tacit or explicit agreement of the population or, at worst, on its submissiveness.

While every war has a political objective, and in the words of Clausewitz war is politics by other means, the counterinsurgency operations are exclusively characterised by the population being the ultimate objective.

The objective being the population itself, the operations designed to win it over (for the insurgent) or to keep it at least submissive (for the counterinsurgent) are essentially of a political nature. In this case, consequently, political action remains foremost throughout the war. It is not enough for the government to set political goals, to determine how much military force is applicable, to enter into alliances or to break them (GoI’s alliance with the ‘Ikhwanis’ in the 1990s to break the insurgency in Kashmir); politics becomes an active instrument of operation (something at which the Government of India is still wanting) . And so intricate is the interplay between the political and the military actions that they cannot be tidily separated; on the contrary, every military move has to be weighed with regard to its political effects, and vice versa.

The Population Dynamics

In any insurgency, the population is divided into three broad segments:

  1. The pro-insurgent minority.
  2. The neutral majority.
  3. The pro-government/counterinsurgent minority.

The ‘battle’ for ‘population’ depends on the complex dynamics of this population sub-set, which are unstable and variable sub-sets, depending on factors of socioeconomic to politico-military nature. Once an insurgent gains an ‘upper hand’ in an area/territory, the pro-government /counterinsurgent minority becomes invisible. Some of its members may be eliminated physically, thereby providing an example to the others who opposed the insurgent; others may escape abroad/leave the territory; most are cowed into hiding their true feelings, and have thus melted within the majority of the population; a few are found even making a show of their support for the insurgency. The population, watched by the active supporters of the insurgency, lives under the threat of denunciation and prompt punishment by the guerrilla units.

The minority hostile to the insurgent will not and cannot emerge as long as the threat has not been lifted to a reasonable extent (read effective control of counterinsurgent forces of the area as also the population). Furthermore, even after the threat has been lifted, the emerging counterinsurgent supporters will not be able to rally the bulk of the population so long as the population is not convinced that the counterinsurgent has the will, the means, and the ability to win. When a man’s life is at stake, it takes more than propaganda to budge him.

Effective political action on the population must be preceded by military and police operations against the guerrilla units and the insurgent political organisations. Political, social, economic, and other reforms, however much they ought to be wanted and popular, are inoperative when offered while the insurgent still controls the population, hence, a need for a military intervention to create conducive atmosphere for a political action.

The counterinsurgent needs a convincing success as early as possible in order to demonstrate that he has the will, the means, and the ability to win.The counterinsurgent cannot safely enter into negotiations except from a position of strength, or his potential supporters will flock to the insurgent

In conventional warfare, strength is assessed according to military or other tangible criteria, such as the number of divisions, the position they hold, the industrial resources, etc. In counterinsurgency, strength must be assessed by the extent of support from the population as measured in terms of political organisation at the grass roots. The counterinsurgent reaches a position of strength when his power is embodied in a political organisation issuing from, and firmly supported by, the population.

Disclaimer: Views as expressed by the author @Hellfire on is an amalgamation of various treatises on counter insurgency operations and the author’s own understanding. They do not form any official doctrine.

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