June 1, 1999
When militancy began in Jammu and Kashmir at the beginning of the decade, the Pakistan Army was under the command of Gen Mirza Aslam Beg, the first chief to have served with its special forces, the Special Service Group (SSG). At the end of the decade, with Pakistan undertaking a radical transformation of the Kashmir dispute, General Headquarter Rawalpindi is for a second time under the command of a chief, who had served with the SSG. If military and political observers do not make a connection between this coincidence, then lessons in understanding the ethos and purpose of special forces are long overdue.
Operation Vijay, currently underway to evict the Pakistani intruders, is quite likely the first instance in recorded military history when special forces of two opposing countries have been engaged directly in combat. The very ethos and tasking of special forces preclude any likelihood of coming into contact with the same of the rival country. But this is not so in the jagged mountains of Kargil, wherethe SSG and our own Army special forces are locked in combat. And in both cases there have been outstanding military operations. Purely from the operational point of view, the actions initiated by the SSG have been spectacular, audacious, and from the special forces’ perspective, excellent examples of planning and execution. And those of our special forces have not been lesser in terms of daring, skill and implementation. But they lack that irreplaceable factor which determines their efficacy as well as determining the military vision — initiative.
Whereas the SSG was deployed as the initiator of the operation, our special forces have been used as a reaction — an antithesis of the special forces’ doctrine, principles and ethos. This has been a military failing in India for a sufficiently long duration to make one wonder whether there actually is an appropriation of the roles, needs and the potential of our special forces. The one way never to use special forces assets is as reactive, fire-fighting troopswhen the going has gone too tough for the others. While this displays a complete absence of faith in conventional troops, and a searing insult to their soldiering abilities as well, it appears to put the special forces on a pedestal. They eat the same rations, draw the same pay (well, just a few hundred more) and have undergone the same basic training. The difference, however, is that almost all of them have a sinister streak, which allows the mind to tick constantly in different directions. Simply put, special forces officers and soldiers think differently. And because they think differently, they are able to undertake operations differently, and produce results disproportionate to the assets and numbers employed.
And because they defy conventional military thinking, they are rarely understood, even more rarely deployed, and never really consulted at the highest political and military levels. Conventional democratic armies have never, in any case, voluntarily thrown up special forces. They have been priedfrom the conventional military by a political leadership eager for unconventional operations. Churchill-Kennedy and the Special Air Service-Green Berets are perfect examples. Undemocratic militaries, on the other hand, have initiated the process of raising special forces units. Soviet Russia and the Spetsnaz, 1950s’ Pakistan and the SSG are examples. India raised its first special forces assets in a reactive mode during the run-up to the 1965 war, and that attitude continues to prevail till today. The lessons available suggest that those special forces which are consulted at the highest decision-making level produce outstanding results.
This is not the case with India, even though the Army’s special forces have more combat experience than any in the world, including the SSG. That experience, unfortunately, does not translate into planning, tasking and deployment. For India’s special forces to produce results commensurate with their true potential, they have to be organised, equipped, trained and tasked foroperations on the basis of politico-military consultations at the highest levels. The fundamentals of special forces assets are that they can be destroyed overnight by wrong deployment, but cannot be created overnight. While raising special forces units is a long-drawn out affair, the real challenge, however, is in the organisation and tasking. If they are not organised for the ultimate in the unconventional, they will undertake the same at very high costs. And then back to the overnight destruction syndrome. On the other hand, if they are not appropriately tasked, it would be a waste of valuable assets, which is largely the Indian experience. Special forces are multi-service and multi-dimensional military assets applicable across the entire conflict spectrum. They defy the conventional rules of the game, because they think differently.
Which takes us back to the thinking process, and understanding the contributions of Gen Mirza Aslam Beg and Gen Parvez Musharraf to Indian security. Their roles, at eitherend of the decade, should have produced reams of analysis by now. But to even attempt doing that, the polity and the military must first begin to look for the unconventional. And that can only happen if there is a properly constituted organisation though which the unconventional are able to express their views and suggest options. But that organisation must firstly reflect the special forces’ ethos and mantra, the one which says that the mind is the ultimate weapon.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.