It is a globally-accepted axiom that a regular army’s fitness to face external enemies gets impaired when it is frequently used against the domestic population in insurgency situations. This is because insurgency has some amount of popular support, as opposed to terrorism. India had to face insurgencies soon after Independence. As a result, we have done considerable research on the adverse effects to the mental health of our armed forces when exposed to prolonged insurgencies. Thus, it is not surprising that leading foreign military researchers have been citing our studies on this subject.
A 2012 paper in Military Medicine, a journal of the Association of Military Surgeons of USA ( AMSUS) quoted a 2006 research paper in the Indian journal of Psychiatry titled ‘Psychological effects of low intensity conflict (LIC) operations’ on the mental health of our troops. The researchers studied responses from 568 service personnel working in “Low Intensity Warfare” areas. An equal number from other areas was also examined for comparison. They found that those working in LIC areas had suffered from “significantly higher scores” of adverse psychological effects.
The reasons were vagueness on the aim of the operations, a feeling that it is a “futile war with no benefits to the country”, fear of unexpected attacks, frustration at fighting with “one arm tied behind the back”, anger against those who incite insurgency, lack of societal support to the troops, adverse media publicity, hostility from local public, criticism from human rights groups, lack of monetary incentives and a feeling that their families back home were insecure. The research found that such soldiers had “significantly higher depression, alcohol abuse and psychiatric distress compared to those in other locations”. They said that conventional military training made the soldier think in clear-cut extremes like”black and white, friend and foe”. However, this created problems in LIC “where the concept of ‘enemy’ cannot be applied to one’s own people”.
Military Medicine in turn examined the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan after the US Counter-Insurgency (COIN) strategy was rolled out on the termination of the regular war. They found that this had resulted in confusion among the soldiers in the “absence of a clear demarcation between the ongoing combat operations and the implementation of stability operations” to support the nascent Iraqi government due to the “unpredictable threat of an active insurgency”. This was because the local public emerged as the decisive factor in COIN for winning over “the peoples’ minds”, whereas it was not so earlier.
The COIN strategy was meant to supplant insurgent support among the public and displace its influence from social networks. As General David Petraeus, commander of the Iraq Multinational Security Command from 2004 and later CIA director said: “Insurgency is something much bigger than just a few terrorist cells. It is also establishing a political environment that helps reduce support for the insurgents.”
The US Department of Army & US Marines faces several intangible realities while executing this strategy: The more force they use, the less effective it becomes because of public hostility; the more they protect their soldiers through heavy escorts (or stopping civilian traffic on highways as we saw in Kashmir), the less secure or confident they appear in the public eye. If a particular tactic works this week there is no guarantee that it would work next week.
As a result, astute strategists seldom use only “muscular” strategy to tackle insurgency. History records that insurgency was always tackled through a combination of coercive action, conciliation through talks and rehabilitation. Also, all nations try to put civilian agencies to face the public keeping the army in the background.
This will be evident from an excellent compendium, Policing Insurgencies, edited by Christine Fair and Sumit Ganguly (Oxford) for which I was asked to do a pre-publication editing in May 2012. The book examines tactics used in 10 insurgencies. These included old cases like the Hukbalahap communist rebellion (Philippines, 1946-54), Malayan communist emergency in two phases (1948-60) and Kenya’s Mau Mau (1952-60) where the deadlock was broken after Sir Richard Catling, the new police commissioner, met Jomo Kenyatta in prison. These also included ongoing problem cases like Northern Ireland, Colombia, Iraq, Afghanistan and our own Sikh, Naga and Maoist insurgencies.
Ignoring this historical experience, the BJP government has landed us at the other end of the spectrum in Kashmir by putting the army directly against the public, thereby exposing them to unending strain. Their claim of support to our armed forces has not been followed up by creating conditions for overcoming insurgency through a parallel track of political process as they consider all Valley protesters as Pakistan’s proxies. At times, it looks as though they are waging war on the common public only to protect their troops, like the highway blockade which inconvenienced thousands. In that process, we have lost many more security personnel since 2014, questioning the myth that we are safer under the BJP rule: In 2014, we lost 51 security personnel while fighting insurgency in Kashmir. It touched an all-time high of 95 in 2018. This year we have already lost 59. Till 2014, the Maoists used to kill maximum number of security personnel. Under BJP rule, Kashmir has overtaken the Maoists.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi claims during his campaign speeches that he was able to make India strong through his personal diplomacy with top foreign leaders. Unfortunately, his repeated reference to Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday massacres and comparison with the Pulwama killings has not been received well in that country, partly because Pulwama also was a symptom of our major security failure like the Sri Lankan killings.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 10, 2019, under the title ‘Intimate enemies’. The writer is a former special secretary, Cabinet Secretariat. Views are personal