The Soldier’s Dilemma | Needle in the Haystack

Actionable intelligence is the key to successful CI operations

Ravi PalsokarBrig. Ravi Palsokar (retd)

An insurgency is countered at many levels. The ultimate aim is to defeat the insurgents in the minds of the local populace on whose behalf they claim to be fighting. Doing so is difficult at all times and success follows only when information about the insurgents is gathered and acted upon decisively.

The fact that most insurgencies tend to get prolonged suggests that security forces are not able to act effectively for various reasons. Among these, a major factor is lack of actionable information and intelligence. In this article we examine how security forces do this, what are the common pitfalls and what action is necessary to overcome these.


The Battlefield

The counter-insurgency battlefield is different from that of conventional warfare. The terrain and weather remain the same as also the soldiers who are to carry out the task, but the critical difference lies in the fact that the aim of counter-insurgency operations is different. This is to wean away the local population, sympathisers and finally the insurgents from trying to secede from the country or overthrow the government to establish their own, to suit their ideology.

In conventional war the soldier is trained to use maximum force at his disposal. He is little concerned about damage to enemy civil property or other harm. In counter-insurgency operations, unnecessary violence or collateral damage cause more harm than good. The necessity for and use of minimum force, good intentions and above all a concern for the public good are the base requirements for providing aid to civil authority. Essentially, the battle is for the hearts and minds of the affected population.

This is the main reason why regular soldiers do not like being deployed for counter-insurgency tasks and will always complain that they are forced to fight with one hand tied behind their backs. Immature or misguided commanders concentrate more on territory domination or eliminating insurgents and consider every kill as a blow against the adversary. This is a short-sighted understanding of the problem. Excessive use of force will often drive the militants underground or force them to relocate. But they remain active resorting to even greater violence and just bide their time to reactivate themselves. This is like a snakes and ladders game but with a vengeance.

In counterinsurgency, the security forces must aim to create conditions for the political process to begin so that administration can act without let or hindrance for the betterment of the people. Expecting to defeat the insurgents like a regular enemy is wishful thinking and rarely attainable. The Sinhala Sri Lankan government exterminated the LTTE but not many countries can hope to or would want to emulate their example.


Background Intelligence

Except in the rarest of cases, basic information about insurgency is available in the public domain. The insurgents put it out themselves by seeking support for their cause and laying out in detail why they have been forced to resort to arms to achieve their aims. Most of this is publicised in newspapers and other media. As social media has proliferated, so has the information overload. Security forces have to make a start by understanding the background and the manner in which insurgency has reached the stage it has.

At the cost of repetition, it must be said that security forces are drawn in when usually the situation has gone beyond the control of the civil administration as well as the law and order machinery. This suggests that a bank of information is already available. Rarely do security forces enter the field in an intelligence vacuum. Often, poor coordination and lack of understanding will result in available information not being shared. Having said that, the IPKF experience in Sri Lanka is instructive. Given the manner in which Indian troops were inducted, they were rarely briefed and when it was done, it was done so in the most cursory and general manner. Basic requirements such as maps and an understanding of the local population was unavailable. This was a true intelligence vacuum, and it is not surprising that initially the IPKF suffered needless casualties just trying to understand the situation.

Two examples should suffice. When we first went into Northern Sri Lanka, we tended to treat all Tamils as LTTE supporters if not insurgents. It took us many months to understand the local dynamics, fissures within the militant movements as also the fact that most civilians would rather have been left in peace to continue their normal lives rather than be drawn into the insurgency. In the sector that I commanded, during a raid on a LTTE hideout we discovered an application made out to the Indian authorities to point out how their area had been usurped by the Sinhala government for planned colonisation. It was a major Tamil grievance which we were totally unaware of till then and was important enough to require the intervention of the Indian government. I am sorry to relate that in our two years and more, this aspect was conveniently ignored, above all by our government. If we could have at least started action towards amelioration of this major demand, we would have had a strong counter to the LTTE who always claimed we were in league with the Sri Lankan government. Sounds strange but there it is. It is no use dwelling on what could have been done then, but it does suggest what is required before troops are inducted into operations against a wily and well-trained insurgent movement as the LTTE.

The situation in our country’s north-east was somewhat similar. When the army was first deployed, there was little understanding of the various tribes, their societal structures, customs and so on and the causes that had driven them to take up arms against the state. It is no surprise that mistakes were made in the initial stages which still haunt the local’s popular psyche. The unthoughtful killing of the widely respected Dr P.T. Haralu in Nagaland in July 1956 is one such case.

Counter insurgency requires real time ground information for calibration of operations


Common Pitfalls

The most common pitfall that counterinsurgency forces face is that they wait for information to be made available to them without really understanding what they are looking for. This needs explanation. Everyone knows the popular narratives, the aims of the insurgents which are repeated again and again, the real or imagined depredations of the law and order machinery, lack of development as well as civic action and an ineffective administrative machinery.

But these do not help the security forces beyond a certain point. Take knowledge about the terrain as an example; for troops operating in the area general information is of little use. Terrain knowledge is built up by sheer effort of manpower traversing it on foot or vehicles and may be, using local guides in the beginning. The information has not only to be gathered and internalised but also be passed on.

The second is that even when information is gathered, it is done in a general manner and without an aim or a proper plan. This will be considered in detail subsequently. The third pitfall is that often stray bits of information are either ignored or given undue importance. For example, what may appear as not credible is often a precursor to a developing situation such as stray reports of foreigners appearing among locals or unfrequented areas reporting activity and so on. Sometimes, rumours take on a life of their own and much energy is wasted in tracking down such information.

Having stated the major shortcomings, it needs to be seen how these can be overcome.


Intelligence is a Function of Command

This sounds obvious but this basic principle is observed mainly in the breach. In conventional operations a commander will spell out his intelligence objectives, task the intelligence staff officers to get down to the actual task of acquiring, collating, interpreting and disseminating intelligence. He would supervise this and devote his attention to myriad other responsibilities that he carries for conduct of operations.

In counterinsurgency the tempo of operations tends to be less hurried, but important nonetheless. In such operations, information is usually late and inadequate to act upon, but it needs to be placed and understood in its own context. Over a period of time, a pattern usually appears and then action can be planned and executed.

Small scale operations can then be launched to gain more information or confirm what has been reported. Once this is done, full scale operations can be launched to decisively defeat the insurgents. This implies that intelligence gathering must have an aim and a proper plan is necessary to put effort into practice.


Use of Special Forces

Special forces are ideally suited for the task of intelligence gathering in such an environment. The advantages they have are specialised training and skills and usually superior motivation of volunteer forces. Added to this is the ability to strike when an opportunity presents itself. They can operate in small groups and if an opportunity presents itself, a larger operation can be planned and executed based on the intelligence gathered by them.

In Sri Lanka, we had a particularly daring special forces officer, who would on his own (with just one buddy as company) insert himself in the jungle having warned the operations staff of the general area of his operating and return with valuable information. Surely, such actions require nerves of steel to operate in hostile territory without any back-up, but then this is not rare among those who volunteer for such forces.

Regular troops in counterinsurgency have a number of defensive, administrative and routine duties that do not encumber special forces and hence cannot be used for special tasks unless specifically trained for a particular action.


Hi tech–Low Tech

Earlier, hi tech as opposed to low tech needed more explanation. Today it is the reverse. The American example in Afghanistan is instructive.

The world’s technically most advanced power was unable to vanquish a foe that may well be termed as medieval though with modern small arms, with no heavy fire power or air support. What was the difference? The Americans never understood the psyche, customs and requirements of their enemy, the Taliban. Only occasionally, an enlightened local commander, sensitive to local conditions may have made a temporary difference but overall, the technological might was negated by an enemy who proved wily and persevering, exploiting his local conditions to the utmost.

The western soldier rarely moved on foot except for short distances. He was short of knowledge on use of mountainous and difficult terrain. Jungle craft, tracking, understanding the use of terrain was set aside in favour of mechanical mobility, whether by vehicles or air. Contrast this with the Indian experience. Our conditions vary as befits a subcontinent. From the steamy jungles of Assam to mountainous terrain in say, Nagaland, Mizo Hills or Manipur or equally different, the varied terrain in Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian soldier has to marry low tech skills with the advanced surveillance methods that are available to him. Versatility is always required, and the modern soldier could well fall short unless trained accordingly.

The point is that operational skills have to be highlighted by detailed knowledge of terrain, weather and the adversary. This is provided by good intelligence gathering work, proven knowledge management system to provide training and operational requirements. Note, how troops deployed in an area over a period of time develop familiarity with the area, the locals and the pattern of activities of the insurgents —all backed by the most modern surveillance and intelligence acquisition systems. One cannot be effective without the other.

Permanently deployed Rashtriya Rifles in Jammu and Kashmir or Assam Rifles units in the North-east help but the other units that come for shorter durations have to learn and be taught all this. This is where the planning of the intelligence effort and command responsibility comes in. Understanding the problem is one thing, implementing counter-measures is another. There is always a need to improve.


Intelligence Targets

In an insurgent organisation, individual leaders are ‘all-important’ because too often the charisma and leadership skills they possess have brought them to that position. The example of the supremo of the LTTE, Velupillai Prabhakaran is the prime one.

The entire LTTE movement was based on and nurtured by the persona of Prabhakaran. His death at the hands of the Sri Lankan security forces disintegrated the LTTE and it is unlikely to ever raise its head again. Given the political dynamics and ethnic divide in Sri Lanka, future may bring forth another movement, but the LTTE as we knew it is finished.

The lesson here is that targeting of individual leaders of an insurgent movement brings more results than eliminating the rank and file of the movement. Intelligence acquisition therefore must target information about such individuals.


Intelligence and Time

In counterinsurgency there is always pressure on commanders at various levels to deliver results quickly. On the other hand, proper intelligence gathering and establishment of suitable organisation adaptable to changing needs requires time which is at a premium. How does the pressure get attenuated? In many areas, J&K, the north-east, our troops have been deployed for long periods and turn-overs take place regularly. A new unit or a new commander, keen to make a mark are themselves in a hurry to show results. Net result is that there is constant pressure to deliver. This is not only unnecessary but self-defeating because operations are undertaken more for doing something rather than working towards a long term goal.

Returning to the point of time and intelligence, it must be recognised that insurgents have to remain active to prove their relevance, therefore the situation will always be dynamic and ever-changing. What is required is base intelligence (terrain, tribes, local customs, persons of importance and so on) and the changing scene. Senior commanders owe it to their commands that a judicious mix of time, intelligence gathering and operations is closely coordinated and with an identifiable purpose. Just doing something to show that one is active is a regressive strategy. All the more reason that intelligence is handled as a function of command.


Unity of Intelligence Effort

This may appear as a no-brainer to the lay person, but ask the agencies involved in counterinsurgency. They may pay lip service to unified command and close coordination, but in actual fact there tends to be latent competition and one one-upmanship. There is also lack of coordination between civil, military and political leadership resulting in unnecessary duplication of effort. We may console ourselves that this is a common problem around the world, but it does not diminish its importance.


Lessons to be Drawn

Intelligence about the adversary in counter-insurgency operations is as important as intelligence about the enemy in conventional war. The principles of intelligence acquisition, collation and dissemination remain the same. The difference lies in the targets and essential elements of information that are required in counter-insurgency operations.

We have seen that intelligence must remain an important function of command and time is required to acquire information. Hurrying troops to show results without adequate intelligence usually compound and complicate the problem. Acquisition must use a judicious mix of hi tech and low tech methods; over-dependence on the former is unlikely to show desired results.

The use of special forces often proves more rewarding, provided they are used for specialised tasks and not just to augment infantry effort. Finally, all intelligence gathering must be under a single commander albeit with a specially tailored organisation.

It must be recognised that counterinsurgencies are rarely defeated quickly or in haste. The force organisation to do so and the conduct of operations also need special attention. This will be the subject of the next article in the series.

(This is the second article in the series on counterinsurgency that FORCE started in May)


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