One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Counter insurgency needs tweaks in organisation and command structure depending on task

Ravi PalsokarBrig Ravi Palsokar (retd)

The Indian experience of counter insurgency operations proves one point repeatedly, that such operations are invariably prolonged. The insurgencies in the Northeast and Kashmir have been festering for a long time and show no sign of ending. This is not to say that there are no lulls or periods when insurgency or militancy appears to be on the wane, only to flare up again.

In both the areas, the situation at times has shown improvement and then relapsed into worrying activity. In many Northeast states the situation has improved considerably without doubt, such as in Tripura where insurgents have joined the mainstream of society. This has been more due to the enlightened political leadership rather than successes by security forces. Indeed, when the security forces operate in close cooperation with the political executive, as in Tripura, Mizoram and parts of Assam, the results are positive and enduring. Kashmir is a different story altogether, where there is active involvement and interference by our inimical neighbour. In both the cases, the security forces, particularly the army, have to organise themselves to suit local conditions.

The one out-of-area operation experience of the Indian Army, the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka, with the other two services is notable for a number of reasons, mainly negative. The organisation there may have appeared successful but there are still many unlearned lessons that need to be studied. The IPKF experience lasted approximately three years and the decision to withdraw was political, catering to the changed political situation and leadership in both countries. It had nothing to do with the so-called perceived success of the IPKF. During this period many organisational issues were thrown up, some were tackled successfully but many were not.

The army, which provides the bulk of the manpower for counter-insurgency operations, has to consider its organisational and command structure when deployed for such tasks. It is natural to depend on the standard organisation initially, only to be tweaked as and when required. Whether this can be done in any other way is a matter of discussion.

One counter argument is that if there is no prior knowledge of what is required on the ground, then how can any advance preparation be made? This needs examination and answering. Each zone has its specific requirements and problems. Even in a particular zone, sectoral challenges will usually be different and the force has to be organised accordingly. Take the example of Jammu and Kashmir, the Valley has different requirements than Jammu. Jammu has both hills and plains with urban areas. These are matters that merit attention but they have never been examined.


CI Force

The army, when it is first deployed for any task, be it counter insurgency or any other, obviously relies on existing structures and command arrangements. There can be no arguments against such an approach. But unlike conventional operations, in counter insurgency there are other factors such as civil relations, dealing with human rights organisations as well as the media and in today’s context, social media.

A field formation commander such as a divisional or brigade commander who has his hands full with day-to-day functions can hardly be expected to deal with such multifarious tasks on his own and without expert advice. Such advice has to be built-in at a suitable level in the organisation. In case of an out-of-area operation in another nation, as in Sri Lanka where the Indian Army operated on its own, or as part of a United Nations peacekeeping force, diplomatic advice also becomes necessary.

The actual organisation of a force deployed is dependent on three factors — area of responsibility, terrain conditions such as mountains, jungles or inhabited areas, and the intensity of insurgent activity. The last will include organisation, equipment, training and the support the insurgents enjoy within the populace even though it may be abetted externally. We need to examine these individually.

The area where a counter-insurgency force is deployed will be varied. We do not have to go beyond our experience to search for examples. The terrain conditions in Kashmir are very different from those in the Northeast. The northern part of Sri Lanka where the IPKF was deployed brought in another dimension. The terrain was as varied as they can be, from urban and developed areas of the Jaffna peninsula to the primary jungles of Vanni, they all posed different challenges. Yet, because the basic command and organisation structure remained unchanged, it required much chopping and changing such as adding an additional rifle company to infantry battalions to enhance their strength. In many cases there was deployment and redeployment to suit the changing situation. This also involved unnecessary grouping and regrouping under various headquarters. In Kashmir, the line of control (LC) adds another security dimension to the organisation and deployment of the force. Defensive areas such as those guarding the LoC and contiguous areas need permanent deployment as well as fixed positions capable of withstanding conventional assaults.


Hinterland Challenges

It is in the interior hinterland that conditions pose varying challenges, testing soldierly skills and ingenuity. Urban areas may need wider deployment in smaller numbers where posts can support each other and maintain surveillance. In jungle areas the emphasis shifts to greater concentration within posts, with the need to follow the tenets of defence such as mutual support, providing depth to each other and acting as reserves so that troops from one area can rapidly reinforce those in other areas.

Look at this in another way. Some troops need to hold static positions forming defensive positions, which in turn can act as operating bases or serve as administrative nodes. There are other troops deployed for mobile action such as search and destroy or to form cordons or for specific strikes. The Rashtriya Rifles model for organisation and deployment is an excellent example. Their deployment serves both static and mobile roles and since they have a continuous turnover of personnel who serve for limited periods, there is an inbuilt relief as well as continuity. The Assam Rifles has long served a similar role in the Northeast. The problem arises during deployment of regular units and formations and the organisation and deployment of their components.

It is true that counter-insurgency tasks require the infantry’s predominant role. Other arms may serve in a dismounted role as required but this is a solution which has never found favour within our army. We had a period when infantry units were being flogged from one sector to another while other troops in mounted roles prepared for war that never materialised. Tenures with Rashtriya Rifles and Assam Rifles units have eased this particular issue but there was a time when service with the infantry was not popular as there was great dissatisfaction. Be that as it may, it can be said that counter-insurgency tasks tend to require dismounted action supported by helicopters for observation and transportation.

Naturally, terrain conditions also a make a substantial difference. Mountains and jungles or a combination of both pose different and difficult challenges. The Pakistan army faces these challenges in the tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunwala (erstwhile FATA or Federally Administered Tribal Areas). But the Khyber area also provided valuable practical professional training to their soldiers, improving their efficiency and competence. The Americans, unused to such hardships, struggled in the underdeveloped regions of Afghanistan.


Level of Insurgency

The level of insurgency or insurgent operations also require suitable operational deployment. The best example of this is the experience of the IPKF in Sri Lanka. There the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), having honed their skills, were very close to challenging the IPKF in conventional warfare. It was by dint of extreme effort, resulting in many setbacks and casualties, that the IPKF was able to degrade the LTTE’s capabilities. Later, the LTTE stopped challenging the IPKF beyond a certain point, helping it to conserve its strength and retain its ability to confront the Sri Lankan army once the IPKF had withdrawn. The LTTE had established ‘little Raj,’ or Eelam, in Jaffna and other parts of northern Sri Lanka till they were systematically defeated by conventional operations by the Sri Lankan army.

It is a fallacy to think that insurgents can be defeated like a conventional enemy in an all-out war. Insurgency has to be degraded from a war of manoeuvres or conventional war to guerrilla warfare. This in turn when combated successfully will force the insurgents to resort to terrorist activities and bring them to the negotiating table. Sri Lanka is yet to face or pay the cost of physically destroying the LTTE into submission, however rosy the defeat of the insurgents may appear at this time.

The wisdom today is that special forces are particularly suited for counter-insurgency tasks. This is true up to a point because a rational look at the tasks of special forces will show that their specific role in conventional operations is pushed into the background. The counter to this argument is that when there is a fire, it is better to immediately use all the available means and not wait for additional fighting forces to arrive from afar. There are no easy solutions, but the fact remains that special forces cannot and must not be used as a specially-trained infantry unit.


Command Structures

The command structure of a counter-insurgency force is usually arrived at by trial and error over a period of time. Surely, there is a better way to do this with our vast experience. Factors that should be taken into account must include incorporation of air component, a troops list of what is available and what is required, and flexibility. Our answer to the rise and sustained insurgency has been force increment and we have just kept increasing the size of the army to cater to each task. We are yet to come up with a coherent view of the force structure catering to conventional and counter-insurgency tasks. Surely there is a need to decrease the strength of the army, whose large size is costing the country unbearable expenditure.

The organisation of such a force tasked to counter insurgency usually has dual roles. For example, a command may include both conventional and counter insurgency tasks. The ready examples that come to mind are the Northern and Eastern Commands. The territorial responsibility given to these commands dictated this. But the issue that arises is the amount of latitude the command headquarters are willing to allow the subordinate field formations and sectors. There has always been a tendency to over-centralise and dictate. It has served the purpose, but that does not necessarily mean this is optimum utilisation of field force command responsibilities. The introduction of unified commands, which is likely to happen soon, will exacerbate matters. This is a tricky subject and it is time to look at this afresh. The present plethora of senior headquarters has resulted in many of them inventing tasks and roles to justify their existence.

Out-of-area operations pose a separate challenge. It is not my purpose to analyse the IPKF command and force structures except to say that workable solutions were evolved only through trial and error. I was told by a general officer, who was then a strike corps commander, that he had been summoned by Army headquarters in early 1987 to be prepared to induct his corps in Sri Lanka. He related how much effort he and his staff had put in to evolve a workable plan, only to be told at the last minute that it had been decided to create an ad hoc force, which later became the IPKF, and its headquarters. On the IPKF’s return it was converted into a conventional headquarters and turned into a strike corps.

Subsequently, perceptive analysts have suggested that if we had envisaged a task force concept as part of future plans, we would have had in being, a skeletal force headquarters which would have planned and catered for such an emergency. The IPKF HQ that was formed would have been assisted from the very beginning, not only by a planning staff, but also civil, military and diplomatic affairs advisers and media professionals. The point is that the proposed headquarters would have been thinking ahead rather than the ad hoc method that was followed. This is a subject that needs detailed consideration for the future.


Technology and Cyber Warfare

Technology and cyber warfare rule today’s military operations. It is up to us to utilise them for optimum results. The most recent example is the targeted killing of Al Qaeda chief Ayman al Zawahiri in a safe house in Kabul. Cyber surveillance aided by a state-of-the-art technical drone missile ensured that only Zawahiri was eliminated without any collateral damage to persons in his house or to the building itself. This is a good example about the possibilities of technological and cyber warfare.

Developing countries may not have such sophisticated technology at their disposal but even with what is available, much can be achieved. The point is that less developed assets used innovatively can prove useful, particularly during counter-insurgency operations where insurgents are unlikely to have access to advanced technology. This is a factor that must be built into the organisation from the planning stage and for this suitable staff and technical advice is necessary.


Training Requirements

The last point relates to training. Counter-insurgency operations may rely on low-tech skills, but they are complex and different to conventional operations for which the common soldier trains regularly. Such training requires re-orientation and training of troops inducted for such operations.

The army has a Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School at Vairengte in Mizoram. This has been in existence since 1970 and has rendered valuable service. But a similar organisation does not exist for Kashmir. Whatever be the reasons for its non-existence, the fact remains that specialised training is a must. In Sri Lanka, a short-sighted approach to the entire IPKF operations resulted in earmarked units being left to train themselves. The result was a poor introduction to high intensity operations, particularly in the Vanni region of northern Sri Lanka. The formation of battle schools for such purposes needs consideration. The course content, duration, manning and supervision can be formulated and assets need to be built into the organisation.

Regretfully, we do not live in an ideal world. Counter-insurgency commitments are usually thrust upon an unprepared army without notice. Once the commitment is a reality, then all the factors mentioned above merit consideration and action. The army has to deliver. How best this can be done will be the subject of the next article in this series.

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