Finding the Naxals’ Achilles heel

Finding the Naxals’ Achilles heel
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First Published: Thu, Jun 03 2010. 12 18 AM IST
Updated: Thu, Jun 03 2010. 12 18 AM IST
Over the last two decades, Naxalites have grown into a formidable force, with thousands of military cadres exerting influence over large parts of India. This kind of expansion would not have been possible without strategic leadership, sustained resources and efficient unit tactics such as ambushes, raids and other instruments of guerrilla warfare, including intimidation, propaganda and area domination.
As any student of warfare knows, there are certain cardinal principles of war that are essential to success in campaigns. These fall under three broad categories—strategic, tactical and logistical. While the tactical principles consist of using surprise and shock action, force concentration, and sustained offensive action, the logistical ones emphasize elements such as flexibility and sustainability of operations and cooperation between combatants. We shall come to the strategic principles later.
An assessment of these principles indicates that so far, the dice seems to have been loaded in favour of the guerrillas. Since they can choose any target, the guerrillas can leverage economy of effort, surprise and shock action. The small size and mobility of their cadres allow greater flexibility and ability to concentrate and then disperse hundreds of fighters to overwhelm security forces. And since the attacks are hit-and-run in style, the guerrillas can sustain operations with lower resource drain and retain the initiative by striking at different locations according to their own timetable. State security forces, by their very nature, are like supertankers at sea, requiring time to turn. Their burgeoning size and mandate to protect everything handicap them into static and defensive operations. This is precisely why guerrilla tactics have been employed by revolutionary groups the world over, and even by organized resistances such as by the French during World War II and the Americans during the preparatory months of the first Gulf war.
But two strategic principles of war, if exercised well, can nullify this advantage.
The first and the master principle of war is the “selection and maintenance” of the aim, the operative word being “maintenance”. This is the single, unambiguous objective that forms the keystone of successful operations. For instance, from the guerrilla point of view, destruction of enemy personnel or terrorizing civilians are not aims in themselves. They are only the means to gaining enough critical mass to force the government to accede to the guerrillas’ strategic demands. Similarly, for government forces, punitive strikes and reclamation of guerrilla-dominated territory is derived from its central aim of preventing secession.
The second strategic principle is “maintenance of morale”. Morale is a positive state of mind derived from inspired political and military leadership, a shared sense of purpose and values, perceptions of worth and group cohesion. It is a critical principle in any form of conflict, and its significance in combating internal militancy is crucial.
A compelling anti-guerrilla campaign must leverage these two strategic principles and reduce the effectiveness of those that are inherently advantageous to the guerrillas.
The recent spate of Naxal attacks on civilian targets exposes their Achilles heel. Almost all guerrilla movements begin with an ideological faction advocating a social cause. Soon, the movement expands into a military wing. Encouraged by heady tactical successes, military components start usurping ideological leadership. The radical leader’s influence grows, especially among the younger cadre who idolize the “bias for action” philosophy over the propensity to dialogue of mature and conservative leaders. As a result, militants accuse their conservative leaders of going soft on the cause and attempt to wrest control from them by violating established covenants. This also leads to infighting between militant factions, with each trying to gain legitimacy as the cause’s sole representative. That is perhaps the phenomenon we are witnessing now.
That the aim at this point should be to neutralize the militant factions of the Naxals and force the moderates to dialogue is a no-brainer. However, the key aspect to be reinforced among all the stakeholders is the “maintenance” of this aim. The guerrillas have developed their prowess over several decades with external assistance. We must dispel the illusion that this is a conflict of short duration. It is not. We are in this for the long haul, and the nation needs to reconcile and plan accordingly.
War is an ambiguous beast by nature. As German Gen. Heinz Guderian said, no plan of battle survives contact with the enemy. Every soldier who has been in combat will testify to the “fog of war” where judgements are in error and mistakes are made. And those mistakes come in body bags. Becoming hysterical at each setback doesn’t help the morale of forces which have to go back and confront the guerrillas. It also shakes their confidence in the nation’s support to them. Endless critique of poor training and equipment only builds the guerrilla into a larger-than-life figure. This is where maintenance of morale comes in. The security forces have a tough job on their hands. The last thing they need is ambivalence of purpose or a “patrol by patrol” dissection by armchair experts.
That is not to say that poor equipment, training or tactics need to be condoned. But the nation needs to realize that there is no quick-fix remedy, and maintaining relentless momentum across both the military thrust and dialogue channel is the only way forward. By its very nature, the former is highly visible, while the latter is and should remain discreet until some concrete rapprochement is achieved.
Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security
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First Published: Thu, Jun 03 2010. 12 18 AM IST