Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Hunting terrorists in India’s neighbourhood

Successful cross-border raids require careful gauging of benefits and risks

Early morning on Tuesday, Indian Army soldiers mounted a successful attack on camps of Naga and Manipuri militants at two places along the India-Myanmar border. The official statement issued later in the day said that “We are in communication with the Myanmar authorities on this matter. There is a history of close cooperation between our two militaries. We look forward to working with them to combat such terrorism."

One can safely surmise that a cross-border raid into Myanmarese territory took place and that significant numbers of Naga militants were killed. The operation came less than a week after militants belonging to the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland killed 18 soldiers in the Chandel district of Manipur. Chandel lies on the border with Myanmar and the entire region—in India and across the border in Myanmar—is dominated by Nagas.

The success of the operation lay in its careful planning and close coordination between the army and the Union government at the highest level. In this, India has done well. A cross-border raid, by definition, violates the sovereignty of another country—unless the country where the raid occurs agrees to the operation. In this case, the government of Myanmar was kept informed. This is over and above the existence of a framework of cooperation between Myanmar and India to tackle militants in the region.

Cross-border operations are not a routine military matter even if they are not unusual. The mission to hunt down Osama bin Laden is perhaps the best-known example in recent memory. India has had its fair share of such missions, including one 20 years ago—Operation Golden Bird—on the India-Myanmar border when a clutch of Naga, Assamese and Manipuri militants were intercepted on Myanmarese soil.

The success of such operations requires a careful evaluation of risks involved. There can be no generalized formula for this evaluation. Take two different cases, Pakistan and Myanmar. The nature of risks in both cases is different. A cross-border raid to hunt or nab terrorists in Pakistan is a far riskier proposition than a similar intervention in Myanmar. In Pakistan, the militants and the government are certain to be aligned together against India; in Myanmar, the government in Nay Pyi Taw and the militants in the Naga Self-Administered Zone adjoining India are opposed to each other. This fact alone changes the risk equation for an Indian policymaker. A cross-border incursion into Pakistan is likely to escalate into a wider confrontation. That is unlikely in Myanmar. In theory, even operations against terrorists in Pakistan can be carried out. Islamabad will, of course, claim that even a rock thrown in its direction will lead to nuclear conflict. That is pure bluff. For our policymakers, the cost-benefit calculation is harder in the Pakistani case but there is a substantial threshold before matters turn nuclear. But the risks, to stress the point, are higher.

If only for these reasons, any talk of a new counterinsurgency doctrine is premature and naïve. The fact is that tight civilian controls over the Indian Army—almost down to the operational level—means that the risk, in case something goes wrong, has to be borne by political authorities. Because each such operation has to be sanctioned at the highest political level, there will be no automatic chase-and-shoot style raiding. This is unheard of in any country, including Israel which has a history of mounting such operations successfully. Does this single raid make the Narendra Modi government a trigger-happy government that will “avenge" every attack on Indian soldiers? For reasons mentioned above, this is highly unlikely.

A final point must be made against the danger of chest-thumping. Cross-border operations against any enemy are always an option for the government. But they cannot be turned into spectator sport. To call these military options “hot-pursuit", “pre-emptive raids", “a new counterinsurgency doctrine" is to misunderstand the dangers and risks involved. These operations are best carried out in secrecy with minimal sharing of details publicly; otherwise, the feature essential for their success—surprise—will be lost. Entertainment is best served by other sources.

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