Fighting an asymmetric war

Fighting an asymmetric war

The paradox facing our army, the third largest in the world, is that it is engaged in many small battles instead of the big decisive one it was meant to fight. Divisions and corps that were structured to punch through the Pakistani defences and scythe deep into enemy hinterlands are hopelessly tied up in resource-draining, high-attrition and seemingly endless skirmishes inside their own borders.

Our enemies, (who include state and non-state players) had long realized the futility of taking on the juggernaut of the Indian Armed Forces in conventional warfare. After the humiliating 1971 rout, Pakistani military establishment, (the de facto source of the country’s political leadership), initiated a doctrine of asymmetric warfare, whose mission was to bleed the Indian military capability by creating and coordinating hundreds of small fighting units employing guerrilla tactics of hitting civilian and vulnerable targets.

The return on investment of this strategy has been excellent. Half the Indian Army is permanently located in Jammu and Kashmir, and many parts of the country have been denied progress for several decades. In this article, I want to talk about the lethality of asymmetric warfare and possible solutions.

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The two main instruments of asymmetric operations are terrorism and insurgency. They are distinct from each other and need to be tackled differently as well.

Terrorism targets local populace and often selects vulnerable defenceless targets—for example, the attacks in Mumbai. It has four main objectives. Firstly, to terrorize or instil a deep sense of uncertainty and panic. Secondly, to undermine the establishment’s ability to protect its citizens. Thirdly, to tie down disproportionate quantum of resources to maintain order and, finally, to provoke the state to react in a heavy handed manner, often against its own citizens. Terrorism is mounted by “outsiders" unto the community and local support is often coerced or commercially obtained.

Insurgency, on the other hand, is often the manifestation of economic/political deprivation or ideological differences that thrives on active local support and involvement. While terrorists seek to undermine the government by hitting the populace, insurgents strike the government itself.

Their end game is to make it expensive for the establishment to deny their demands, which could range from greater autonomy to total secession. Insurgency, unlike terrorism, recruits its cadres from within the community and while coercion may exist to some extent, there is underlying support from the society.

The government has some fundamental challenges while dealing with asymmetric warfare. Prime among them is just finding the anti-national elements. Locating terrorists is like looking for a needle in a haystack. For most practical purposes, these elements behave like the citizens they live among. Ironically, democracies are more vulnerable simply because their security establishments don’t have inward-looking apparatuses. In any case, this is not a job for the Armed Forces designed to destroy an identified enemy, not to identify it in the first place. That requires subtlety and discretion, not force or firepower.

The second challenge is that terrorists can seize initiative at will. They can choose their time and place of attack and need to be lucky just once, whereas state forces cannot anticipate every possible eventuality or protect every potential target. The third and the most debilitating one is unequal distribution of troops required to combat terrorism or insurgency. Thousands of soldiers are routinely haemorrhaged by just a handful of terrorists who can effect stand-offs for days. Combing operations to flush out insurgents can bog down entire divisions.

A meaningful way to alter this disadvantaged détente is a two-pronged strategy; first of which is matching the nimbleness and mobility of the enemy. To do that, the state needs to develop sophisticated intelligence frameworks that connect different socio-economic infrastructures such as banking, travel, communications, the Internet, and residential movements into a singular grid that can discern patterns and proactively predict potential threats.

The second and equally important part of the strategy is to focus on the cause rather than the manifestation. Insurgency’s root causes are genuine and long unaddressed. And there are vested interests who want the situation to be status quo. Educating, connecting and inclusively empowering the stakeholders are key essentials to a long-term solution.

It is time we spent a little less resource on finding enemies and a lot more on finding friends.

Raghu Raman is chief executive of corporate risk consulting firm Mahindra Special Services Group that advises companies and organizations on threat assessments and risk mitigation strategies. Respond to this column at