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In the early hours of 9 June—it was 3.30am, according to a first-person account—two teams of commandos from 21 Special Forces of the Indian Army launched a surgical strike at the India-Myanmar border, targeting militants who had killed 20 of their fellow armymen in Manipur four days ago.

The entire operation, codenamed Operation Peace, lasted just 15-20 minutes, though the men had trekked for two days on foot, covering a distance of almost 30km to reach their target. They then trekked back nearly 9km before being airlifted by Air Force helicopters.

It was a daring operation that was showcased by the Indian media as a “hot pursuit warning" to Pakistan. But it’s also the kind of operation that the special forces commandos train for—day in and day out. And hot pursuit of terrorists into neighbouring territories is not all that unusual.

The elite special forces, as their name indicates, are trained to carry out highly sensitive and dangerous missions that by their very nature are localized and intense. These are men who are trained to high degree of expertise in unconventional warfare, including in harsh terrains —jungle warfare, for instance.

Every army has its special forces, the two most famous being the US Navy SEALs and the British SAS commandos. In India, they are trained to combat internal and external threats, thus serving both a military and political objective.

“India has several special force outfits, some under direct command of the army, some under ministry of home affairs and some more under the cabinet secretariat. This is not taking into account the special forces that have been set up by the paramilitary arms," says major general (retired) S.K. Chakravarty, a former division commander in Jammu and Kashmir.

In the Indian context, the term special forces is used almost exclusively for a handful of battalions of the para-regiment.

The first para commando battalion was raised in 1966, and, by 1968, it was split into two—9 Para (Special Forces) and 10 Para.

“9 Para was meant for Jammu and Kashmir whereas 10 Para was meant for border operations in Rajasthan," says colonel (retd) K.D. Pathak, a 1971 war veteran and an ex-para himself.

The first test of the Para special forces came with Operation Mandhol in the western sector during the 1971 war over Bangladesh.

Pakistan had artillery guns positioned near Mandhol village in Poonch and 9 Para were tasked with a stealth mission to destroy them. Pathak, then a young captain, was part of a team of around 100 men that carried out the operation, completing it in less than 24 hours.

The Myanmar operation was carried out by 21 Special Forces, which was set up in the 1990s from the 21st battalion of the Maratha regiment.

The other special forces in the country’s arsenal are the Indian Navy Marine Commandos, the Indian Air Force’s Garud Commando Force and the National Security Guard (NSG).

“The need for more special forces was felt as warfare was evolving. Rather than battles, it is more about swift strikes with immediate withdrawal, and we felt the need to focus on that," says Pathak.

The NSG, for instance, was set up after Operation Blue Star to flush out militants from inside the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, in 1984. “Several weaknesses came to the fore during Blue Star. All our equipment, our tactics were trained for an offensive role against the enemy. We were not prepared for close-quarter battles in urban areas. The need for an anti-terrorist force was felt then," says Pathak.

While the NSG comes under the home ministry, its men are drawn from the armed forces. It is subdivided into Special Action Groups (SAG) and, at any given point in time, 100 men can be mobilized at half-an-hour’s notice. The NSG was called upon to deal with the hijack of Indian Airlines flight IC-814 to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 1999 and the terrorists who attacked multiple public targets in Mumbai on 26 November 2008.

After the 26/11 attacks, the forces came under criticism for not responding quickly enough.

“During 26/11, the team was at the airport within hours but we had to wait for an aircraft, which finally came from Chandigarh," explains a serving brigadier.

According to him, following the attack that killed 164 people and injured 308, NSG has been authorised now to requisition any aircraft during an emergency.

There is also the Special Frontier Force, which includes the army’s Vikas Regiments that comprises Tibetans.

“Every special force unit is separately tasked and trained accordingly. Every threat has its own contours," says Chakravarty. For instance, Jammu and Kashmir has more than two special force battalions and the personnel are trained to operate in the mountainous terrain specific to that region, including entering and exiting enemy territory on foot and by air.

Commandos of the 21 Special Forces, which was involved in the Myanmar attacks, specialize in jungle warfare.

These are elite forces: the training period for any special force comprises an initial nine months and then specialized training for the region they will be deployed to. It is not uncommon for nearly 50% of the aspirants to drop out during the initial training regime.

“The training is very extensive and physically very exhausting. Even when posted in the conflict region, a special force unit is always undergoing mock drills and operations in order to maintain its readiness. From carrying 40kg loads to surviving on a limited ration of just dry fruits to communicating only through throat clearing signals, it’s very gruelling," explains a retired 10 Para officer.

But even a successful operation is no guarantee against political controversy. The world over, details of covert operations are almost never let out, certainly not in the days and weeks after the operation.

But following Operation Peace, the Indian political establishment, in a bid to score political points, chose to ignore this basic principle, and gleefully trumpeted details of the operation. “Forget the name of the battalion or the men involved or anything, the operation (itself) shouldn’t have been made public. This is not the first time a mission of this sort has been undertaken, and it won’t be the last time, but special operations by their very nature are to be devoid of any chest-thumping," says the serving brigadier cited above, who has commanded a special force battalion.

The hand of Indian special forces in cross-border operations is usually never confirmed but it is sometimes hinted at.

Operations such as the one in Lanjote, a Pakistani village near the Line of Control (LoC), whose inhabitants still remember a bloody night from 2000 when 16 villagers were found hacked to death. Found near the bodies, according to a report in The Indian Express, was an Indian-made wristwatch and a hand-written note: “how does your own blood feel".

The report acknowledges that these details are not substantiated.

“Pakistan has always maintained that Indian special forces were behind that act but India has never acknowledged it. The fact remains that Hindus were being massacred in Doda and Rajouri (in Jammu and Kashmir) and this could well have been a retaliatory strike," says military historian Mandeep Bajwa.

But while there is no doubting the bravery of the men who are part of the special forces, there are factors that hamper their functioning.

“One of the cornerstones of a successful operation is intelligence gathering, and this is something we still fall short of," explains a serving colonel.

“Everyone wants to know if India can conduct a raid similar to that in Abbottabad (Pakistan), which led to Osama bin Laden’s capture (by US commandos) and subsequent death, but we are yet to establish a system which collates and interprets intelligence of that kind. Just equipping the boys with the best equipment is not enough. You should know your exact hit area, the number of people to expect, their state of readiness, the retaliatory action expected in order to minimize your casualties."

India’s failure to prevent hijackers from flying the IC-814 out of Indian soil in 1999 is cited as one of the biggest failures of the special forces—they just could not be mobilized in time.

“As in the case of Mumbai, it was a complete administrative failure," says the colonel cited above.

In response, there has been a growing demand for a centralized command structure for the special forces. A panel set up in 2011 under former cabinet secretary Naresh Chandra made a similar suggestion but fears of loss of turf among different forces have led to this recommendation not being accepted.

“The lack of a central command structure means orders are delayed, and response is haphazard, rather than being seamless," says the serving brigadier.

“We can only hope that the political class, which was so keen to take the credit for the Myanmar operation, will understand this need also."

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