Winning the counter-insurgency endgame

It has been recognised that successful counter-insurgency strategy—recently popularised as the Petraeus doctrine and implemented successfully by the United States in Iraq—has three distinct but overlapping stages: “Clear, Hold and Build”. The first involves military operations to clear territory of insurgents, the second calls for holding territory and protecting the population from insurgent attacks, and the third consolidates military successes by building functional institutions of state that in turn can deliver effective governance.

Despite Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s characterisation of the Naxalite movement as the biggest  threat to India’s internal security, the Shivraj Patil-led home ministry during the UPA government’s first term showed little imagination and even less resolve in earnestly confronting the growing threat. While the Naxalite movement consolidated across the country, moving cadre, arms and funds across state and international borders, the Indian government’s response was inefficient and lacked coordination. Not only did this result in Naxalites gaining strength unchecked, it also resulted in dubious and poorly-conceived responses such as the use of tribal militias like Salwa Judum in Chattisgarh and ham-fisted police action against rural and tribal populations in the worst-affected areas.

In its second-term, the UPA government has demonstrated more seriousness in tackling what it calls Left Wing Extremism. Intelligence and law-enforcement efforts have succeeded in the arrest of a number of top leaders of the Communist Party of India-Maoist, or CPI(Maoist). Concerted action by central and state paramilitary and police forces—called Operation Green Hunt—targeting Naxalite forces across several Indian states has started. Unsophisticated as it may be, the home ministry has also attempted to counter the Naxalite movement in the psychological space by using the media to project the Naxalites as the “cold-blooded murderers” as they often are. Some poorly conceived proposals to buy out Naxalites cadres apart, India, at last, appears to have begun fighting the war of counter-insurgency that it must.

It will be a long war, and although late, the Clear stage has begun. The UPA government must not allow its resolve to be weakened in the face of the expected psychological operations that will be launched by the Naxalites, their over-ground operatives and other sympathisers.

While the security forces are equipped, trained and prepared to handle the Clear and Build stages, they find themselves inadequate to take on the challenge of the third, Build stage (more correctly, the Rebuild stage, after the destruction caused by the insurgents and collateral damage caused during counter-insurgency operations). By then, on the one hand, the local civil agencies would have atrophied and left without substantive capacity to undertake development in a conflict-ravaged area. On the other, media, public and political attention will move on to other issues once the statistics of violence show a degree of improvement.

Yet, neglect of the Build phase inevitably leads to a relapse of the Naxalite pathology. The vacuum in capacity to impose rule-of-law, provide basic public services and economic development—filled to a degree by NGOs and some central agencies—leaves the third stage of counter-insurgency unfinished or poorly executed. It is for this reason that successful counter-insurgency practitioners—from Lieutenant-General Ajai Singh in Assam in the 1990s to General David Petraeus in Iraq in 2007—are wary of the dangers of  “mowing the lawn”. The insurgency seems to just grow back after extensive, ostensibly successful, military operations. A lack of political, economic and social development triggers this regression and pushes the security forces to repeat the Clear and Hold stages of counter-insurgency operations in the area.

As evident from the experience in the North-east and in Jammu & Kashmir, neglecting the third stage merely lowers the level of violence for years or even decades, necessitating the continued employment of central security forces on internal security duties. This is an undesirable outcome. Not only does it drain government resources, it also leaves the local population, the security forces and the political class dissatisfied. Worse, it results in the entrenchment of a conflict-economy, where vested interests have incentives to keep the conflict alive, at the cost of the well-being of the population.

It is therefore difficult to overstate the importance of a sound Build strategy. As it launches into the war against Naxalites, the UPA government must realise that it cannot be successful unless it has a strategy for the endgame.

Security forces cannot play the endgame

Ideally, civilian agencies of the state and local governments should step in to provide governance and development as the security forces bring military operations to a end. In reality, though, it is nearly impossible to get government employees back into conflict zones as the security environment is remains risky. The resulting lack of institutional capacity at the ground level severely constrains the success of central and state government initiatives aimed at socio-economic development. Similarly, other conventional civil agencies—central government departments, private contractors and NGOs—can undertake development initiatives only when basic security has been restored. The binding constraint is the lack of suitable civilians willing to work in relatively insecure environments.

This problem is usually solved by asking the security forces themselves to take on the task of governance and development. This has its own attractions: it offers the government the simplicity of a single chain of command and frees it of concerns for safety and security of civil employees. Thus, from the formal Operation Sadbhavana mechanisms to informal advisories to state governments, the security forces have been placed at the fore of most developmental activities in conflict-ravaged states in the North-east and Jammu & Kashmir. Alarmingly, this politically expedient option is now finding favour in Naxalite-affected states as well. Expedient as it may be, it is also a bad solution.

The much publicised example of security forces recently ensuring the construction of a concrete road in the Red Corridor in Chhattisgarh—with heavy attendant costs, both financial and human—is one such case of misperceived success. It serves a limited purpose of signalling the might of the state to complete a project against the will of the Naxalites. But road construction, in this particular case, is first an instrument of security and not of development. The road construction model cannot be replicated or scaled for other vital development projects. The security forces cannot build and operate schools, hospitals, markets and community centres on a large scale.  Moreover, getting security forces to build roads is a grossly inefficient use of resources.

Raise CIMPCOR—a new civilian agency

No security force—not even the Army—has the capacity to carry out these tasks on the necessary scale. Even if financial resources are expended to create this capacity it would fundamentally distract them from their core competence.

The solution, therefore, is to create a new form of civilian capacity with the specific purpose of tackling counter-insurgency at the fundamental level. Civilian capacity is both relatively cost-effective and better suited to delivering governance and development. Placing counter-insurgency management under civilian command will accord greater legitimacy for the mission—it will not be seen as an ‘occupation’ by central security forces—and facilitate eventual hand-over of the area to the local administration.

If India is to break from the vicious cycles of the past—where insurgencies are never quite extinguished—the central government must create a new, dedicated statutory organisation to engage in the endgame of counter-insurgency. We shall use the acronym CIMPCOR, or Civilian Military Partnership for Conflict Resolution to describe it. It will enable the government to extend its non-military authority and lay the foundations for the rule of law and basic governance in areas cleared of Naxalites.

Mandate. CIMPCOR’s mandate should be to fill the gap between emergency humanitarian assistance and longer-term development assistance. It should be charged with the responsibility to put in place the building blocks for sustainable development, by building basic infrastructure, delivering basic public services and unleashing economic freedom. It should have institutional mechanisms to partner with the security forces, the local political and community leaders and specialist government agencies engaged in agriculture, education, power, telecommunications and water resources development.

Governance. Administratively, CIMPCOR should be placed under a revamped home ministry—but with senior-level staff drawn from various ministries and the Planning Commission. At the present time the home ministry has too much on its plate to be able to devote its resources towards internal security, leave alone development in conflict situations. The case of the National Disaster Management Authority—which remains a fledgling years after its formation—suggests that merely creating a new specialised agency is not the full answer: the ministry itself must re-orient itself towards the new priorities. If this is not possible for any reason, the next best alternative is to place CIMPCOR as an autonomous agency under the Prime Minister’s Office.

Staffing. CIMPCOR’s staffing could be drawn from three streams: first, a core staff charged with building and maintaining the capacity to engage in short to medium-term interventions anywhere in India. Second, its deployable resources could be “lend-leased” from the armed forces, central paramilitary forces, government departments, NGOs and some public-sector units (banks, for instance). Third, it could draw from a reserve of individual specialists—with expertise in various domains and experience in various regional contexts—employed through a system of call-down contracts.

To ensure co-ordination with the security forces engaged in the Hold stage, CIMPCOR should have adequate representation of serving and retired security forces personnel at all levels. To use the ‘Rotterdam principle’, CIMPCOR “should be as civilian as possible and as military as necessary.” Where circumstances dictate that the security forces play a key role in executing development tasks—like the road through the Red Corridor—their role would be clearly defined, with the transition process identified. In any case, the responsibility for carrying out the development work should rest with CIMPCOR.

If insurgencies in general and Naxalism in particular are the biggest threats to internal security, then it must follow that CIMPCOR must be staffed and led by exemplary individuals—from government and private sectors.

Readiness. In terms of operational readiness, CIMPCOR should be capable of deploying planning teams within ten days and project execution teams within two months.

It must have the capability to conduct assessments; design, implement and evaluate development programmes; provide local administration; manage contractors and funding agencies; and provide consultation and training to state government departments to facilitate early transition to local control. Its role should be catalytic—by providing staff and trainers—in rejuvenating the state governments agencies and personnel.

Deployment terms. CIMPCOR’s deployment could vary from six months to two years, but should be capped—perhaps at no more than three years. This is important: for a long-term deployment of CIMPCOR would undermine the very purpose of creating an institution; the aim being to facilitate a quick and smooth return to normalcy, without affecting the development goals while preserving the military success achieved by the security forces against the insurgents. An exit strategy should be written into CIMPCOR’s charter, mandating the transfer of responsibilities to the state government to start within one year of its deployment.

There are several areas in India where CIMPCOR is needed today. In the future, it is conceivable that as India’s global role expands in tandem with its economic and geopolitical interests, CIMPCOR might even have to be deployed in foreign contexts. Investing in a robust, competent and professional final-stage counter-insurgency force is not only be timely, but will be forward-looking as well.

In his book The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done about It, economist Paul Collier has shown that only economic growth decisively reduces the risk of a return to civil war. This does not mean that insurgencies are only about economics but that an upward growth trajectory makes a recurrence of war less probable. Indeed, Mr Collier found that the higher the post-war growth rate was, the harder it was to shatter the peace. Thus, growth and development, alongside security for the population, has to be the utmost priority of any counter-insurgency campaign.

If the struggle against Naxalism is not to be Sisyphean, India cannot be flippant about the endgame of counter-insurgency. It can be said with confidence that given political will and leadership, India’s security forces are competent enough to succeed against the Naxalites in the military space. Without adequate capacity to rebuild the lives, livelihoods, communities and societies ravaged by the Naxalites and the war to eliminate them, successes will be ephemeral. India needs CIMPCOR now.