Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Coping with asymmetric violence

K.S. Jacob

Asymmetric conflicts demand a different understanding, alternative approaches and solutions.

Naxalite violence constitutes an asymmetric war that demands unconventional wisdom and responses. Employing traditional perspectives and using the armed forces is not the solution.
The realisation is dawning on the world’s most powerful armies that compared to conventional warfare, fighting insurgencies is a different cup of tea. The United States and its allies have not only burnt their fingers in Iraq and Afghanistan, but realised the limits of their power. Israel, despite its repeated failure to subjugate the Palestinian people, refuses to learn that military approaches will not break the struggle for freedom and justice and bring about peace.
Purely military strategies fail in the very different context and framework of such “asymmetric wars” between security forces and insurgents. This is also true of the naxalite violence engulfing some of the poorest parts of India. The asymmetries with regard to resources between the opposing sides, the government with its massive reserves and well-trained armed forces and the small and ill-equipped but ideologically driven insurgents, could not be starker. Asymmetric conflicts demand a different understanding, alternative approaches and solutions.
The changing scenario of armed conflicts: The days of conventional wars, between states and involving large armies, are numbered. Armed conflicts, more often, involve non-state actors. Insurgencies have replaced industrial-scale operations. The insurgents are embedded within populations and the war is fought amongst people. Technology, a force-multiplier in conventional wars, is of limited use in asymmetric warfare fought in densely inhabited theatres of conflict. Non-state actors with high mobility, using low-tech weapons and employing guerrilla tactics and who are unrecognisable from the local people are no match for traditional armies. Sophisticated military strategies developed for industrial warfare are hopelessly inadequate in tackling such asymmetric wars.
The context of asymmetric violence: The contexts of asymmetric wars are varied. Nevertheless, the common threads include occupation by foreign forces, chronic poverty, persistent alienation and the social exclusion of a significant proportion of the population.
Naxalite violence has taken root in the poorest regions of the country. The grinding poverty, the rising inequalities and the failure of successive governments to improve the lives of ordinary people have led to disenchantment with the democratic process. The lack of basic needs of water, sanitation, nutrition, housing, health, education, employment guarantees, and the social exclusion of the majority of the people, are major concerns. Corruption at different levels of government, the insensitivity of the political class, common instances of high-handedness and harassment that many poor people face at the hands of the police, and religious and caste bigotry set the stage. The situation is loaded with asymmetries, forms of structural violence that have become normal across the region. The disillusioned decide to move out of the establishment framework and take up arms as the only means to break down the insensitive system, which has not delivered an egalitarian society.
The conventional response: Armed attacks, hostage-taking, killing, suicide bombing, the destruction of infrastructure and the choice of soft civilian targets cause outrage. The round-the-clock media coverage brings the violence into homes, provoking indignation and producing demands for retaliation. The response involves security operations, political bans on suspected organisations and tougher legislation restricting human rights. However, the enemy has by then melted away and is practically indistinguishable from the local population. The task of the security forces can be compared to finding a needle in a haystack. Innocent civilians get caught up in such operations. The security response is usually disproportionate. Human rights are frequently violated, leading to further alienation of people. The might of the security forces has little impact on a few hundred insurgents. Conventional forces, accustomed to operating within the framework of traditional wars, are out of their depth battling unconventional opponents in such asymmetric conflicts.
Strategies of the underdogs: Underdogs acknowledge their weaknesses and adopt unconventional approaches. The only chance for a David to win against a Goliath is by not playing by the latter’s rules. T.E. Lawrence’s (Lawrence of Arabia) strategy against the Ottoman Army was a typical example. He did not train in a military academy and did not know the rules of war, but commanded a ragtag group of Bedouin tribesmen whose assets were courage, endurance and individual intelligence. Underdogs usually beat traditional champions by substituting effort for ability.
Insurgents do not adopt a military strategy. In fact, if they did so they would lose, as they are no match for the security forces. They attack where the opposition is weak and not where they are strong. There are many examples in military history where successful insurgencies turned to conventional warfare and lost the impressive gains made with the earlier strategy (for example, the LTTE in Sri Lanka).
Naxalites are outsiders. They challenge conventions of how battles are fought and will do socially horrifying things to achieve their aims. They attack and destroy symbols of government authority. Their energy and ambition overcome their limited ability for conventional warfare.
The foundation for victory: Winning asymmetric wars fought amongst people requires the support of the local population. The oxygen for both sides, the insurgents and the government, is the open or tacit support of the people. Those who win the “hearts and minds” will eventually be the victors in such conflicts. With the support of the people, the victors will ultimately attain their political goals and overcome the opposition. Garnering such support is always the key to success.
Acts of the government, such as the takeover of people’s lands for development without rehabilitation of livelihoods and the displacement of tribal people forcing them to live in camps, do not suggest that the administrations are serious about gaining public support. The war through the Salwa Judum, extra-judicial killings by the police and the use of draconian laws (for example, the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act 2006) fuel resentment. The abject poverty in the region and the insensitivity of governments are not circumstances that win people’s cooperation. Surely, this is no way to win hearts and minds. The status quo would mean prolonged insurgency.
The need for unconventional wisdom: The use of the security forces as a solution to the problem has not worked against the naxalites. Areas of insurgency have only increased over the past decade. The state and its security advisers need to come up with innovative ideas and move away from strategies, which seem to be firmly rooted in the past. Issues related to distributive justice and dialogue, for example, will eventually lead to lasting and permanent peace. The government should examine issues related to basic needs and social justice. If the hearts and minds of the people are won, if lives and means of livelihood are improved, then local support and sympathy for insurgents will automatically come down. Enlightened approaches should replace weak and chaotic strategic planning based on old military doctrines. Eventually we will have to negotiate our way out with just and political solutions.
Barriers to new approaches: Many military commanders now agree that military solutions are not the answer to conflicts in today’s world. Yet their political masters rarely concur, as it is easier to implement military responses than execute the necessary structural reforms within government and politics. Security solutions mistake activity for strategy and make war for an elusive peace.
The recent Maoist violence in West Bengal also suggests that opportunistic political alliances for partisan gains are obstacles to long-term solutions. Ideological arguments against negotiating with terrorists are used to stall dialogue. It is also rumoured that naxalite violence will not go away as the local police and politicians stand to gain from the unmarked government funds to recruit informers and gather intelligence. Extra-judicial killing by the police of “suspected terrorists” and collateral damage due to security operations alienate the local people while keeping the funds flowing.
In the era of “dumbing down” of news and analysis and of “sound bites,” we need a more comprehensive debate on the real causes of insurgency and on structural violence and their solutions. Military and security options are quick fixes, which always place lasting solutions on the back-burner.

(Professor K.S. Jacob is on the faculty of the Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu.)
Source: The Hindu

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