Back To Basics – The Only Winning Factor In Counter Insurgency

A primer for those who have never seen an insurgency area nor realized its inherent dangers.

​This has to commence with deep regrets at the loss of precious lives of our soldiers in the Chandel ambush in Manipur on 6 Dogra on 04 Jun. Loss of brave soldiers is always heart wrenching but the Army no doubt will do deep introspection into reasons for such a negative event on a scale not associated with the Olive Green. 6 Dogra will bounce back, I have no doubt.

In the run of commentaries and analyses various analysts are explaining the complex situation arising out of apparent neglect of the North East, the inability to diplomatically engage with Myanmar to disallow its soil for anti-India activity and the breakdown of ceasefire with one crucial Naga group led by SS Khaplang of NSCN (K) which has morphed other disparate groups under its umbrella. The North East has so many militant groups and umbrella organizations that it is extremely difficult for the public to keep track or remember names. An aspect which needs recall is the fact that for twenty years the Army and Assam Rifles have provided a reasonably stable environment; it is the Nation which has not exploited it.

In the hurry to decode all this complexity we lose sight of the other reasons why an apparently outstanding unit such as 6 Dogra, led by a capable Commanding Officer could not see such a thing coming during its de-induction after a close to three year deployment in the same sector. There is no need to blame the unit, any unit could have met the same fate in the extremely difficult circumstances that they serve anywhere in CI areas. The Indian Army is one of the richest in experience when it comes to CI operations, especially in jungle terrain. However, generic talent, expertise and capability cannot be taken at face value. It has to extend to every single soldier serving in such operations and such terrain. This can be essentially achieved by the very clichéd management term called ‘Back to Basics’; something which has to be revisited from time to time and modified as per need; it can never be taken for granted. This of course does not absolve those in chain of command whose job it is to warn units and oversee implementation of their warnings.

Let me explain. In 1987, the Indian Army met its match in the LTTE as far as jungle fighting techniques were concerned. The LTTE innovated the Improvised Explosive Device (IED) to curtail the mobility of the Army. It read our basic skills and realized that we had established movement drills which had been adopted by habit not by recommendation; we liked moving five meters off the road or track. Therefore the LTTE placed IEDs exactly there. I remember operating with 10 Para Commando (now SF) and its outstanding Commanding Officer, Colonel (later Maj Gen) Dalvir Singh. I found Col Dalvir would never permit his men to move between two bushes because that is where the LTTE placed mines and IEDs; so 10 Para Commando only trampled over bushes and that is why it never suffered a mine casualty. He was a man never in a hurry; always taking time and moving deliberately even if it took a couple of hours more than scheduled; always unpredictable and always correct in basics.

There are some simple aspects of countering IEDs and reducing the possibility of militants targeting a unit during de-induction (as reported). After serving three years in an area a unit is usually confident about its knowledge and capability of terrain and militant tactics. Its guard is low while exactly the opposite should happen because it can expect militant retribution for the losses it has inflicted. An anti-vehicle IED is not so easy to emplace although in the mountains it may be simpler, like in this case. Potential IED sites can be identified by soldiers with a keen eye for ground. Nights and days before de-induction these sites are dominated by patrolling. A typical vehicle borne domination patrol has its own ways of moving at night such that emplacing IEDs by militants becomes almost impossible. Security is never in numbers; it is in alertness.

The road has to be opened (ROP) through a deliberate drill involving deploying at least half the night before, so that militant ambushes cannot find their way to designated spots. However, this is hardly ever followed by units. The reason is that ROP is one of the most tedious in the CI list of operations. Theoretically it involves securing an area adjacent to the road by physical placement of troops in small detachments, after they have searched the road for possible IEDs, and more importantly deploying some troops in depth to dominate potential routes of ingress to ambush sites. This is done on both sides of the road and the flurry of activity achieves the necessary domination.

However, troops on ground may treat this casually especially if there has been no history of IED attacks or ambushes and they have been doing the duty repeatedly. More often than not this becomes an everyday activity as in J&K and the repetitiveness and sheer boredom brings an air of casualness. Militants are great observers. A unit with tight drills will never get targeted. Yet, in such an environment the unpredictable can always happen and if on that day alertness is low the effect will be disastrous.

Let me also state for information of those who have never donned the uniform or operated in such circumstances. CI operations are most demanding, they sap your energy and it is never possible to retain a hundred percent alert at all times. Soldiers are human and while they have immense stamina and patience they can and will make mistakes. There are some basics ingrained in them which must never be lost sight of. It is also the responsibility of their superiors and the staff to recognize their weaknesses and remind them of these. Reminders in such an environment are an essence of command because not everything can be remembered even by the most thorough professionals; that is a leadership mantra. I recall many nights in operational areas when I would call up a CO at the dead of night to just check with him whether he had all the intelligence that was available with me, pertaining to his area.

In the din of activities in such areas pieces of crucial information sometimes escape notice and in passage from higher to lower levels the degree of importance and actual contents may well get relegated or lost. A one to one discussion may retrieve the essentials and emphasize what may not have been perceived. Such conversations with COs, junior officers and many times JCOs and soldiers, allow you to remind them of basics. If you have staff that keeps doing this even at the cost of its comfort you are bound to increase effectiveness.

You cannot always do it but there are times when in CI areas it is preferable to get your teams to walk with vehicles following, for some distances. It will upset all movement calculations but such a measure is adopted when you know that the terrain is completely against you. I recall 15 Jan 1989 in Sri Lanka while operating as part of the IPKF. The LTTE in my area had announced that while I could get the election conducted but the ballot boxes would go nowhere because they would not allow the civilian vehicles and our logistics load carriers to return with them. I knew that after a few days of operations my men were tired and they would be vulnerable moving in vehicles with a light ROP on the road. I therefore decided to walk the troops and bring the vehicles along with us by placing them in the center. The LTTE was befuddled.

There are all kinds of insinuations flying around and a blame game alleging non adherence to drills. While such a negative event should never happen anyone with CI experience will tell you that you cannot be the winner every day. There will be temporary lapses and responsibility must be pin pointed for these but the heavens have not fallen. The Army has an inherent capacity to absorb and then hit back.

The important thing is that in the passion and energy to do so it must target the militants and their leadership and remember that one basic from their Back to Basics lessons; the population must not be affected. Ultimately the support of the people is what we look for and for the heads of the rogues who did this to 6 Dogra.



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