Key to India's failure in combating Maoist insurgency is an ahistorical, one-size-fits-all security doctrine.

Eric Hobsbawm wrote: “There is nothing in the purely military pages of Mao, Nguyen Giap, Che Guevara or other manuals of guerrilla warfare which a traditional guerrillero or band leader would regard as other than simple common sense.”

Last week, after the massacre of 76 police personnel in Dantewada, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram urged Indians to “remain calm, keep your nerve, and do not stray from the carefully chosen course that we have adopted since November 2009.”

The last of those recommendations may prove profoundly misguided. Few of the strategists charged with executing the Minister's ambitious counter-Maoist offensive appear to have grasped its doctrinal and tactical demands. Premised on the belief that counter-insurgency campaigns must be population-centric — in other words, dominate territories and thus deny insurgents contact with the population — the strategic foundation of India's war against Maoist insurgents is flawed. The bottom line is this: Indian forces are losing. Last year, 312 security personnel were killed to 294 Maoists. This year, too, the figures are grim.

For centuries, insurgents have known that a superior force can be defeated. Napoleon Bonaparte believed that his 1808 occupation of Spain would be a “military promenade.” Instead, France found itself bogged down by a protracted guerrilla struggle that lasted six years and compelled to commit three-fifths of its imperial army. Irish insurgents who fought the British in 1848 were taught to “decompose the science and system of war.” “The force of England,” advised the radical James Lalor, “is entrenched and fortified. You must draw it out of position; break up its mass; break its trained line of march and manoeuvre; its equal step and serried array.”

Much of this would have been familiar to peasant rebels and bandits in India. Back in 1813, Kallua Gujjar led a successful series of raids targeting moneylenders, travellers and police posts in the Saharanpur-Dehra Dun belt. His 1,000-strong irregular force was, on one occasion, able to loot a group of some 200 police personnel. Bhil insurgents staged a series of revolt between 1820 and 1860 — driven, among other things, by the large-scale expropriation of Adivasi land by the state and growing exploitation by moneylenders. Despite the use of irregular formations like James Outram's Bhil Corps and a policy of pacification that involved pushing the Adivasis to become settled farmers, the Bhil raids continued for decades.

Major-General Akbar Khan, who commanded the Pakistani irregular offensive directed at Srinagar in 1947, described the tactical mindset of such irregular warriors in his memoirs: “One Mahsud tribesman aptly described to me their tactics as being like that of the hawk. The hawk flies high in the sky, out of danger; he flies round and round until he sees his prey and then he swoops down on it for one mighty strike and when he has got his prey, he does not wait around, he flies off at once to some far off quiet place where he can enjoy what he has got.”

Ossified doctrine

Key to India's failure in combating Maoist insurgency is an ahistorical, one-size-fits-all security doctrine. In essence, state responses have consisted of pumping in forces for conventional, ground-holding operations in the hope of displacing guerrilla forces; maintaining high force levels over sustained periods of time; and, using this military presence to push forward with developmental and political initiatives to deprive insurgents of their political legitimacy.

Indian counter-insurgency tactics and strategy, Vijendra Singh Jafa notes, “have remained fundamentally conservative and traditional, influenced substantially by accounts of British experiences.” Drawing on the British campaign against the Malayan Communist Party, Indian strategists believe that successful counter-insurgency campaigns must focus on winning popular support. New work, like that of historian Karl Hack, has shown that the back of the Malayan insurgency was, in fact, broken long before Britain set about winning hearts and minds. Little of this revisionist literature, though, has been studied seriously in Indian military academies.

Despite plenty of evidence that population-centric strategies do not work —witness the durability of insurgencies in the northeast and Jammu and Kashmir — the doctrine has never been reappraised.

The former Punjab Director-General of Police, K.P.S. Gill's signal contribution was demonstrating that alternatives to population-centric counter-insurgency could succeed. Instead of engaging in protracted, large-force operations, Mr. Gill focussed on offensive operations targeting the leadership and cadre of Khalistan terrorists. In effect, unconventional war-fighting methods were used to defeat unconventional war-fighting methods. Evidence that such tactics work has piled up. In Jammu and Kashmir, the Special Operations Group succeeded in decimating the leadership of the Hizb ul-Mujahideen. Andhra Pradesh's Greyhounds destroyed a once-powerful Maoist insurgency. Tripura defeated an intractable tribal insurgency.

In a thoughtful 1988 paper for the United States Air Force Airpower Research Institute, Dennis Drew noted that counter-insurgency operations called for an upturning of military thinking. Military professionals, he wrote, believe “that the basic military objective in war is to conduct operations that lead to the destruction of the enemy's centre of gravity.” India's policy of pumping company-sized formations into the Maoist heartland, and attempting to dominate the territory around them, is one manifestation of this thinking. The problem is successful insurgents have no fixed centre of gravity — no bases that conventional forces may overwhelm.

Population-centred counter-insurgency has received renewed legitimacy from the apparent success of the U.S. troop surge in Iraq, which was marketed as having subdued a growing insurgency. But, as scholar and soldier Gian Gentile has pointed out, the notion that the reduction of insurgent violence in Iraq was “primarily the result of American military action is hubris run amok.” In fact, Gentile argued, a “combination of brutal attacks by Shia militia in conjunction with the actions of the Iraqi Shia government and the continuing persecution by the al-Qaeda against the Sunni community convinced the insurgents that they could no longer counter all these forces and it was to their advantage to cut a deal with the Americans.”

Capacity crisis

For many in the Indian intelligentsia, the defeat of insurgents is an inevitability: part, as it were, of the manifest destiny of the state. Last week, Shekhar Gupta, editor of Indian Express, offered a ringing endorsement of this received wisdom, arguing that insurgencies “follow a pattern pretty much like a bell curve,” “The graph of violence,” he argued, “rises in the initial period, producing more and more casualties on both sides. But at some stage the rebels come to the realisation that the state and its people are too strong and resolute to be ever defeated, no matter what the score, in a particular day's battle in a long war. That is the point of inflexion when rebels see reason. There is no reason why the Maoist insurgency will not follow that same pattern.”

But will it? Back in 1954, when India first committed troops to battling Naga insurgents, just one State was hit by insurgency. Now, 265 of 625 districts are affected by one form or the other of chronic conflict — a figure that excludes areas with unacceptably high levels of organised crime, as well as cities periodically targeted by jihadist violence. It is far from clear if the resources exist to address the problem. Italy has 559 police officers for every 1,00,000 citizens; Bihar has 60, Orissa 97, Chhattisgarh 128 and Jharkhand 136. Even the Army, despite its apparently enormous size, will be stretched if it is committed to internal security duties. The United States has one soldier for every 186 citizens; India has one for 866.

Worse, it is far from clear if the Indian state has the capacity needed for rapid, transformative projects. The U.S., figures compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management's Ajai Sahni show, has 889 federal employees, and 6,314 state and local employees for every 1,00,000 citizens. India's Union government has 295 — and if one excludes railway employees, 171. Chhattisgarh has 1,067 government employees per 1,00,000 population; Bihar, a pathetic 472.

Even if forces are found to saturate the ground, experience shows, development will not necessarily follow. In both Jammu and Kashmir and the northeast, state spending has yielded only limited results. Funds have often been siphoned off by local contractors and politicians — and, worse, preyed on by insurgents. In effect, the injection of cash into troubled regions has subsidised insurgency.

Learning from its own success stories, India needs to fight insurgencies in smarter, leaner ways. Like Andhra Pradesh, States must invest in training facilities that meet their particular needs; expand intelligence capabilities; and use technology effectively. Instead of focussing on simply expanding the size of Central forces, the Union government must understand the need for them to be properly trained and equipped. Soldiers without skills have only one fate: defeat.

In time, it is true, Indian forces may succeed in wearing down the Maoist insurgency, albeit at a horrible cost of lives — but there are reasons to worry that they may not. India's strategic strengths are manifest. But as the work of military scholar Ivan Arreguin-Toft teaches us, the weak do sometimes win. Instead of despatching ever-greater numbers of men to support those already flailing in the face of insurgent fire, a dispassionate review of both doctrine and tactics is needed.

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