Anti-Maoist war in serious trouble

Eleven weeks after the annihilation of an entire company of the Central Reserve Police Force in a Maoist ambush in April 2010 near the village of Tarmetla — the largest single loss India has ever suffered in a counter-insurgency campaign — Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram had fighting words for the consultative committee which exercises parliamentary oversight of his Ministry.

Mr. Chidambaram said the Chief Ministers of the four States worst hit by Maoist violence — Chhattisgarh, Orissa, West Bengal and Jharkhand — had agreed to set up a unified command centre for joint operations. The Centre would help strengthen the police infrastructure and provide helicopters. The Planning Commission's Member-Secretary would head an Empowered Group to monitor development projects in the most affected areas, thus draining the swamps of backwardness in which the Maoists thrived. “The government is confident,” he concluded, “that the problem of Left wing extremism will be overcome in the next three years.”

Nothing that has happened since Mr. Chidambaram's July 2010 address gives reason to believe his assertion. India's Maoist insurgency has become progressively more lethal: last year, the MHA says, 1003 people were killed, up from 908 in 2009 and 721 in 2008.

Last year, the MHA observed in its annual report that “the overall counter-action by the affected States in terms of Left-Wing Extremists killed, arrested and surrendered has shown much better results.” This time round, the annual report has held out no similar words of reassurance — and with good reason. Even though Mr. Chidambaram's war has all but disappeared off our television screens, the evidence shows it has run into big trouble.

For reasons that aren't entirely clear, the MHA does not provide breakdowns of the fatalities it records. However, an independent database maintained by the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management (ICM) reveals a disturbing reality: despite massive investments in new forces and equipment, fewer insurgents are being eliminated while more police and civilians are being killed.

In 2007, 294 Maoists were recorded killed in police action; last year, the number was down to 170 — the lowest since the United Progressive Alliance government took power. However, the killings of both civilians and security forces have grown. In 2005, 150 police and 281 civilians were killed; last year, the numbers were 277 and 626.

Fatalities are not, in themselves, evidence of failure or success in combat: the early phases of counter-insurgency campaigns often witness sharp escalations in violence, as security forces push into regions where their adversaries held unchallenged power. The numbers from the ICM database, however, show that the ratio of insurgents to police killed is declining — which means the insurgents retain their edge.

In the autumn of 2009, Mr. Chidambaram initiated a sweeping offensive against Maoists: tens of thousands of personnel were mobilised in an effort to displace the insurgents from their strongholds. G.K. Pillai, former Home Secretary, announced that he hoped that “within 30 days of the security forces moving in and dominating the area, we should be able to restore civil administration.”

In the year-plus since, that hope has shattered. Finding themselves lacking the combat skills and intelligence needed to outmanoeuvre insurgent units in the forests — a lesson hammered home by the killings at Tarmetla — the Central forces have been doing little other than protecting their camps.

Chasing a chimera

Experts predicted just this outcome. Even as the media applauded the anti-Maoist offensive, the former Director-General of Punjab Police, K.P.S. Gill, warned that New Delhi was chasing a chimera. There was, he noted, a pattern: “months of State denial, appeasement and progressive error; paralysis in the face of rising Maoist violence; and the final, almost effortless, resolution as the rebels simply melted away in the face of the first evidence of determined use of force.”

The ICM's Ajai Sahni, in turn, prophesied that the retreat of Maoist groups would offer “no more than scant and fleeting comfort.” The strategic reality, he noted in a November 2009 article, was that “if there is a concentration of State forces on particular nodes, the Maoists will disperse and intensify operations in other areas; if there is a dispersal of State forces, these will be subjected to persistent and corrosive attacks at their points of vulnerability.”

India's Mughal-era mode of counterinsurgency, consisting of despatching large numbers of forces to contain distant rebellions, had led to protracted stalemates in several States, the experts noted — and the Maoist campaign would prove no different.

New Delhi didn't listen — and has since continued to demonstrate a remarkable unwillingness to learn from experience. Each successive annual report of the MHA has underlined the need for a holistic response to the insurgency — but has never devoted a word to why multi-million rupee investments in schools, roads or hospitals have yielded so few results.

In 2008, the MHA advised violence-affected States to push forward with a nine-point programme that included “time-bound action for augmenting the police force,” development of “suitable incentives for persons who are posted in these areas,” putting up “secure police station buildings,” setting up units “with special commando/jungle warfare related training,” ensuring that public services were “available and accessible to people” and creating “mechanisms for public grievance redress.”

These same points, in exactly the same words, have figured unchanged in annual reports since — for example, in paragraph 2.7.7 of the annual report for 2009-2010, and paragraph 2.7.9 in 2010-2011.

Even the most obtuse bureaucrat ought to have realised that the repeated use of copy and paste commands on his word processor wasn't likely to make a policy work. However, funds continued to be spent on building non-functional schools and highways that existed only on paper. Even a bridge across the Godavari to link the economic hub at Karimnagar to Bhopalpattinam, which Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh agreed to build in 2007, is yet to be constructed.

The writing on the wall has become painfully clear: without order, development is just not possible and New Delhi has no coherent strategy to bring about this precondition for progress.

Reimagining strategies

MHA strategists have, in the main, dealt with the problem by escalating it up the bureaucratic ladder. Mr. Chidambaram's 2010 inter-State committee was just the latest in a series of similar bodies charged with implementing development. In 2007, the MHA set up a Naxal Management Division under the command of an Additional Secretary to ensure “periodic review and close monitoring of the Action Plans drawn up by the States.”

Later, in February 2008, the Cabinet Secretary began chairing meetings to coordinate responses to the Maoists.

As Dr. Sahni noted sardonically, it would have been no small achievement “if the State could even ‘restore civil administration' to vast expanses of rural India where the Maoists have no presence whatsoever, but where virtually the entire apparatus of governance has vanished — at least some of these areas are little more than a stone's throw away from Delhi.”

Last year, after the Tarmetla massacre, Mr. Chidambaram urged Indians to “remain calm, hold our nerve, and do not stray from the carefully chosen course that we have adopted since November 2009.” The time has come for New Delhi to consider whether that chosen course is, in fact, a useful one.

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 on Maoist insurgents has proved to be flawed. There are, quite simply, just not enough troops to secure the continental scale of the terrain involved.

Insurgents have known for centuries that superior forces can be defeated. Napoleon Bonaparte believed 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 the commitment of three-fifths of its imperial army. The 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.”

In 266 BC, the chronicles of the ancient historian Aelian recorded, emperor Antigonus II Gontas laid siege to the city of Megara. The Megarans had no weapons with which to break the ranks of Antigonus II's battle elephants. No weapons, that is, bar their wits — and Megara's pigs, which were rounded up, doused with resin, and set on fire. The squealing animals ran in flames towards the elephants, which panicked and fled killing many of the emperor's troops.

India's battle elephants, too, have failed to uproot the red flag from the large swathes of central India where the Maoist insurgency has embedded itself. Insurgencies are small commanders' wars: wars that depend on the training, commitment and skills of leaders on the ground, not armies of conventional scales and resources. Fighting the Maoist insurgency will need careful planning and sustained innovation. New Delhi seems to have, in its arsenal, only big sacks of cash and even bigger words.

Fighting the insurgency will need careful planning and sustained innovation. But New Delhi seems to have only big sacks of cash and even bigger words.

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