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Compressing politics on COIN: Implications for counterinsurgency theory with reference to India’s Northeast

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  • October 19, 2016
    Round Table
    1030 to 1300 hrs

    Chair: Prof. Rajesh Rajagopalan

    Discussants: Brig. Narender Kumar, Col. Pradeep Singh Chhonkar, Col. Vikrant S. Deshpande

    Mr. Walterman elaborated on his paper about the theoretical debates of Counterinsurgency (COIN) and the growing complex challenges that have confronted the traditional theorization of COIN. The paper deals with the relationship between COIN and the complex aspects of latest insurgencies. Mr. Alex argued that the old theorization of COIN, which was conditioned by Cold War understanding and the traditional division of “duties into 80% political action and 20% military”, has almost become stagnant. He argued even the 21st century democracies have been adopting this mechanism for dealing with insurgencies. Mr Waterman noted there is a need to overcome this “conceptual inertia” in order to address the complexity of changed insurgencies and this paper is an attempt in that direction.

    Waterman argued that the continued theorisation and division of COIN into political and military are inadequate for dealing with insurgencies as these have evolved, grown complex and are sometimes thriving upon alternative political models. Defeating the political in the insurgencies remains challenge for any COIN rather than merely crushing its guerrilla tactics. That means in many ways that COIN has become 100% political.

    With regard to India, Waterman argued that in India the rebel groups were recognised from the beginning as “misguided citizens” by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the approach to deal with them has been overwhelmingly political with less use of military tactics. However, this approach has not paid off in the way the state would have liked it to. According to Waterman, the current notion of political embedded in COIN understanding fails to take into account the complexity of the political environment at the two levels: One is that counterinsurgents and insurgents are not the only actors that can have an overall political impact. There are other influential actors as well; strong local politicians, civil society or foreign intelligence agencies. Second is that the interactions within this environment may not reflect the traditional and complex political competition. Some elements of an insurgency may be seeking to carve out an ethnic exclusionary base to consolidate power while others may be seeking to control drug trafficking or likewise. Such vested interests are not uncommon in the latest insurgencies.

    Waterman argued that the Indian approach of a combination of political engagement and military coercion, has been successful in co-opting those groups who are willing to be part of the mainstream and empowering political actors to bring them to negotiations. Though this has been successful, for example, in Mizoram with the Mizo National Front (MNF), it, however, remains an exception. In other Northeast states like Nagaland, issues remains unsettled. In Bodoland, the Peace Accords of 1993 and 2003 created a new kind of identity politics within the Bodo society, fragmenting it, and creating new forms of violence that led to the emergence of “other armed groups” who are creating their own space. Insurgent groups tend to exploit vulnerable sections of a society and grey area to their interest. Many a times, insurgent groups react to a particular COIN approach differently based upon their political and social conditions. These different signals from different groups “produce complications” which the current political primacy in COIN fails to cover appropriately. Similarly, apart from the political, the force used in the COIN is meant to weaken the insurgent groups and bring them on the negotiating table. This, however, changes the political/power dynamics: apparently empowering one group and sidelining the others.

    Therefore, though the political primacy on COIN is rightly the main feature, but it is unable to capture increased complexity present in the latest insurgencies. For that we need to re-visit the old theory of COIN and attempt a new theorization for capturing the latest dynamics and actors involved. We need to revise the theory in order to successfully draw generalisations to cover diverse cases.

    Brig. Narender Kumar

    Brig. Kumar in his comments argued that there are indeed complications in the process of COIN, as the paper argues. But these arise also from the geography, demography and relationship between ethnic groups as well, whose understanding may differ from the mainstream. As a case in point, in the Northeast, there was no concept of state as it is understood now. The effort from the centre to compress the local structures and traditions has created problems. For example, Assam was one of the most developed regions in India. Attempted reform of its structure without taking into account the local traditions led to the problems it is faced with today. In other places like Manipur, conflicts exist between the ethnic groups themselves rather than with the centre or state. Overall, Brig. Kumar argued, given the complexity, where is the space for the political? The situation demands closer to an 80% military and 20% political approach. Therefore, at best, it was more likely that the political and military will go hand in hand.

    In Nagaland, insurgency is an industry which provides jobs to the unemployed youth. This is because there are no economic opportunities for them. It’s fortunate that the people are forcing the insurgent groups to maintain the cease fire. There is a requirement for the northeast to be first integrated with itself, then with the main land.

    Col. Pradeep Singh Chhonkar

    Col. Chhonkar argued that the paper presented aptly analyzes the concept of political in COIN and dynamics involved in insurgencies. This complexity has grown mainly because of the vast number of actors involved in these insurgencies. These actors control economic, social and political power and use them to pursue their interests. Many Northeast insurgencies are complex because these are not insurgencies of traditional understanding and features but are used for controlling the drug market, fake currency and for extortions. He suggested that Nagaland could also be included as a case study for a situation in which, when one group is talked to, the others feel being sidelined.

    Col. Vikrant S. Deshpande

    Col. Deshpande opined that the paper highlights two elements of COIN: political approach and utility of force. It argues that the existing theory doesn’t entail the complexity involved in insurgencies and for analyzing this Northeast is taken as case study. COIN practice precedes the theory and it is not that the practioners are not aware about the complications. The measures taken in Northeast were ineffective not because the design or intention were missing but because of the wrong execution.

    Col. Deshpande was of the opinion that the idea of utility of force in the paper can be further developed. Force is used to achieve tactical ends. It needs to be elaborated why the use of force should stop at getting a fighting group to the negotiating table.

    Prof. Rajesh Rajagopalan

    Commenting on the paper, Prof. Rajagopalan argued that three points need to be taken into consideration: i)academic theorizing has practice behind it; , i.e., a theory’s premise is empirical data or/experience which informs the theorist’s understanding of an issue which he/she then tries to give a theoretical explanation. ii), the binary division of the COIN theory debate into the political and military doesn’t cover all the dimensions involved. Besides, the perspective of a theorist or practioner has a significant impact on this; and iii) As a corollary to the second point, therefore, for better or worse, there is politics involved in this division of the COIN into the political and military itself,. An academician or a practioner after all has his subjectivity involved in this process which influences his/her understanding of the COIN.

    Prof. Rajagopalan further argued that the concept of political in COIN is not applicable at the global level. India is fighting insurgencies internally and the issues of human rights, citizenship rights, democratic values and excessive use of force are factors in play while taking on the insurgent groups,; unlike in international counterinsurgency enterprises, of the type found in Afghanistan and Iraq. In an attempt of theorization, we also need to open the black box from the both sides, i.e., from the state and from the insurgent side as well. Prof. Rajagopalan noted that a major challenge for the paper would be to draw generalizations from the application of the (reformed) COIN theory in cases where there are complexities involved, like in the Northeast region of India.