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The Complacency Factor in Counter-Insurgency Operations

Kishalay Bhattacharjee was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • March 16, 2011

    To give teeth to counter-insurgency operations in the North East, the Ministry of Home Affairs had introduced an intelligence sharing mechanism to which all investigative and operational agencies of the government will contribute. Accordingly, one intelligence gathering agency had sent an advance ‘high importance’ warning about the March 14 ambush in Lower Assam’s Kokrajhar district. But the agency which actually came under attack failed to even notice this warning. This is the first mistake in counter-insurgency operations.

    Counter-Insurgency Operations are a two edged sword. On one hand, it is important for the government to engage in psychological warfare and confidence building measures by claiming to have isolated the enemy. But this claim about the enemy becomes counterproductive for the troops who, despite their training, become complacent as a result.

    On the evening of March 14, some twenty BSF personnel were travelling through Ultapani in Kokrajhar, a forested area dominated by the Bodo militant outfit NDFB. With specific inputs of a possible ambush, it was against standard procedure to travel in a single vehicle, which they were doing, and at a time when they were advised not to. The soldiers were, moreover, not prepared and did not even have weapons loaded to launch a counter attack. They were sitting ducks.

    In 2010 the same militant outfit had ambushed and killed three SSB (Sashastra Seema Bal) personnel (who are in charge of the Bhutan border) in the same area, and looted their weapons. Specific intelligence reports were available about this ambush as well. In the same month, five CRPF personnel returning from a counter-insurgency training programme were ambushed and killed near Goalpara town. Ironically, they were returning from a drill given by the army before their deployment in Maoist-dominated areas. They were blown up minutes after they were trained in how to drive through an insurgent territory, simply because they refused to adhere to standard operating procedures.

    Counter-Insurgency Operations are typically across state borders and involve multiple agencies. The Unified Command structure in Assam suffered heavily in the early years because of a complete absence of synergy. In recent years operations in Assam’s North Cachar Hills actually witnessed troops of one agency opening fire on another because of a total lack of coordination.

    The perception that violence levels in Assam or other parts of the North East have reduced may be true, but that is the nature of guerilla warfare. To lower one’s guards is to expose oneself. To keep the pressure on means innovating with the changing dynamics. But the basics are the standard operating procedures. In its little less than twenty years of existence, the Unified Command Structure in Assam suffered casualties also because its troops did not follow procedures. Intelligence gathering was poor and intelligence sharing was even poorer. Actionable intelligence was often not followed up or taken note of like in the case of the March 14 ambush.

    Therefore, in any analysis of insurgency in North East India, the complacency of the government and of its troops must be factored in. Guerilla outfits often take time off to regroup and strike just when it suits them. It is routine for these groups to carry out attacks in the run up to the elections, and therefore the alert was obviously higher than usual. Following procedures could have saved the day for the eight BSF personnel.