Attack on Amarnath pilgrims: So whose fault was it?

Sudharshan R Garg
Sudharshan R GargJul 14, 2017 | 18:00

Attack on Amarnath pilgrims: So whose fault was it?

After a gap of 15 years, the Amarnath Yatra, especially after having faced a threat almost every year, has been attacked. News reports have raised the question, could it have been prevented? On the surface of it, it seems rather logical, and dare I say it, simple.

Intelligence reports warned of an attack, and the security forces could have moved to either arrest or kill the terrorists. A simpler analogy would be, if the weatherman warns of rain, and you are caught without an umbrella, it is your fault.


Is it really that simple?

Let us take a look at how a state deals with insurgency, to understand why it's not as simple as it is made out to be.

Deploying the Army is like covering an iron fist with velvet gloves. An army, the military as a whole by nature, is trained to quickly and most effectively eliminate the opposition.

In an open war, while RoE (rules of engagement – the rules that govern the conduct of any military) exist, they are more lax. Freedom is given to the forces to operate as they see fit, as the understanding is that the opposition is also another military or conventional force. When the same force, with its training and conditioning to eliminate threats is deployed in civilian areas as a part of COIN (counter-insurgency) operations, the rules of the game change completely.

Force cannot be utilised indiscriminately; discretion is often the better part of valour.

The Indian army is governed in COIN operations by the Doctrine for Sub-Conventional Operations. At the core of this document is what is called, Army’s Overall Approach Towards Human Rights. And the key tenets are:

(1) Deep respect for human rights and scrupulous upholding of laws of the land.


(2) Ensuring awareness among all ranks on human rights.

(3) Expeditious investigation and disposal of alleged human rights violations.

(4) Promulgation of punishment meted out to defaulting personnel for deterrent effect.

Within this document are the 10 commandments issued by the then chief of army staff:

1. No rape.

2. No molestation.

3. No torture resulting in death or maiming.

4. No military disgrace (loss of arms, surrender, loss of post or imbibing of an un-army-like culture).

5. No meddling in the civil administration (that is, land disputes or quarrels).

6. Competence in platoon/company tactics in counter-insurgency operations.

7. Willingly carry out civic actions with innovation.

8. Develop media interaction modus (use it as a "force-multiplier" and not as a  "force-degrader").

9. Respect human rights.

10. Only fear God, uphold dharma (ethical mode of life - the path of righteousness) and enjoy serving the country.

In the absence of a total control over the Valley, insurgents have freedom of movement, and are free to strike at targets of their choose and a time and place too.

Why are counter-insurgency ops so challenging

The problem lies in its very nature, a COIN operation has no clear target. The Army cannot by default use outright force, particularly when operating on domestic soil. The Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka used a grid-based system to great effect.


In the jungles of Vanni for instance, if such a warning had been issued, the Army would have effectively saturated Vanni with forces, established a curfew, and tightly controlled the movement of the insurgents. A variation of this was used by the US in say, Fallujah – they simply declared the city as hostile, gave its residents time to evacuate and then promptly declared that anyone staying after the deadline was an insurgent, thus making it an open warfare as opposed to COIN with its tighter rules of engagement.

However, this is something that cannot be done in Kashmir or indeed, inside India for obvious reasons.

The doctrine in use also dovetails with the overall objectives of the state.

As the CIA in a paper puts it, the broad objectives though, remain constant – gain legitimacy for the state (hearts and minds) and effectively end the opposition (the iron fist part of the iron fist in velvet gloves).

How do states fight a COIN scenario

Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought available to a state to combat an insurgency – the first is the enemy-centric approach and the other is population-centric approach.

While the enemy-centric approach basically understands counter-insurgency as a variant of conventional warfare, the other approach understands it "as fundamentally a control problem, or even an armed-variant of government administration".

"It believes that establishing control over the population, and the environment (physical, human and informational) in which that population lives, is the essential task."

"Again, there are many variants within this approach, including some very hard-line methods and some softer approaches, but the underlying philosophy is "first control the population, and all else will follow."

This is also colloquially called, winning hearts and minds – successfully used by the British in the Malay Peninsula. But most such attempts have failed if abortive attempts in Vietnam, Soviet attempts in Afghanistan, the so far unsuccessful attempts by India in Kashmir (or is it successful? The jury is still out) are any indication.

India has historically been influenced by the British experiences in both the Malayan Campaign as well as the brutal anti-insurgency campaign fought in Palestine in the 1930s, and have adopted a mixture of enemy-centric and population-centric approaches.

The question might be posed, what model actually works?

In this interesting study,  59 insurrgencies have been examined, and most involve what they term “iron-fist” strategies, in which the counter-insurgents focused primarily on defeating the enemy by force. 

Fifteen of the cases involved mixed strategies, which experienced a much higher percentage of success. Mixed strategy cases had a 73 per cent success rate. 

Compared to those coded as “iron fist”, which saw success in just 17 of the 44, or 32 per cent, of the cases.

India has, in Kashmir evolved a mixed strategy – an approach to winning hearts and minds while at the same time tackling terrorists and insurgents with force. This approach has its merits and demerits, but that is for another time.

Why is India unable to prevent attacks like Amarnath?

Given the nature of the insurgency, it is very difficult for India to target the leadership of these jihadi outfits as they are safely in Pakistan, operating in some cases with the "protection" of the Pakistani state. Yes, India does successfully eliminate local commanders, but the key leadership is as of now out of reach of the Indian state.

As this is a domestic insurgency, with a high degree of media and international visibility, wholesale area denial is also not possible as it would mean imposing a high level of checks on movement in the valley and as this would adversely impact civilians, this is also not an option.

Hence, the Indian state has to compromise. Tactical operations take precedence over large strategic ones. The Indian state also pumps in billions of rupees into Kashmir in an effort to convince the local populace that India is better than siding with insurgents and to then dry up support for the insurgents.

As Mao once famously said, "The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea."  

In the absence of a total control over the Valley, insurgents have freedom of movement, and are free to strike at targets of their choose and a time and place too.

But, we had intel alerts!

Intel alerts do not always mean actionable alerts, unless we have specific human intelligence (actual spies or moles in insurgent groups) assets high up in a terrorist, insurgent group, who have a proven history of providing accurate, reliable information, an alert needs corroboration (other human intelligence assets, independent of each other should provide the same intel).

Conventional armies use signals intelligence (wire-tapping radio networks and listening into conversations), but as jihadis also use cellphones extensively what is picked up is called electronics intelligence chatter – basically monitoring the amount of noise jihadi networks are making.

As Mark Lowenthal says in his work, In Intelligence, From Secrets to Policy, chatter is difficult to define, it is not precise information, but more patterns of communication and movements of suspected and tagged jihadis.

Chatter is not hard intel (say, an actual radio intercept) but more indications and warnings.

Sometimes informers can and do leak information. But then that is vague and might not be actionable information.

Each intel agency, including the RAW classifies its informers and assets based on the quality of info provided – a stringer passing on a vague “we have been asked to hit Amarnath, and kill many” is not the same as a high level C&C contact passing on the same information.

A modern insurgent is highly mobile, he has access to communication modes (cellphones) that is unprecedented in history (the partisans in France or Soviet Union, for instance, had one bulky radio located in one central location, and these were subject to interception and triangulation).

In Kashmir, insurgents also have the support of a segment of the local populace. Food, lodging, transportation all can be arranged by a local, without the insurgent even surfacing.

All these factors stack the odds against the state and push them in favour of the jihadi groups.

The IRA said this after the Brighton bombing:

"Mrs Thatcher will now realise that Britain cannot occupy our country and torture our prisoners and shoot our people in their own streets and get away with it. Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always. Give Ireland peace and there will be no more war."

The message is clear, a jihadi or naxal needs to get lucky just once, while the security forces and state need to be lucky 365 days a year and 24 hours a day!



Last updated: July 14, 2017 | 18:00
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