A convoy of the Indian Army was ambushed in a clinical strike led by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) [NSCN(K)] on June 4, 2015, leading to the death of 18 soldiers. In less than a week of the same, the special forces of the Army, with support of the Air Force and Assam Rifles carried out a pre-emptive, precision military strike to neutralise camps of groups, which were not only involved in the ambush, but were preparing for more strikes of a similar kind. Since details of the actual operations continue to remain at best sketchy, this analysis focuses instead on the larger context of the operation and its implications for India's approach to counterterrorism (CT).
There is little doubt that this operation clearly illustrates a paradigm shift or a "military change" in the conduct of CT operations. The euphoria of an unqualified success, led by the Army, raises the temptation of terming it as a new doctrine of pre-emption. However, a doctrine is associated by a stated policy or beliefs on a particular subject. The successful conduct of the operation therefore, does not qualify the classic understanding of the same. However, it certainly reinforces the emergence of a strategy of pre-emption, across India's borders. In simpler terms, it represents a bold and robust approach to terrorism, when compared to the past.
This is not the first operation which has been carried out across India's border or Line of Control (LoC) in the past. Operation Golden Bird conducted along the Myanmar border in 1995 and Operation All Clear inside Bhutan in 2003, are two amongst the major operations undertaken by the army. However, none of these reflect the nature of response witnessed in the recent operation.
There are a number of questions that emerge, based on the conceptualisation, planning and execution of the operation. These relate to decision-making at the highest level of political authority in the country, capacity of national security agencies, including the Army and the larger viability of such an approach. The analysis of military change or transformative shifts in the past indicates the need for critical prerequisites to converge, if successful change of the kind witnessed must take root.
First, a major change must be preceded by a clear strategic vision. The timeline of the operation suggests that its successful conduct was not a knee-jerk reaction to the ambush, even though it may well have been triggered in response. Such a riposte requires clarity of the government's approach to situations of the kind created because of the ambush. A strategy reflects the ends, ways and means of achieving a desirable end state. In this case, the strategy of pre-emption clearly outlines the government's approach to terrorist threats of the kind witnessed and is an indication of the future course of action as well.
Second, the overall strategy must have political support. None of the agencies of a state can undertake high risk missions unless they have support of the highest political authority. This does not include states like Pakistan, which belong to its Army. The studied concentration of President Obama, in a much circulated image, with the security brass during Operation Geronimo, as the precision strike to take out Osama bin Laden was termed, was a reflection of this reality. The same is true for high risk missions elsewhere and especially in India's context, as the state does not clearly spell out this option as a stated policy. It gains further significance in light of the decision to break from the past, in what could well have turned out to be a political setback. The embarrassing debacle of Operation Eagle Claw, the US Special Forces attempt to free hostages in Iran in 1980, led to visible setback to President Jimmy Carter and possibly the election of Republican candidate Ronald Reagan as president of the United States. Therefore, the importance of political support for such initiatives remains critical.
Third, as the example of Eagle Claw quoted above suggests, mere political sanction and the ability of the leadership to underwrite the ensuing costs is not enough to ensure the success of an operation. It needs visionary and committed military leadership to convert concepts into hard reality. Leadership, as clearly evident in case of the Army, must also flow in equal measure from supporting services like the Air Force, intelligence, external affairs, home affairs, Assam Rifles, border guarding forces and partner countries involved in the operation. This clearly highlights the complexity of the challenge and the importance to build these capabilities over time.
Fourth, neither political, nor military leadership can ensure success, unless the functional and support structures planning and executing the stated strategy have the requisite capacity. Operations of the kind undertaken by the Army, involve complex and detailed planning at a number of levels. It also entails coordination with a large number of agencies. To begin with, an operation of this nature cannot be executed without timely, actionable and sustained intelligence about the location of terrorists, their numbers, defensive set-up and reaction in case of contingencies. Similarly, it is also difficult in the absence of a supportive stance by the host nation, in this case the Myanmar government. Based on available media inputs, the Army simultaneously conducted strikes at two locations separated by a substantial geographical distance. This necessitates a high order of coordination. Since the operation involved the Air Force as well, rehearsals and planning for different options becomes an essential pre-requisite. Diplomatic heavy lifting, as some conditions can involve, becomes equally important to achieve success. Finally, the ministry of defence, must provide the coordination that ensures seamless integration of military plans with political directives. It is a challenge for all these factors to come together even under the best of conditions. However, when they do, successes of the kind witnessed are scripted. It underlines the importance of not only jointsmanship within the armed forces, but also other organs of the state, which are important stakeholders in such complex operations.
The fifth and last factor underscores the need for following up on the initiation of a new strategy or military change. Major changes of the kind witnessed, tend to get associated with personalities and periods of history. However, for real change to come about, its successful follow through is a must. This requires a clearly enunciated strategy that must become the basis for counterterrorism in the Indian context. It must also lead to enhancing capacities of agencies that can provide results much beyond their limited numbers.
There is an ongoing debate relating the operation to similar attempts against Pakistan in future as well as the Israeli policy of pre-emption. The operation clearly highlights a shift from the past for a number of reasons discussed above and is also indicative of India's counterterrorism capability. However, there is still some ground to be covered before the same can be replicated against Pakistan. This is not to say that cross-border operations have not been conducted successfully in the past. However, it is the nature and scope of similar operations in the context of Pakistan, which requires raising existing preparedness by more than a few notches. It does not merely involve the professional competence of the Army, but capabilities of a complete range of support structures that must be build simultaneously. In contrast to Myanmar, Pakistan presents a highly hostile operational environment for undertaking operations. This includes belligerent air defence, a strong border presence, inadequate network that can provide precision intelligence, insufficient capability to undertake insertion in depth areas and as yet limited experience in employing special forces as a strategic asset.
The Israeli's special forces have evolved over a period of time, on the basis of clarity of purpose, strategic orientation and military capacity. They also operate in a very different security context, which has been adopted by the country. India is unlikely to place itself in a similar framework of military activism, which is why it may not be a fair comparison. While the present operation certainly rates very high in terms of professional ability, yet, with the exception of Pakistan, India is more likely to undertake cooperative CT operations instead. This does not take away from the need to develop similar special forces capabilities, which remains the military best option for precision strikes against otherwise inaccessible targets.
The last factor, while not be an essential prerequisite, remains an important element in the larger context of CT operations in the country. India faces a variety of threats to its internal security. This, as the character of operations suggests, tends to be protracted in nature. Often, the sustained presence of security forces is prone to gradual fading of their sheen and exposes them to penetrative questioning, as also unfair criticism. While the former is a means of seeking accountability and helps in improving performance, it is the latter that tends to isolate soldiers in difficult operational conditions. In a democracy, transparency and accountability must be demanded, however, in times of adversity, support must remain as steadfast, as it is in moments of triumph.