Successful Myanmar strike: Bungled follow-up

It's a month since that heat and dust-raising event (certainly for the media), and time to take a dispassionate review.

 |  5-minute read |   18-07-2015
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The hashtag #MyanmarStrike has vanished from the social media and talk "shouts" are back on prime time television, but deep within the strategic environment are the smouldering embers of the fallout of the cross-border raid of June 9 by the Special Forces of the Indian Army. Was the Indian leadership at fault in its application of "escalation dynamics" post the successful strike? It's a month since that heat and dust-raising event (certainly for the media), and time to take a dispassionate review.

In a delightfully easy to understand monograph titled "Dangerous Thresholds", the US think tank, RAND Corporation, has elucidated on escalation and escalation management in conflicts; though formulated with a nuclear (strategic) subtext, the concepts have relevance in the sphere of conventional and sub-conventional warfare too. While "vertical" and "horizontal" escalations are simple to understand (the former implies increase in intensity and the latter refers to augmentation in scope), it is the political escalation that has lasting effects on relations between nations. The Special Forces raid needs to be evaluated under this rubric.

The background to the Special Forces raid is well known. For the past few months insurgent activities in the Northeast had increased and were indicators of the Khaplang group of the National Security Council of Nagaland re-asserting itself post withdrawal from the "ceasefire accord"; once again, intelligence was found wanting and our soldiers had to pay a heavy price. The deadly ambush of the Dogra Regiment convoy had to be given a riposte for the sake of military morale as also for conveying a political message - 18 Indian Army soldiers killed and no counter? Came the raid, after which the Army issued a very measured and well-thought out statement which ensured that there would be no inadvertent political escalation, and hence no political fallout. But some spin doctors went into over drive to gain political mileage and showed apparent naivety in matters concerning international relations, especially when a strategically important neighbour like Myanmar was involved.

The wooing of Myanmar's ruling military junta in the 1990s by successive Indian governments (from both sides of the political divide) showed enormous foresight and spunk despite pressures brought on by pro-democracy Western governments. Besides political linkages, military contacts continued at the field level; many articles written after the raid by ex-Army officers have expounded on how, with joint "understandings" at the level of local commanders of the two armies, many successful but discreet cross-border anti-insurgent operations were conducted. Myanmar was never made to look small as there was no publicity, something that has unfortunately happened this time.

A party to a conflict deliberately escalates a situation for one of two reasons; either to obtain direct gains vis-à-vis the adversary through instrumental escalation or, to convey a message to the opponent's political leadership through suggestive escalation that more punitive action would follow if it does not mend its ways. In the Myanmar strike, it is inconceivable that the group that attacked the Army convoy would have gone back and stayed together at one place - seasoned insurgents never operate that way. The Army intelligence would have known this and hence the only reason for the raid was the second one, ie, suggestive escalation. The intent would have been two fold. Firstly, a general message to insurgent groups everywhere (including on our western border) that their hideouts were hereafter not safe from a riposte if they attacked Indian interests, (and not just troops). Secondly, assuage the bruised self-image of the Indian public which had started doubting the "tough" image of the new government. So far so good, but enter the publicity blitzkrieg indulged in by some in Delhi, especially a bellicose comment that, "... This was a message to all our adversaries, including our western neighbour". Predictably, Pakistan has reacted aggressively, including the passing of a resolution by their senate. However, the greater issue is that if a Pakistan-based terror strike takes place hereafter, the pressure to strike back, a la Myanmar, would be high. Their reaction may take an escalatory vector, but certainly not down a nuclear route, as one ex-NSA has surprisingly suggested in one newspaper article - that is self-deterrence at its best! Suggestive escalation, the original aim of the strike, appears to have been bested by "inadvertent" escalation, the consequences of which needed to have been thought through.

It is possible that the "bellicose comment" in Delhi was deliberate and not an intemperate remark. The post-strike visit of the NSA and foreign secretary to Yangon could have been for routine follow-up action with any country that had agreed to such a strike and not one for damage control, as is being mentioned. But, in the absence of any official statement, the converse could also be equally true, bringing into focus the importance of symbolism in conflict. Recently in Syria, the fight to regain Kobani from the ISIS lasted four months, but the capture of the devastated town had an invaluable symbolic importance for the Americans - its symbolism has been reinforced by the ISIS taking back part of the ruins this past week. Similarly, the Indian raid across the Myanmar border had a huge symbolic tag, but since the territory of another sovereign nation was involved, post-strike reactions could have been tempered by discretion for long-term political and operational gains. Symbolism in sub-conventional operations has to be always subtle, as its ambiguity is a force multiplier. What/where/when next, is what the insurgents (including on the western border) should have been left to ruminate about - this should have been the lingering legacy of the Myanmar raid - well, maybe this is what is happening!

The press has reported that an Army delegation is coming from Myanmar to coordinate anti-insurgent actions that will take place on both sides of the border; there is also contrarian reporting that Myanmar has scaled down operations. Whatever be the truth it is time to think through our post-strike actions before future strikes take place. Let's learn for the future from a successful adversary. As China surged forward in the last century Deng Xiao Ping told his countrymen, who wanted a more aggressive posture in international affairs, "Hide your capability, bide your time." Embedded in this sage advice is the essence of escalation control post a successful covert or Special Forces action with long-term implications. The study of escalation dynamics by our decision-makers deserves its due.


AVM Manmohan Bahadur AVM Manmohan Bahadur @bahadurmanmohan

The writer is a retired Air Vice Marshal and is a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.

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