Covert should remain covert

Written by Ajai Sahni (June 13, 2015)  –

A “new template” for India’s response to “terrorism”, we are being told, has been established by the “unprecedented” cross-border operation against two rebel camps in Myanmar. There has been a great deal of atavistic chest-thumping by the present regime and its camp followers. Prefacing his remarks with some psychobabble about the importance of changing “mindsets”, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar declared: “A simple action against insurgents has changed the mindset of the full security scenario in the country… Those who fear India’s new posture have started reacting.” It is useful to put these vaunting assessments into some perspective.

It is an utter misconception that this is the first cross-border operation by Indian forces. There have been many such operations in different theatres in the past, but these were executed covertly, maintaining full deniability, which is the best, indeed the only, sustainable template for such action. The only “unprecedented” element in the present case is the unseemly tamasha in its wake.

This was a relatively minor operation and will have only transient tactical and psychological significance. An operational success has been imposed and the rebels, who have till now had almost undisturbed sanctuary in Myanmar, will lose their sense of impunity. Over time, however, they will adapt and draw deeper into the jungles and take fuller precautions against discovery and neutralisation, unless the present operation is followed up by a more sustained and enveloping campaign.

A joint operation with Myanmarese forces would likely secure the best results, and this would require enormous diplomatic effort on the part of New Delhi even in normal circumstances. Myanmarese authorities have cooperated with India in the past but have been relatively reluctant to do so in recent years because of India’s perceived policy ambivalence towards the regime in Naypyidaw. Reassuring the Myanmar regime and securing its cooperation to end militant safe havens on its soil could shut down the last sanctuary for India’s Northeastern rebels — they have already been pushed out of Bhutan and Bangladesh. Unfortunately, the media circus over the present operation will significantly dampen Myanmar’s enthusiasm for partnering with India in such a campaign. Embarrassed by India’s boastful declarations and by Pakistan’s equally crass retaliatory claims that it was “not Myanmar”, Naypyidaw has already denied that the operation occurred on its soil or with its consent. Before going to town about the operation, Delhi should have understood that no state can admit to another country’s armed forces operating on its soil. Even when Bhutan expelled the Northeastern insurgent groups with full Indian support, the official line was that the “joint operation” involved troops from each country operating in tandem, each on their own soil. Sovereignty and the sanctity of the border were never admitted to have been compromised.

Operationally and logistically, the Myanmar attack was unexceptional. India’s security forces execute dozens of such operations — indeed, often on far greater scale — each year within the country and, in the present case, were operating across no more than a notional border. There is no physical demarcation of the border with Myanmar in the region and a free movement regime even allows local civilian populations to routinely move about unchecked to a depth of 16 kilometres on each side. The border runs through communities, villages and even homes, with no perceptible impact. In tactical terms, consequently, the operation would have been indistinguishable from any number of operations carried out within India. No new capacities or templates have been discovered or demonstrated here. Any pretence that this operation can have tactical or strategic significance in other theatres — and particularly in the enduring and perverse India-Pakistan dynamic — can only be based on exceptional ignorance or dishonesty.

Crucially, the crude political posturing in the wake of the operation significantly undermines India’s long-term interests. In this, the present contretemps is not exceptional and reflects the proclivity of the present regime to take limited operational successes and transform them into controversies and sources of national embarrassment. The case of the destruction of a Pakistani smuggling boat by the coast guard last New Year’s Eve falls in the same category — a modest operational success was claimed to have been “another 26/11 averted”, exposing the government to credible allegations of falsification and fraud. The political posturing on the Myanmar operation is worse. It provides grist to India’s enemies and critics, who have already been emboldened by Parrikar’s earlier statement expressing his determination to “neutralise terrorists through terrorists”. Pakistan has long falsely claimed that India is behind incidents of terrorism across its soil. Unguarded and immature statements and postures on the part of India’s present regime can only give such claims greater credibility among extraordinarily ignorant “international experts” and at global forums.

The Myanmar operation will leave behind no lasting legacy beyond the sorry spectacle of people in high office claiming undeserved victories, seeking undeserved honours. The highly partisan and politicised “debates”, as well as the orchestrated leaks by the government and its supporters, indicate an utter lack of scruples and complete dishonesty in harnessing every possible sham to peg their claims to attainment, in the absence of real progress on critical, quantifiable security parameters.

Protracted conflicts are not decided by small unit operations, though these may play crucial roles in particular theatres and campaigns. They are decided by the balance of power and the strategic sagacity of leaderships.

Strategic enlargement is a decades-long project; tactical flash in the pan operations have no impact on it. Crucially, strategic success can only be secured if our dedication to reality is complete. It cannot be built on the false foundations of jingoism and hypernationalist fantasies. Restraint, maturity and a sustained effort to build India’s sinews — initiatives that will only begin to have measurable impact over many years — are what the present regime will eventually be judged by. Meanwhile, playing to the galleries may be an imperative of electoral politics, but it must not be carried to a point where it damages national interest.

The writer is executive director, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi. This article has been originally published in The Indian Express on 13 June. 


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