Myanmar: A Tactical Success, a Strategic Failure

See part 1 for a backgrounder on the strike

India’s military strike of June 9th against the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland – Khaplang (NSCN-K) has generated a great amount of commentary from analysts and politicians across the subcontinent. Social media had also lit up, with hashtags such as #manipuroperation and #56inchrocks (in reference to Modi’s 56 inch chest) trending, especially among Modi supporters. Amid all the noise, some details remain unclear in the aftermath of the attack. Estimates of the insurgent casualties range from as low as 7 to as many as 100 dead, and the exact involvement of the Myanmar government is still unknown. Yet despite all the chest thumping over the operation, it is important to recognize that this was not India’s equivalent of Operation Neptune Spear. While it was a tactical success, nothing in this operation (or its aftermath) would suggest it to be a strategic achievement.

First, it is important to note that this is not the first time India has deployed assets to counter non-state actors. India’s military has carried out operations against non-state actors in Bhutan and Myanmar before, it is also worth remembering the role India’s intelligence agencies have played in fighting terrorist organizations. Shortly after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, India’s external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) performed a successful snatch and grab operation against Lashkar-e-Taiba member Sheikh Abdul Khwaja (also known as Mohammad Amjad Khaja). Under Manmohan Singh, snatch and grab operations by the Intelligence Bureau and RAW played a major role in breaking up the Indian Mujahideen. However, the Myanmar operation is notable for the short turnaround time after the June 4th ambush on Indian soldiers. The publicity of this operation also differentiates it from previous actions, after which the Indian government and military remained relatively silent.

The Myanmar operation seems to have restored the confidence of Indian citizens in their government’s ability to retaliate against terrorist organizations. India has suffered several major attacks since 2000, and has consistently ranked as one of the nations most affected by terrorism. While many of these strikes were from insurgent groups located in Kashmir, the Northeast, and Maoists/Naxalites, there were several large scale attacks in Gujarat, Mumbai, and Bangalore, among others. The fact that the Congress-led government was perceived to be incapable of retaliating caused some anger and dismay among the Indian populace. Rather, it seemed that the revenge desired by the Indian people could only be played out in movies like D-Day or A Wednesday. By contrast, the June 9th incident seemed to prove that the Modi government would not simply turn a blind eye to terrorist activities.

Despite the tactical success, there is no indication that the operation is a strategic victory. No evidence has surfaced to suggest that the northeast insurgents whose camps were attacked are facing any long term degradation of their numbers or strength. Nor is there any suggestion that the leadership of any of the insurgent groups were harmed. A new report from the Indian Express alleges that the Niki Sumi, chief of military operations for the NSCN-K (and the person who planned the ambush) was one of the targets in the operation. Details are still unknown, but if the military did succeed in killing or apprehending him, the raid could have given the operation strategic significance. As the facts stand, this attack merely served as a temporary setback for these organizations. Camps can be rebuilt and relocated, the (potentially) low casualties can be absorbed. The rather loud bluster has only served to embarrass Myanmar, which some reports have said now refuses to conduct joint operations against other militants using the country as a safe haven. If India really wants to severely weaken these insurgent groups, it is going to need the cooperation of Myanmar and other regional partners. Ajai Sahni, the executive of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, put it best: “covert should remain covert.”