Modi-Doval’s Top-Down Counter-Insurgency Strategy

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Any attempt to portray contemporary South Asia’s conflict narrative would be incomplete without describing the fraught situation of Jammu and Kashmir. The constantly evolving insurgency scene post-1989 has demanded Indian strategists to come up innovative counter-insurgency plans. In this brief article, I juxtapose the post-2014 Modi administration strategy with counterinsurgency strategies of previous two administrations. Within the framework given by famous American military strategist Lt. Col. John Nagl and the post-9/11 military operations, I argue that the Modi administration, under the guidance of his chief security strategist Ajit Doval, has leaned more towards the American style attrition-based search and destroy tactic compared to previous dispensations.

In the Indian context, beyond the strategic formulations of the military intelligentsia, the overall political proclivities of New Delhi hold a sway in J&K affairs for two reasons. First, the Kashmir problem is a sensitive domestic issue where arms are raised by local population and infiltrators hiding behind them. Second, the conflict is linked to religion and can impact the electoral arithmetic of minority votes in nearly 75 seats of the Lok Sabha[1] (the Lower House of the Parliament). Moreover, the success of any government in handling Jammu and Kashmir is inextricably linked to the success of its foreign policy, which essentially entails dealing with Pakistan.

Before we move ahead, let us briefly get acquainted with the theoretical framework proposed by Lt. Col. John Nagl. There exists a vast body of literature that ventures into the comparative studies of the United States in Vietnam and the United Kingdom in Malaya, the two major counterinsurgency experiences in the aftermath of World War II. In the same category, the work of Nagl[2], a veteran scholar, academic and policy expert, gives a unique perspective to this comparison in terms of counterinsurgency.

To summarize his lengthy comparison, ‘the British army slowly evolved a combined civil-military-political strategy that defeated the insurgency with small unit military tactics based on intelligence derived from a supportive local population… [while] the U.S. Army continued to rely on a conventional approach to defeating the insurgents through an attrition-based search and destroy strategy’. Post-9/11, the higher culmination of this doctrine can be seen manifested in the hunting attempts of terrorist leaders like Osama Bin Laden (Al Qaeda) and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (ISIS). Thus, we see a clear dichotomy between two approaches – the restrained approach of eroding the roots of an active terrorist group against the approach of eliminating the top leadership.

India’s first ever experience in attenuating a secessionist movement by eliminating its leadership was in 1984 during the Operation Blue Star in Punjab where the extremist Bhindranwale was executed in the iconic Golden Temple complex. However, this strategy was yet to be put to trial in the perpetually volatile grounds of Kashmir. In the valley, India first experimented this tactic in 2003 during the Vajpayee years under the maiden NSA Brajesh Mishra to eliminate the commander and backbone of the infamous terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Muhammad called ‘Gazi Baba.' Baba was known as the ‘Osama of Kashmir’ and was responsible for the 2001 Parliament Attack. He was eliminated while being holed up in a hideout home in Srinagar.

This execution carried particular symbolism as the most solemn temple of democracy – the Parliament complex was being pounced on. However, this did not fare up well with the local population, and consequently, there was a mass unrest in the valley. Nevertheless, it became New Delhi’s unwritten doctrine to handle the insurgents top-down. To quote a Home Ministry report, ‘strong administrative action like the killing of 204 terrorists during Sept. 2003 and onwards including the death of some top terrorist operatives, made a dent in terrorist ranks and arrested the trend of increasing violence.’[3] Those were the last years of Vajpayee administration, and before they could excogitate a plan to placate the population, the NDA was voted out of power.

New Delhi witnessed a major change in administration in May 2004 with United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government assuming the reigns. A new counterinsurgency doctrine was anticipated with this altered political complexion. The Congress and its allies trumpeted themselves as ‘seculars’ having a soft-corner towards Indian minorities. To substantiate their political narrative, it was essential for the government to maintain tranquility in the valley. Any muscular policy previously in action that could enrage local denizens and erupt violence against security forces had to be countermanded.

The decade long tenure of Dr. Manmohan Singh saw a dramatic downfall in bilateral fatalities – insurgents and security personnel. According to another Home Ministry report[4], the number of casualties of civilians and security personnel dropped from 557 and 189 in 2005 to 53 and 15 in 2013, while the number of terrorists eliminated reduced from 917 to 67 in the same period. The Home Ministry over the entire decade of UPA administration attempted to portray a rosy picture in the valley based on the same statistics. This policy can be termed as a British-styled strategy that entails systemic erosion of the terror ideology which was deeply entrenched in the valley.    

The cosmetic peace of the Manmohan years was an utter failure in containing the blazing rhetoric of anti-India demagogues. Regular incidents of heinous attacks against security forces, public institutions, and Hindu pilgrims along with infamous Mumbai attack of 2008 testify the failure of the soft-glove strategy on the insurgency front; while the 2010 civil unrest was valley’s ultimate perfidy to New Delhi that frustrated the portrayers of peace.

In May-2014, India witnessed a Modi mojo that emaciated the ruling Congress to a historic low in the polls. From his early electoral proclamations, it was apparent that Modi would not brook any pro-Pakistan elements and pursue a muscular policy in the valley. His man in command Ajit Doval’s unabashed rhetoric was a further portent for violent confrontation. The first instantiation of this attrition-based search and destroy tactic was witnessed during the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in July 2016. It led to unprecedented provocation among the local population. However, this did not deter the armed forces from their hunting spree.

The continued attempts in annihilating top brass of various terror outfits – Burhan’s successors Sabzar Bhat (May 2017) and Yasin Itoo (August 2017), Lashkar-e-Taiba Chief Abu Dujana (August 2107) – and a score of other insurgents in the middle rung shows the pursuance of an aggressive attrition policy. Some strategic security experts believe that practice of such top-down policy may increase the chances of emergence and proliferation of splinter groups. However, in the long run, whether this macho policy yields suppression of insurgents will be decided in future.   



[2] Nagl, J. (2002). Counterinsurgency lessons from Malaya and Vietnam: Learning to eat soup with a knife. Westport, Conn: Praeger.

[3] P. 15

[4] P. 6

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