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Tag Archives | COIN

Control the narrative

GoI must arrest this trend of  surrendering control of the narrative to the Naxals.

Someone once said that al-Qaeda was now essentially a media propaganda machine, with a terror wing.  The same argument could also be made of the Naxalites in India.  As-Sahab, al-Qaeda’s media wing, has done a remarkable job in news content and propaganda delivery over the Internet — from the indiscretions of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, to disseminating audio and video propaganda from Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri to regional network stations.

The battle for the “hearts and minds” is a critical aspect of successful COIN campaigns and it is here that controlling the narrative becomes critical.  Propaganda campaigns such as those launched by as-Sahab serve as morale boosters to followers and as effective recruitment tools, far beyond the epicenter of the insurgency.  They are also effective in turning public opinion against COIN forces — both in the “besieged” countries as well as in those leading the COIN effort.  U.S. and Western allies have found it significantly difficult to counter this unrelenting propaganda in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Although the differences between the Af-Pak and Naxal insurgencies are plenty, there are lessons for India to draw from the American experience.  Indeed, even in the Indian context, one of the many aspects that makes the Naxal insurgency different from either Kashmir or Punjab is that the government has been so far unable to control the narrative of the conflict.  The leadership structure of the Naxals — which includes among its ranks, suave, highly educated and very eloquent men and women very adept at information dissemination — plays a significant role in denying the government of India monopoly over the Naxal narrative.  Hence the demands ad nauseum from “root cause” advocates and deliberate attempts to obfuscate differences between the treacherous objectives of the Naxals and the legitimate demands of the tribals.

This counter-narrative has also been adopted by some for political expediency, by self-styled “activists” and human rights groups, further diluting the central government’s version on the issue.  Controlling the narrative is important in any unconventional war — more so in one being conducted in remotest and poorest corners of the hinterland.  Public perception during  such operations is important.  But the nature and area of the Naxal conflict has contributed to public sentiment largely indifferent on the issue.  Dantewada, after all, is not Mumbai.

The Indian government has thus far not been capable of countering this insidious propaganda war, and has been religated to fighting on the backfoot. Campaigns such as those launched by as-Sahab and the Naxals aim to achieve one simple objective — demonstrate that the enemy (the U.S. and its allies, and India, respectively) is not morally infallible.  India has involuntarily assisted in partly achieving this objective, through instances of excessive use of police force on the tribals and through ill-conceived ventures such as the Salwa Judum.

To be sure, India’s success in defeating the Naxals depends on a number of factors, including availability and reliability of local intelligence, quality and capabilities of COIN forces, development and rehabilitation of tribals, better local governance, and a government (central and state) willing to see the operations through.  But the government will remain weak, and its objectives, discombobulated and confused, so long as public perception remains apathetic or cluttered.

The  full extent of the state’s resources must therefore be used to both counter existing propaganda and launch counter-offensives to regain control of the narrative.  No doubt, the Indian government will not be able to end the insurgency merely  though the use of media guile, but further losses of life and territory are almost assured if it is unable to arrest this trend of surrendering control of the narrative to the Naxals and their sympathizers.

http://pragmatic.nationalinterest.in/2010/05/12/confusing-considerations/
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Mowing the grass

The similarities between Washington, D.C. and Wanat, Nuristan.

UK’s spokesperson for military operations in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Gordon Messenger was at a New America Foundation sponsored event in Washington, D.C., talking about COIN operations and Operation Moshtarak in Marja.  Since the invasion in 2001, COIN operations in Afghanistan  have assumed a “clear-hold-withdraw” pattern, where coalition forces mount operations against  insurgents, maintain momentary control, and either partially or entirely withdraw over a period of time.  This withdrawal invariably creates a power vacuum, which the Taliban return to fill — resulting in another series of coalition COIN operations.  “Mowing the grass, ” The New York Times calls this.

Gen. Messenger spoke at length about the pattern: (h/t nukesofhazardblog.com)

How exactly does one prevent merely mowing the grass?  It sounds simple enough: make sure an Afghan security force is in place to fill any potential security void upon the end of an operation.  Operations should be jointly planned and executed, all the way down to the lowest level, by both ISAF and the Afghan national forces.  Substantive partnering with Afghans will set the groundwork for a strong eventual US and NATO transition out of the country that is not conditions based, said Messenger.  Properly trained Afghan forces (ANP and ANA) gradually taking on an increasingly large percentage of operations planning and execution will allow for ISAF forces to confidently withdrawal and leave a solid security foundation.

Of course, joint operations with Afghan security forces seems theoretically sound and practically feasible.  There’s just one small problem – after spending eight years and billions of dollars, Afghan’s security forces remain staggeringly under-equipped and untrained.  The extent of the lack of operational readiness of indigenous forces is only now being understood by civilian leadership in Washington.  Mark Hosenball observes (h/t pragmatic_d):

[A]t a March 12 briefing in the White House Situation Room, President Obama asked his senior advisers if Afghan police will be ready for action by July 2011 when the scheduled draw down of American troops is supposed to begin. The answer, from Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the American officer in charge of building Afghanistan’s security forces, was not encouraging. “It’s inconceivable, but in fact for eight years we weren’t training the police,” Caldwell told the president and his assembled senior advisers, who included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Bob Gates, and top military, national security, and intelligence chiefs. “We just never trained them before. All we did was give them a uniform,” Caldwell said, according to a senior official who was in the room—and who asked for anonymity when speaking about sensitive information.

The president, said the official, looked stunned. “Eight years and we didn’t train police?” Obama said.  “It’s mind boggling.” The room went silent. [Newsweek]

This “mowing the grass” is being replicated on the field in Eastern Afghanistan as it is in Washington, D.C.  That Afghan security forces are untrained is known.  Desertion rates (25% each in the ANA and ANP ) are high and institutional corruption is pervasive.  Building a credible security forces under the circumstances is tough enough, without having to factor in shortages in available US and NATO trainers (currently numbering less than 2,000).  These are all long-standing issues which short-term, duct-tape fixes will not solve.  However, even after Mr. Obama’s major review of operations in Afghanistan in November, 2009, the same mistakes are still being committed.

If the goal is to train the 83,000 ANA and 90,000 ANP fast enough for them to be able to begin taking over from coalition forces in 2011, the US must elicit assistance from the pre-eminent military power in the region — India.  Even with Indian assistance, this is going to be a mad dash to the finish line.  For a country admired (and oftentimes disliked) for doggedly pursuing its national interests, even when they conflict with those of its allies, US reluctance in India’s involvement because of Pakistan’s “sensitivities” is inexplicable.

As things stand today, there is a 1:85 ratio of trainers to Afghan security personnel; the numbers just don’t add up.  This is a significant gap whose resolution requires a recognition of the enormity of the challenge, a change in mindset and a commitment to leave behind a stable, secure and functioning democracy in Afghanistan.

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Giving Kabul a leg up: My article in Pragati

In the January 2010 edition of  Pragati, I argue that it is in India’s national interest to invest in training the Afghanistan National Army (ANA).  There are two aspects to this proposition — the first is protective, i.e., denying the Pakistani army and ISI strategic depth in a vassal state to further their ambitions against India.  The second is aspirational — loosening India’s self imposed shackles and allowing it to project its power beyond its own shores, as it must as a regional power.

India must offer to train ANA military personnel through programmes in both Afghanistan and India. India has several COIN schools such as the Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School (CIJWS) and specialised training centres like the High-Altitude Warfare School (HAWS) in Jammu and Kashmir.

The CIJWS already draws international participation of military
personnel from the United States, United Kingdom and other Central Asian states. Further assistance can be provided by augmenting logistics and communications infrastructure to aid the ANA and providing essential
military supplies to the country.

India can also assist in augmenting ANA’s air defence capabilities. Training can be provided to ANA Air Corps’ pilots; specific requests for training on Mi-35 helicopters (the air corps operates a handful) have previously been made. Indeed, further opportunities for Indian assistance exist even in the medium to long run, as the ANA Air Corps seeks to induct light multi-role attack/air superiority jets by 2015.

Read more about it on Pragati ( PDF; 1.7 MB)

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Indian Embassy Attack in Kabul

Limited Indian military deployment: the time is nigh

The suicide attack on Thursday was the second such attack on the Indian Embassy in the past fifteen months in Kabul.  The attack claimed the lives of seventeen, including the two Afghan policemen who attempted to deter the bomb-laden vehicle from breaching the compound.

Similar to the last attack on the Indian Embassy that left 60 dead last year, the footprint the terror consortium of the Jalaluddin Haqqani network, Taliban and ISI is clear.  Earlier this month, Gen Stanley McChrystal stated in a leaked assessment, that growing Indian involvement in Afghanistan would encourage Pakistani “countermeasures”.  More recently, former CIA Islamabad station chief Bob Grenier stated at a US Senate Foreign Relations Committee deposition that the close relationship between New Delhi and Kabul “literally drives [Pakistan] crazy”.

This comes at a time of considerable disquiet in Pakistan. The Kerry-Lugar Bill has met with vociferous disapproval, initially from the media, and later from the Pakistani Corps Commanders’ Conference. The disapproval is based on the belief that some provisions — including India-specific terror clauses — impinge on Pakistan’s sovereignty. The Pakistani government (and military) must clarify how these clauses violate Pakistan’s sovereignty. Specifically, Pakistan must articulate whether it believes that allowing its soil to be used to plan, organize and execute acts of terror against India is an exercise of its soverign right.

So, was the attack on the Indian Embassy meant to demonstrate Pakistan’s open defiance of Kerry-Lugar? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, if enlightenment hasn’t dawned on the Indian government now, it never will.  Pakistan will continue to use such “countermeasures” because it knows it can do so without eliciting a military response from India.  And increasing Indian involvement in the development of Afghanistan only increases the number of potential targets for the terror consortium.

Today, India’s ambitions in Afghanistan are not commensurate with the level of protection it is willing to provide to protect its interests.  “Soft power” is an important element of state diplomacy, but when not backed up by a credible intent to defend, paints a picture of a state that is benign, diffident, weak-willed and apprehensive.

India must stop outsourcing its intelligence and security needs in Afghanistan to other countries.  It must do what it has to do to protect its interests, its citizens and its friends.  Hitherto, India received inputs mostly from Afghan and other intelligence agencies.  It is time for India to upgrade its intelligence capability in Afghanistan; additional emphasis must also be placed on better intelligence coordination between Afghan, Indian and other foreign intelligence agencies.

Serious thought must be given to an Indian military deployment in Afghanistan.  However, for India to get bogged down fighting an insurgency would be counter-productive and would risk squandering the goodwill of the government and people of Afghanistan.

Therefore, India needs to think along the lines of a limited military deployment in Afghanistan and one with a mandate to protect its citizens and interests in that country.  This is India’s own “countermeasure”.  India has invested over a $1.2 billion in Afghanistan; Indians from all walks of life — doctors, engineers, teachers and security professionals — attempt to secure the future of Afghanistan and its people.  However, the security provided to these very individuals is either nonexistent or found wanting.

A deployment with limited mandate presents undeniable risks.  The possibility of the lines between India’s defensive deployment and the larger US/ISAF COIN operation being blurred, the risk of Indian troops becoming targets for the Taliban, Haqqani and ISI consortium and loss of goodwill in Kabul do exist.

However, the alternative to this arrangement is the status quo — India’s current posture.  As things stand today, a Pakistani attack on Indian citizens, property and interests in Afghanistan goes unchallenged.  Not much is ever done by way of a response, apart from registering the customary “our patience is not inexhaustible” complaint with the US and holding back on dialog with Pakistan.

The choices before India are stark: either it believes that Indian property, investment and lives are worth sacrificing for the greater goal of strategic partnership with Afghanistan, or it accepts that Indian security cover is essential to protect those who undertake the perilous, yet noble journey of rebuilding a war ravaged nation and spreading the goodwill of India and its people in that part of the world.  Time is running out, and India must decide soon.  What is it going to be, Mr. Prime Minister?

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