What India should learn from the Myanmar operation: It's no panacea
Indian Special Forces of 21 Para conducted a raid into neighbouring Myanmar to attack and destroy two rebel bases.
Five days after a deadly attack on a convoy of Indian troops of the 6 Dogra Regiment in the Chandel district of Manipur left 18 soldiers dead and at least 11 more injured, Indian Special Forces of 21 Para conducted a raid into neighbouring Myanmar to attack and destroy two rebel bases belonging to the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) and the Kanglei Yawol Kunna Lup. One base was on the Nagaland-Myanmar border near Noklak and the other on the Manipur-Myanmar border near Chassad. Reports put casualties among the insurgents at anywhere between 20 and 100 while there were no losses among the Indian forces.
The raid has been hailed by the citizens of India, including the media, as sensational, daring, and proportional. While information on the operation is plenty, quality is less so; conflicting stories have emerged in the Indian press about the equipment used (Mi-35, Dhruv), whether the Indian military actually crossed the border, and if so, whether the Burmese government was informed. Some unconfirmed reports suggest that India acted upon impeccable intelligence while others suggest that unmanned aerial vehicles played a more important role in the preparations for the operation.
Thirty-six hours after the fact, it appears more certain that the international border was indeed crossed though Myanmar initially stated that it had been informed of the raid but later denied that Indian troops had ever crossed the border; permission was not a concern as the armies of the two states have had a tacit understanding between them since at least the mid-1990s which has since been solemnised via treaty. Regarding this particular operation, Naypyitaw was informed of the specifics well after Indian forces had engaged with their targets.
Newspapers also reported that National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Gen. Dalbir Singh changed plans to meet, discuss, coordinate, and oversee the operation with the defence minister Manohar Parrikar. The political decision to strike back, apparently, had been taken within 24 hours of the ambush on 6 Dogra but the military was not ready to launch an immediate counter offensive. Air strikes with Sukhoi fighter jets were considered but abandoned after the risk of collateral damage was found to be too high. Major General Ranbir Singh announced after the mission that the action had been preemptive as well as retaliatory as intelligence revealed that the groups had planned further attacks into India in the near future.
The political impact of this military action is unmistakable. Domestically, it reinforces Narendra Modi's image as a tough, no-nonsense prime minister willing to take difficult and potentially uncomfortable decisions. Regionally, the raid into Myanmar sent a strong message to insurgents taking refuge in India's neighbouring states that Modi's India is willing to come after them if necessary. It also put China on notice that its support of rebel groups in India's northeastern region have not gone unnoticed and localised cooperation will thwart Beijing's perfidious intentions, by force if necessary. As the greatest patron of cross-border terrorism in the region, Pakistan could not have failed to get the message implicit in the Indian Army's raid into Myanmar.
For some, the eager reporting on the incident has come off as unwarranted, jingoistic chest-thumping. This, of course, is an activity reserved solely for one's own convenience and no other. In any case, the context of such euphoria explains its reasons quite well: Indians feel that, over the decades, they have consistently come out worse in asymmetric conflict with their neighbours. The unsatisfactory response to repeated attacks on Bombay (March 1993, July 2006, November 2008, July 2011), the hijack of Indian Airlines flight IC 814 to Kandahar in December 1999, and the attack on the Lok Sabha in December 2001, not to mention the countless ambushes of police and military convoys have left most feeling anaemic in a deteriorating security situation. While this was not the first Indian counter-terrorism operation, it was one of the very few known ones that acted with such speed, focus, purpose, and was so successful.
In response to India's operations in the East, Pakistan's interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, warned Delhi that such adventures will not succeed against his country which was capable of giving a befitting reply. "Pakistan is not Myanmar," Nisar reminded India. There are several points here: first, such rhetoric is expected in international relations - in fact, it would be astonishing if Rawalpindi announced that it was worried about India's resolve and would consequently roll up some of the terrorist camps along the Line of Control.
Second, no two military operations are exactly alike and to compare Indian operations in Myanmar, conducted in concert with a cooperative neighbour, with potential raids into the terrorist safe haven of Pakistan stretches credulity. India's options against Pakistan are different from those it has in the east. Nevertheless, Tuesday's operation is a far cry from winding up covert operations against enemies in the east and west as former prime ministers PV Narasimha Rao and IK Gujral did. In that sense, what may be mistaken for chest-thumping is actually relief.
All said and done, the government could have managed the post-operation publicity with more aplomb. A single informative statement from the military that covered all aspects of the mission they were willing to discuss would have been preferable to the buffet of contradictions and multiplicity of government voices on the subject. Contrary to some concerns, the publicity will not hurt future operations - it is highly unlikely that terrorists do not know that the Indian Army possesses drones, commandos, and helicopters. Silence only keeps the common citizen in the dark. Besides, a public celebration of such successes is important for citizens' morale as well as geopolitical signalling.
Many Indians take particular pride in their country's use of soft power in sensitive regions like Afghanistan and are allergic to the "cowboy solutions" for which some other countries have an affinity. This, however, should not be construed for being a soft state. Unfortunately, that is exactly what India had become in the name of prudence.
Tuesday's actions smacked of an Israeli flavour, something that has many admirers in India. The raid into Myanmar, though not conducive to a cut-paste job to the Western front, was nonetheless a first step in the rebuilding of Indian special operations capabilities. Raising it to be a panacea to all of India's asymmetric security ills and then to criticise it is to just tilt at straw men.
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