While several authors have written erudite pieces encompassing policy level issues after the encounters in Handwara and Kupwara on two consecutive days on May 3 and 4, I would like to confine myself to analysing more mundane matters connected with the actual conduct of such operations.
At the outset heartfelt condolences to the families of eight security personnel who laid down their life-fighting militants in these operations. May the departed souls rest in peace. Such loss of lives of trained soldiers without corresponding gains is tragic and raises some pertinent questions that security forces need to introspect about.
In my long career, I have seen as well as initiated umpteen number of Situation reports (SITREPS) which start with the phrase "on receipt of information the forces led by so and so rushed to the spot and….". The language of the SITREP and the actual conduct of operations betrays inadequate planning. Why should the commanders not spend a few minutes in briefing the troops and orienting them about their role in the operation?
In a hurry to reach the spot and get the operation done with, this aspect is often missed. Troops have learnt to sleep, eat, and drink with their issue weapon in an anti-militancy area and the immediate response is to assemble, board a vehicle and rush to the spot. This must be avoided, and troops must be familiarised before departure. In an information-based operation, if the input is correct, and if our "source" is keeping surveillance over the objective, the commanders can minimise avoidable casualties and confusion through some well-spent time for minimal planning and briefing.
Another important issue relates to converting the information received into actionable intelligence. General tendency to rush as discussed above must be shunned. The 'source' must be asked relevant questions to build a picture. For example, in the Handwara encounter, the source who was positioned there hopefully was questioned about the layout of the house.
For instance, number of rooms, windows, location of doors and where exactly are the militants hiding. Besides, information about approaches leading to the house and nearby dominating features suitable for commanders to closely monitor and influence the progress of the operation. It will be extremely beneficial if the forces deployed in militancy affected areas obtain cadastral/revenue/municipal maps of the area of their responsibility having details of roads, lanes and bylanes. This should help them plan better.
Apart from the above, regular patrolling and interaction with the civilians in the area would go a long way in familiarising the troops with their area. They would learn intimately about the lay of the land and also about the people living in that area. Regular patrolling would also enable them to learn about the presence of new faces and discern variations in the behavioural pattern if any after which the sources can be tasked to find out the cause of such changes.
This will certainly add to the success of operations. Troops often focus only on the static defence of their COB with patrolling activity generally being follow up of information or to conduct a civic action program. It is a fallacy that distributing toffees to children or occasional sporting events with the civilians helps win them over. Such activities have limited role and have outlived their utility in the present context in J&K where it appears to have been ingrained in their minds that Indians are an occupation force. Hard work to thoroughly know about the area is the only alternative for troops on the ground.
Reliability of the source is another factor which needs thorough consideration. Many sources operate as double agents and give our information to the militants too, either because they fear for their life or because they subscribe to militant ideology and are deceiving the security forces. Some reports suggest, that the hostages supposedly held by militants inside the house in Handwara were working for them and had laid a trap for the security forces. Thorough verification of credentials of each source is essential.
The causality of the Unit Commander and the Company commander in the operation at Handwara has initiated a debate about the commanders leading from the front. There is no doubt that the leader in front is a great motivator for the troops. However, the flip side is that if the leader becomes causality in the first hail of bullets, the troops are headless with no one to motivate and guide them. Such a situation generally leads to chaos with each for himself. The militants only have to wait for the troops to finish their ammunition before moving for a kill.
Moreover, the concept of leading from the front is more applicable to conventional warfare. Even in that, the commander is not exactly in front whether it be an offensive or defensive operation. The commander is located centrally and slightly in depth.
The anti-militancy operations by definition are small team operations with troops and lower commanders being adequately trained to exercise initiative and respond to changing situations. The commanders in my view, therefore, should generally restrict themselves to supervising from a vantage point near the site. The commander must focus on guiding the troops through effective communication with troops involved. In this manner they would be able to effectively influence the operation and also would be able to ensure timely reinforcements.
The security force personnel are well aware of the possibility of losing life in combat. However, loss of life disproportionate to the achievement is avoidable if some basic issues as discussed above are taken care of.
(The author of this article is a retired Border Security Forces Additional Director General. All the views expressed in this article are the author's personal opinions)
Also Read: Army Colonel, Major Among Five Personnel Martyred During Terrorist Encounter In J&K's Handwara