[Assam] Protests against Ulfa in Assam
baruah at bard.edu
Mon Jun 11 18:56:16 EDT 2007
NEVER A MOMENT TO BREATHE EASY
Telegraph (Calcutta) June 12, 2007
After yet another bloodbath carried out by Ulfa, Sanjib Baruah ponders
whether negotiations can still hold the magic answer in Assam
The public protests in Assam against the killing of innocent civilians by
the United Liberation Front of Asom in indiscriminate bombings are good
news. However, it would be premature to read them as a sign that a big
change is round the corner, since another kind of reaction is also
visible. An umbrella body of 30 trade associations, representing groups
that bore the brunt of Ulfas attacks, has strongly come out in support of
unconditional talks with Ulfa.
The implications of this response are ambiguous. It is a contrast from the
way similar groups had reacted when Ulfa targeted Hindi-speaking labourers
last winter. The call then was for more security, for increased presence
of the army, and for tougher counter-insurgency operations. The Ulfa may
have reasons to be quite pleased with this turn of events.
Counter-insurgency experts might see the support for talks among new
groups as Ulfas devious game-plan. Indeed, this explains why some people
feel that, with growing evidence of Ulfas isolation, there is even less
reason for the government to talk to it now than before.
This view, however, ignores the logic of asymmetric warfare. Insurgents
everywhere choose tactics that play to their strengths, not to their
weaknesses, vis--vis governments. It is nave to think that rebel groups
would simply give up the battle and surrender once they lose militarily to
government forces. After all, even the most elementary lesson of armed
conflicts suggests that military power is only one factor among many in
Thus, when tough security barriers go up to protect VIPs and strategically
or symbolically important public places, it is only to be expected that
insurgent groups would turn to soft targets. The people can be excused for
being shocked and surprised by such insurgent tactics, but those in charge
of devising official strategy cannot claim to be equally surprised. They
must be able to outsmart insurgent leaders, and anticipate how the logic
of asymmetrical warfare plays out.
There is a difference between the way governments as institutions may want
to respond to insurgent demands, and those who bear the brunt of their
threats and actions might. Such a difference becomes apparent in a
situation like a kidnapping, when a government position of never
negotiating with terrorists does not resonate with the families of
victims. Insurgent groups can try to leverage this intrinsic asymmetry.
There is plenty of evidence of insurgent groups making civilians pawns in
their conflicts. A study at Uppsala Universitys Peace and Conflict
Research Department found that in hundreds of low-intensity armed
conflicts worldwide, attacks on civilians are a tactic of choice by armed
rebel groups engaged in asymmetric warfare with government forces.
According to Lisa Hultman, the author of this study, by targeting
civilians, rebel groups signal both their resolve to continue the battle
and their willingness to pay high costs in order to pursue victory against
a militarily stronger adversary.
This finding is in keeping with a long intellectual tradition of military
thought that sees war as a violent form of bargaining. Insurgent groups,
of course, realize that in attacking civilians, they run the risk of
alienating their primary audience, from whom they draw their core support.
The protests against Ulfas actions underscore that risk. At the same time,
the return for such grave risks can be quite high. Targeting civilians in
a foreign country is not quite the same as targeting civilians at home.
Yet the terrorist attacks by al Qaida on the Madrid trains in 2004 must
count as one of the most spectacular examples of political gains derived
from an attack on civilians. The attacks caused a rift between the people
of Spain and their elected government, and precipitated the withdrawal of
Spanish troops from Iraq.
What then are our policy choices in Assam today? The failure of two
decades of counter-insurgency speaks for itself. At the same time, it is
hard to argue that negotiations hold the magic answer at this stage.
Insurgent groups do not usually fight long and costly battles against
impossible military odds, for what someone once called the mere privilege
of quitting. Ulfa is unlikely to be an exception.
There is, however, a sense of deja vu about the current situation which is
disturbing. Assam has been in similar situations before. Indeed
counter-insurgency in the North-east is replete with instances of history
repeating itself. Indian officials in charge of counter-insurgency never
tire of repeating the clich that there are no military solutions, and that
a solution ultimately would have to be political. Yet there is little sign
of any change in a strategy that seeks to establish the military
superiority of the government in the expectation that it would force
insurgent groups to accept peace on its terms. There is little evidence of
an ability to respond to the adaptive capabilities of its adversaries, and
to their ability to constantly take conflicts to new realms. Still, no one
except the civilians of the region has had to pay a price for this long
history of policy failure.
The author is at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi and the Indian
Institute of Technology, Guwahati.
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