The latest edition of the South Asia Intelligence Review has an interesting piece examining the adaptive use of new strategies and tactics by the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) in northeast India. The article by Wasbir Hussain – a member of India’s National Security Advisory Board and an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi – also examines the various adjustments in counterinsurgency tactics necessitated by ULFA’s new approach.
The counter-insurgency mechanism in northeastern India’s largest state, Assam, was almost falling into a pattern nearly two decades after it was launched, but drastic shifts in strategy by the highly adaptive United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the state’s frontline separatist group, have compelled the security establishment to carry out a major rejig in operations. In the past, kidnappings, selective killings and direct gun-battles with security forces were among the favourite tactics for terror and fund generation adopted by the ULFA, which was formed in 1979 to fight for the creation of a ‘sovereign, Socialist Assam’. Of late, however, ULFA appears to have adopted a strategy to protect its cadres from the hands of pursuing Army, Police and Paramilitary Forces, by avoiding direct combat with the troopers. There is, as a result, resort to the use of hirelings, who may not even be sympathizers of the group, to carry out bomb and grenade attacks. Security officials in Assam have described this new trend as ‘outsourcing’ by the ULFA, with the objective of inflicting maximum damage with minimum loss to the group itself.
The need to protect its well-trained cadres, and the corresponding adoption of outsourcing, is seen as a consequence of the recent success of both the kinetic and non-kinetic elements of COIN strategy in Assam, which has resulted in large numbers of ULFA cadres being killed or arrested, and equally large numbers responding to state government initiatives and surrendering. In response, ULFA has been forced to adapt, with some of its principal tactical shifts summarised below:
* In the past, the group used to recruit cadres and send them for prolonged military training at their bases in Bhutan, Myanmar or Bangladesh. The long absence of certain youths from a particular village or localities, and their reappearance after a considerable gap, made it easier for the security and intelligence machinery to ascertain if they were ULFA members and to keep tabs on them. However, in the wake of the loss of ULFA’s staging and training facilities in Bhutan, following the Bhutanese military crackdown in December 2003, and the comparatively better cooperation from the military junta in Myanmar, the ULFA is sending fresh cadres for short-term training, mostly within Assam and along the Arunachal Pradesh-Myanmar border.
* This strategy of sending recruits for short training courses has reduced the span of absence from their homes, and has lessened the possibility of suspicion being aroused in the minds of informers or the intelligence community.
* Until 2000, the ULFA was engaged in shootouts with the Security Forces (SFs), but such direct engagement between the rebels and the troopers have now become a rarity. The ULFA clearly finds the costs of direct confrontations disproportionate with any calculable returns.
* The new strategy adopted by the ULFA includes hiring youths, even students, who do not have any criminal records or do not figure in the scan list of the security forces, to lob grenades or plant improvised explosive devices (IED) at public places. These ‘stealth attacks’ constitute a zero risk to the rebel group in terms of potential loss of trained manpower.
The use of untrained ‘contractors’ has had negative consequences for ULFA’s operational effectiveness, however, with several incidents of such recruits being killed or injured while transporting or emplacing IEDs. Poorly executed or carelessly targeted operations have also accelerated the already increasing incidence of random civilian casualties resulting from ULFA operations, which has aroused public hostility against the group. Nevertheless, it has succeeded in its objective of insulating the ULFA hardcore from security force operations. This has forced a similar degree of adaptation on the part of the security forces, with some of the new tactics employed including:
* A close watch on school and college dropouts, after intelligence agencies ascertained that militants had been using such youths to work for them. Profiles of such dropouts or unemployed youth in an area are increasingly being maintained by Police and intelligence agencies.
* An increased focus by enforcement and intelligence agencies on front organizations, sympathizers and facilitators, who may provide the links to approach and hire mercenaries to execute bomb or grenade attacks…
* Pushing ahead with a well coordinated offensive to ‘dislocate’ ULFA cadres from their established camps / strongholds / areas of operation to newer areas. This is aimed at hitting at both the group’s ‘composition’ and ‘disposition’.
* Intelligence agencies say ULFA men have been pushed by military operations to places in Nagaland and East Karbi Anglong, where they have not been able to establish their logistics or local support networks, affecting their ability to strike comfortably.
* Such focused attempts at dislocating ULFA units, according to intelligence agencies, have forced different units of the outfit to come together. This has resulted in some lack of coordination and has affected command structures, because cadres of different units are not used to working together.
* These problems have been compounded further by the fact that ULFA’s bond with the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K) is said to have become fragile, of late. According to intelligence agencies, this has compelled the ULFA to look for other locations to set up base, outside of Myanmar, where they had earlier secured safe haven under NSCN-K protection. This dislocation has made them more vulnerable to intensified SF operations.
* ULFA is said to have already set up semi-permanent camps in Arunachal Pradesh. Counter-insurgency forces are focusing their attention on these areas and are putting pressure on New Delhi to remove the ‘lacunae’ in the legal framework that does not allow the Army to move more than 20 kilometres beyond Assam’s borders, into Arunachal Pradesh, in hot pursuit.
In addition, in a bid to exploit mounting public disaffection with ULFA brutality, senior commanders have informed field commanders they will be dealt with severely if their units are guilty of human rights violations or other excesses while conducting COIN operations. Previously there had been several high-profile incidents of the death of suspected militants in custody, and the architects of the new COIN approach are determined such cases will not dilute growing public hostility toward ULFA in the future.
The validity of this posture was tacitly acknowledged by ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa in a 16 March statement in which he stressed that the local population was unhappy with ‘anti-revolutionary activities by revolutionary soldiers,’ adding that ‘the masses would be inspired if we could overcome our frailty and advance with renewed discipline.’
The adoption of outsourcing by ULFA is part of a wider global trend that has been evident in both Afghanistan (where Giustozzi details the use made of outsourcing by the Taliban when establishing itself in new districts), and Iraq (where it has been particularly exploited by Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and by agents of Iran). As such, the success or failure of counter-strategies adopted by security forces in Assam are likely to prove instructive for those engaged with similar sub-state militant groups elsewhere.
Read the full text of the Wasbir Hussain article, entitled Assam: Counter-insurgency Rejig, here.
The above link appears to have expired. A copy of the article is available here.