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By After yet another bloodbath carried out by Ulfa, Sanjib Baruah ponders whether negotiations can still hold the magic answer in Assam
  • Published 12.06.07

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 Ulfa’s 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 Ulfa’s devious game-plan. Indeed, this explains why some people feel that, with growing evidence of Ulfa’s 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-à-vis governments. It is naïve 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 determining outcomes.

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 University’s 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 Ulfa’s 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 déjà 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 cliché 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.