Syed Ata Hasnain | India’s Jaffna playbook: Tips for Israel, Russia?

I begin with a short anecdote. I was a part of Operation Pawan (Sri Lanka) where the Indian Army was involved in an expeditionary counter-terrorist campaign. I was often involved in hits and misses in operational contacts with the militants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at the sub-tactical level, especially in the urban built-up environment of Jaffna city and its outskirts. That is very usual in such operations; every operation does not end in a resounding success, as the intelligence may be inaccurate or the contact could start even when the adversaries are at some distance and one has little control over such situations. A particular senior officer was most unhappy about my few botched operations and ascribed it to lack of professionalism on my part. He said quite openly that my refusal to fire when there was a possibility of civilian casualties did not reflect high professional capability and flexibility. In his opinion, civilian casualties were a part of the collateral, and we should not be concerned about that. Mercifully, I never agreed to his perception about the conduct of such operations, and retained my equanimity and the reputation of my unit, but almost at the cost of my career. The Indian Army suffered heavy casualties at the beginning of the Jaffna campaign and many times thereafter. Urban, near-conventional warfare in which it got involved, was not its forte. Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) were a surprise for us, as were snipers from rooftops and militants merging into crowds which backed them. Yet, we never ever consciously disregarded the rules of war, despite the fact that units suffered casualties of both officers and men and it took almost 16 days to initially capture Jaffna. Operation Pawan was never a tactical failure, it was a catastrophe at the strategic level; primarily for the lack of clarity of aim and task. Units which participated there held their heads high and came away with many lessons learnt, although allegations in the media against their high-handedness were rife; no one really accepted that internationally. I ascribe my ability to understand counter-militant and counter-terrorist operations in the later stages of my career to the patience and forbearance I acquired during Operation Pawan.

The purpose of relating this is to compare the Indian Army’s approach to warfare, especially in urban terrain, in relation to two prominent armies, the Israeli Army and the Russian Army, both having especially close relationships with the Indian Army. The Russian Army has been involved in Ukraine for almost 27 months. After failing to take the capital Kyiv, it has concentrated on the Donbas region where its targets have been cities and urban villages. With six million people displaced, eight million who have fled the country as refugees and an indeterminate number of civilian casualties, there is little as far as the ethics of war are concerned. The UN recorded over 700 civilian casualties across Ukraine in April 2024, including 129 deaths, a significant increase from March. Food insecurity is on the rise and humanitarian assistance is a major challenge. It is yet acceptable that economic blockades are a part of warfare, but deliberately targeted civilian casualties are unethical. The war is between two formed armies with a sprinkling of irregulars.

Gaza is about a formed army versus irregulars. Here, a 2.5 million population is reeling under offensive operations by a force of at least 300,000. It remains a moot point whether a warning to the civilian population to vacate a city or a region, and its consequent refusal under duress or not, is legitimate reason for the commencement of an operation with no limitations and terms of reference. Almost 37,000 civilians have died in Gaza since October 7, 2023, all targets of artillery, missile fire or simply the collateral of many engagements that Hamas has been involved in. In India, our military community has great respect for the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and its ruthless approach to warfare. In discussions with the rank and file of the IDF, Israeli servicemen often decry the Indian military concept of non-acceptance of collateral or the thought process of balance between hard and soft power in a counter-terrorism environment, alongside the idea of the population being the “centre of gravity”. Both campaigns, Ukraine and Gaza, are not people-centric although there is an element of hybridity in both. For the Russian Army, territorial gains are important but “beyond the threshold” quantum of civilian casualties is a factor too. With Israel inflicting heavy civilian casualties in the conduct of clearance operations in Gaza, the United States and Nato are unable to take a strong stand against Russian actions. Israel’s political stance on heavy Palestinian civilian casualties continues to ignore the same in the hope that capitulation will shortly take place. Most professional military minds, observing the war, find it difficult to fathom how Hamas retains the capability to fire missiles and rockets from within Gaza after the degree of attrition suffered and the presence of such a large number of Israeli troops.

Can one ascribe an uncaring approach towards civilian casualties as unethical or simply unprofessional? Executing surgical operations in terrain such as Gaza or Donbass poses a major challenge. We are not sure to what extent have Special Forces been tasked and applied but their employment would definitely make a major difference. More than artillery, missiles or air power, it is the suitably deployed grenade launchers and heavy machine-guns which make the difference in street battles. That is what the Indian Army ultimately employed in Jaffna. It had no maps to take artillery shoots, nor the will to launch bombs on people. In street battles, it got the better of the 2,500-3,000 LTTE militants who deployed in a manner to depict a much larger force. What made the Indian Army stand out even more was the humanitarian attitude and the display of will to return Jaffna to normal at the earliest. It set up a civil affairs organisation and posted the iconic Risky Kahlon as the first “town commandant” to ensure that order was restored and life of the people returned to as normal as possible. It paid great dividends, which prompts me to suggest to these armies to take a leaf from the experience of the Indian Army. They may just find it useful, and successful.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle )
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