Guerrillas and terrorists

Many insurgencies in the latter half of the 20th century served as a tool for the 'weaker' communist bloc to try and change the global power balance. Open confrontation carried the risk of escalation and the communist powers were at a disadvantage in the field of technologies of conventional weapons. The insurgents relied on guerrilla tactics that precluded the use of heavy weapons and hence were able to dictate the terms of engagement. Guerrilla war is thus a low cost, low risk, option for a weaker party to change the political map despite adverse power balance.

What was new in the theories of Mao and Che was the degree of emphasis on politics. Mao brought down politics from the level of policy and made it relevant to the individual soldier by relating it to tactics and morale. This showed shrewd understanding of the circumstances under which a guerrilla operates. The emphasis on indoctrination and ideology was a direct result of Mao's understanding of insurgency as a protracted war, where the human element is of crucial importance. In classical concept, destruction of armed power leads to collapse of the enemy's morale which leads to eventual victory, but in the Maoist conception of revolutionary war it is the loss of morale that leads to the defeat of enemy's armed forces.

Insurgency in Asia can only be understood against the backdrop of the current stage of political development. There may be economically advanced states, but they may be under-developed politically,. In a politically developed country, government is effective. Elsewhere, there is violence and instability. Political institutions in a developed country mediate between competing groups and individuals and maintain peace. These institutions are characterised by adaptability, autonomy, subordination, complexity and coherence in disunity.

Large parts of Asia are predominantly agricultural civilisations in the process of industrialisation, which brings in its wake Western values. This change can often generate alienation and loss of norms due to the conflict between the indigenous and new value systems. Historically, this has been accompanied by violence. Racial, linguistic and religious differences also become factors in the resistance to modernisation which turns violence. The spread of education, information and literacy generate additional pressures due to heightened awareness leading to heightened expectations.

There is the mistaken notion that 'everything is fair in love and war', but by that token even an acid attack due to unreciprocated love can be justified – it is not. Similarly, since ancient times there have been rules of the game in time of war. There are norms and ethics, written or unwritten, on the conduct of conflict which have been more or less universally observed. As far as the state is concerned, the political acts of modern-day governments, including the use of force, have to take place within the democratic framework.

As far as terrorism is concerned, it is a global issue and needs a global solution. In the 1980s, when the world faced a rash of aircraft hijackings, a world consensus was built around the agreement that no country would give shelter to hijackers. As a result of this measure, hijackings have been more or less controlled. Similarly, the world today needs to clearly define terrorist acts – as distinct from actions of guerrilla fighters or militants. Once a terrorist act is clearly defined, the United Nations must enforce a universal adherence to mandatory and exemplary punishment to the supporting organisations, instigators, helpers and propagators of this method of resistance.

Identification of terrorism as a heinous crime would entail recognition of guerrilla war as a separate issue, to be dealt along the lines of the Geneva conventions dealing with wars. Thus, acts by insurgents against armed forces and the police would necessarily have to be placed in a separate category. While the world does recognise this form of warfare, all acts against civilians and non-combatants must Perforce be classed 'terrorism'. All countries must agree to punish the perpetrators and put behind bars all members of such organisations, without exception.

In the past few years, counter-terror operations have lost much of their popular support because they have been dragged into the catch-all nature of the US-led "War on Terror". Instead, the operations should be treated as a counter-insurgency. The implication is that the force used must be appropriate and discriminate as opposed to maximum and indiscriminate. Additionally, the emphasis must be on isolating the terrorists from their support base and not destruction of the supporting people. The obvious objection to this from some quarters would be that it grants a licence for guerrilla war. Which is true. But mankind has lived with this form of warfare since ancient times. The world would definitely become a safer place if we are able to separate guerrilla war from terrorism.

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Himal Southasian