08/31/2010 10:35 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Build a School; Then Build It Again

How do you win a hearts and minds campaign? Protecting and prioritizing the hearts and minds of civilians over all else is a pretty good start. Unfortunately, although the Republic of India has been engaged in counterinsurgency campaigns against rebellious internal populations for decades, it has yet to successfully concentrate its efforts on the needs of its civilians. The source of this failure can be found among India's hidebound military institutions and their defensiveness toward critiques of any kind.

Over the course of its history, India has seen its fair share of civil conflict. Most recently, in April of this year, 75 federal paramilitary troops were killed when Maoist rebels ambushed security convoys in Central India. The dominant public reaction to this attack was a call to clamp down even harder on the Maoists. While understandable, such a reaction is not wise: if a policy is failing and different outcomes are desirable, then things must be done differently. India's counterinsurgency doctrine has long focused on security, but this approach has failed to cultivate security within the dreaded "Red Corridor" where Maoist-Naxals rule. A new approach is needed.

While it is true that India has a great deal of experience in counter-insurgency, this is more an indictment of failure than evidence of expertise. India is currently fighting Maoists in its Central and Eastern states, Kashmiri militants in its most Northern state, and separatists in its entire North East. The tragedy of this situation is not, as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan has stated, that India's most imminent and salient security woes concern internal matters, but that these matters have been around since India's inception. Out of the seven major insurgencies in India's history, five are still raging. While numerous resources have been committed to quelling the bug of separatism - including countless lives lost and oceans of blood spilt - the Indian government is no closer to achieving internal peace than it was decades ago. Indeed, the prospects of peace may be dimmer than ever.

The Home Ministry of India recently admitted to barely being able to keep apace of the rapid expansion of the Maoist-Naxal insurgency. In 2004, roughly 9,300 hard-core rebels were present in only nine states. Since then, their numbers have swelled to 40,000 permanent and 100,000 itinerant militia members as they have spread into 22 of India's 35 states and territories.

Commencing as a peasant revolution hostile to rich, exploitative landlords, the Naxal movement matured in the deeply impoverished rural villages of eastern India. According to Foreign Policy Magazine's Anuj Chopra, villagers in these areas survive on leaves and berries; toil away on scorched farms; live without access to electricity, schools, or hospitals; die of snakebites and treatable diseases like malaria and tetanus; and are overrun with naked, chronically malnourished children with distended bellies. The Naxals aim to establish an autonomous Marxist state devoid of the Indian government's control as well as its malfeasance, neglect, exploitation and abuse. Ironically, over decades of fighting, the Naxals have come to resemble their enemy and are responsible for many of the same abuses of power and avarice they ostensibly oppose. They regularly tax local villagers, extort mining companies and local businesses, commit extra-judicial killings, abduct and kill government officials and police officers, and stop aid from getting through.

It is, however, possible to divide the indigenous "tribals", known as adivasis, and the Naxals, but this will take a critical understanding of the nature of guerilla warfare. Firstly, nations tend to focus on the wrong population: usually the loudest or most violent elements. We are inclined to obsess over the terrorist instead of the people on whose support the terrorist must naturally depend. What nations learn painfully is that in the context of insurgencies, the greatest strength of a militant group is the support of a local population. Mao's own strategic theory was based on the premise that "if the totality of the population [could] be made to resist surrender, this resistance [could] be turned into a war of attrition which [would] eventually and inevitably be victorious." While Indian forces mistakenly spotlight Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) as their greatest obstacle in subduing Naxal-inspired separatism, the Naxals correctly see their symbiotic relationship with the local "tribal" population as their real secret weapon. The Naxals depend on locals to act as human couriers, serving as a rudimentary intelligence and communications network in areas of the jungle where cell phones don't work, as well as to furnish them with food, provisions, young recruits and physical space to operate under civilian cover. In an insurgency, such civilian support is decisive.

Secondly, a nation's greatest strength - preponderant military power - is in counterinsurgency its greatest weakness, especially when it engenders hubris. India prides itself as a master of counterinsurgency and even trains militaries from the United States, Singapore, South Africa, Iraq, and Afghanistan at its famed Counterinsurgency and Jungle Warfare School (CIJW). Yet as former Indian solider and Johns Hopkins doctoral candidate Anit Mukherjee has found, the facts do not support the perception of success. To say that India's strategy of employing conventional force against insurgents has failed is an understatement, yet one that is a hard pill for India's civilian leaders and military brass to swallow. Seemingly drunk on technological prowess and the notion that advanced weapons systems, deep pockets, and elite soldiers can easily thrash a bunch of uneducated, malnourished boys in the jungle, Indian leaders do not understand the central paradox of insurgency. When a group of individuals take up arms and do so in the name of compelling grievances, no amount of firepower will dissuade their will to fight. As Henry Kissinger once said, the guerilla wins if he does not lose; the conventional army loses if it does not win.

India allows itself to fall prey to a common fallacy: the idea that "if [an] opponent's military capability to wage war can be destroyed, [its] will to continue the struggle is irrelevant since the means to that end are no longer available." Interestingly, in the case of insurgencies, this is not only wrong; it is the reverse of the truth. Again Henry Kissinger is instructive: because insurgencies usually lack the

technological capability or the basic resources to destroy the external enemy's military capability, they must of necessity aim to destroy [the enemy's] political capability. If the external power's will to continue the struggle is destroyed (as was effectively done in the case of Vietnam), its military capability--no matter how powerful--is totally irrelevant.

India is not alone in believing that violent insurgencies compel violent responses. Nations tend to spend heftily on conventional equipment and training, and therefore default to depending on them. Yet the challenges conventional forces currently face hardly merit this dependence, and the hubris it provokes as traditional warfare grows ever less likely or useful.

Thirdly, a nation must be more self-critical and willing to admit mistakes relative to its opponent. Few realize that there is widespread disaffection among the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the Special Police Officers (SPOs) and the Indian paramilitaries. These forces are under-equipped, out-manned, under-fed, and experience continuous low morale. Only roughly 20% of the CRPF actually shows up for counterinsurgency training and many believe that these forces are not vested in the issue or the state. According to an Indian security specialist, "the Naxals are better trained, better equipped and have more entrenched interests." Then there is the problem of political corruption; so endemic it destroys any trust left in government. Finally, while the theatre of war changes swiftly, soldiers complain that no new assessments have been conducted. One CRPF solider raged that the force didn't have enough units to secure a stretch of road once it has been cleared:

When we can't save our food, imagine the kind of morale we will be in, when it comes to saving our life. For the last one and a half years, we have been dumped here with bare minimum facilities. Several times, we had to eat rice with tamarind juice. Is this how we fight a war?

If the aim is to win the war, then the answer is clearly no. The eyes, ears, and hands of the Indian counter-insurgency strategy are hamstrung, and without changing course completely, India stands to find itself exactly where it is today years from now, minus of course the many brave soldiers, misguided militants, and unlucky civilians caught in the crosshairs.

Through painful trial and error, nations spend a great deal of blood and treasure trying to grasp these lessons of counterinsurgency. As in life, the best solution is usually the simplest one. Instead of trying the same approach and hoping for a different outcome, why not try something fresh?

Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and now a consultant to the American military in Afghanistan on counterinsurgency strategy, believes that "there is no military solution in Afghanistan" and that the education of girls is the only real long-term fix. Nicholas Kristof has calculated that one solider costs as much as 20 schools in Afghanistan, and believes that "building schools is a better bet for peace than firing missiles (especially when one cruise missile costs about as much as building 11 schools)." Mortenson believes that the cost of just 246 soldiers posted for one year is equivalent to what it would cost to pay for higher education for all Afghans.

Detractors, war hawks and hard power 'realists' will wail that it is impossible to run schools unless there are troops to protect them. This is not only incorrect- as many NGOs in Afghanistan can evince -it misses the point entirely. War is a theatre and the aim is winning over hearts and minds. Thus it is not only important to show that the state is putting the people's needs first, it must also show that the enemy is not. Something governments often miss highlighting is that insurgents, especially ones that have been around for decades, tend to prioritize their own power and interests above and beyond those of the population they claim to be seeking to liberate. This is certainly true with regard to the Naxals, who have a vested interest in an impoverished society, which allows them to maintain and expand their reach. Statistics show that Naxals have attacked 316 targets over the past three years, including communication networks, railway infrastructure, mines, and pipelines. These projects employed thousands of local "tribals" until their destruction.

In order to lure the loyalties of "tribals" away from Naxalism, Indian forces must launch a defense-centric public relations blitz. One strategy could be to set up a well-guarded installation somewhere in the Red Corridor with several rings of security; build a school just outside the outer ring of defense; leave it undefended but heavily monitored with cameras; allow the school be blown to smithereens by insurgents (they don't want development and certainly not schools connecting local populations to broader ones); and then build it again, and again, as long as it takes to show the local population that the State cares more about them than the insurgents do. Finally, disseminate footage of insurgents attacking the school as well as information on the urban-elite roots of many Naxal leaders and their atrocities far and wide. This must be done while simultaneously emboldening local tribal councils, or panchayats, establishing clinics near security installations, continuing work on cutting Naxal supply lines, and re-training Indian forces to this new strategy in the meantime.

India's government must illustrate to its public what it is willing to do to make amends, starting with acknowledgement of the many mistakes it has made throughout its history, especially in the name of counterinsurgency. Instead of sending yet another band of soldiers to find an unwinnable war, India could better serve its interests by waging a smarter war. India has committed $1.2 billion dollars in humanitarian, reconstruction, and developmental aid to Afghanistan, believing that "its development assistance is guided by Afghan needs and priorities." Why not do the same within its own borders?