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Terrorism: Are infantry commandos the answer?

March 25, 2009 15:53 IST

India has a long tradition, post-independence, of politicians taking arbitrary decisions on security issues. The latest instance is of scuttling the Indian Premier League cricket tournament citing lack of paramilitary forces! One understands the security compulsions, but pray what stops the government from asking the army to help out? After all, the army is not involved in the conduct of elections (other than in J&K) and can certainly provide the outer cordon instead of the paramilitary forces!

But instead of using these resources, we have surrendered to the terrorists. The Lashkar e Tayiba leaders must be laughing their guts out in their Muridke headquarters near Lahore. The imbecile media has gone one up by citing the Lahore attack as reason. In one stroke the inept government has reduced India to the status of a 'failed State' that our western neighbour has long acquired.

Even on the issue of how to counter future attacks by terrorists, a similar lack of application is evident.

The Mumbai terror attacks that shocked the country not only by its senseless violence but by the drama of 10-odd terrorists holding at bay for a full 60-odd hours the world's third largest armed force and a nation of a billion plus people. The nearly 12 hours that it took the National Security Guard to become effective in Mumbai prompted many questions and as a knee-jerk reaction, our lawyer-turned-economist-turned-security-expert Home Minister P Chidambaram announced that the NSG will be expanded and will be stationed in all four corners of the country.

To the long-time observer of the internal security scene, this smacks more of window dressing at worst or a typical Indian response of getting more of the same. Obviously the service chief was not consulted before this announcement and it now transpires that the army does not have the officers to spare (especially young officers) for this expansion. Anyone even slightly familiar with the situation in J&K or the northeast is well aware of this major problem, so this should not be seen as a typical case of bellyaching or obstructionism. It must be noted that the NSG that deals with terrorists (as opposed to VIP security) is exclusively manned by army soldiers and officers.

But does this mean that we do without the specialist force needed for instant action? Fortunately there is an alternative, the Ghaatak platoons of the infantry battalions. But before I am accused of flippancy, let us analyse the problem in depth. Essentially, the threat to our urban centres and its vulnerable points and installations is from small groups of terrorists either infiltrated from across the border or of the home-grown variety. Fortunately, there are no 'liberated zones' in our country and the terrorists will continue to act in small groups. Speed of reaction rather than sophistication of the force or large numbers, will be of utmost importance in gaining success against them.

Attributes of a commando

There are lots of myths and misconceptions about a commando, largely a product of the Rambo image and promoted by the illiterate media. A typical commando is a normal soldier but with extra qualities like:  

Physically super fit.

Mentally tough.

Highly motivated and disciplined.

Well-trained.

Equipped with the appropriate weapons and equipment.

But successful action also needs advance planning, leadership and finally a well-thought-out command and control apparatus.

The normal infantry battalion (of which the Indian army has close to 400, approximately) has had a commando platoon; (now called Ghaatak Platoons) for a long time. I myself had trained one way back in 1971, and it achieved spectacular results during the war. But the commando platoons of the infantry have only the first four attributes described above. It is not equipped with the kind of gadgets that the Special Forces have, though some special weapons are given to them (like silencer guns et al). If only the infantry battalion Ghaatak Platoons are equipped with the latest gadgets, they will be a great asset in fighting terrorism.

Without looking for extra land and locations for the NSG hubs as proposed by the home minister, if every infantry battalion gets a well-equipped commando platoon, the needs of security will be met. The NSG will remain a special force that can build on the commando platoons should the task be beyond their capability. I do not oppose the additional NSG hubs, but propose that beside this action, every infantry battalion must have a well-equipped commando platoon.

Analysing the threat

With the terrorist attacks in Varanasi, Delhi, Jaipur, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, Surat, Guwahati and of course Mumbai, it should be by now clear as daylight that the terrorists have the whole of India on their radar. It is funny that the government and media concentrates on teh lack of CCTV at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Do we realise that if we put in place security measures at Mumbai, the terrorists will simply target Pune, Kolhapur or Ghaziabad or some such place. Are we going to defend each and every of the 5,000 plus railway stations? Can we?

In all the hullabaloo over the Mumbai attack, an even more chilling revelation by terrorists ought to have woken us up. The terrorist caught for his role in the attack on Bengaluru's Indian Institute of Science revealed that their plan was to break into the conference hall and kill the maximum number of scientists. Thanks to the chaotic Bangalore traffic the plan could not be carried out. Imagine the damage to the nation if our top scientists were eliminated in one go. If this is not war declared against our country, then what is? When will we realise that we are at war?

I understand perfectly the reluctance of the armed forces to get into this messy situation. But the truth is that post nuclearisation of the subcontinent, there is no high ground, and warfare has also changed irrevocably. The earlier we get used to it, the better for the safety and security of our nation.

Colonel Dr Anil Athale (retired), is a Chhatrapati Shivaji Fellow of the USI studying internal security and co-ordinator of the Pune-based Inpad. He is also a commando 'qualified fit for instructor' of 1969 vintage and an ex-infantry officer

Colonel Dr Anil Athale (retd)