License to Kill?

On 5th July this year, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) issued a 7 page pamphlet on the occasion of its ensuing Martyr’s Week which was to be observed from 28th July to 3rd August. No wonder, it is their routine activity – which they meticulously follow every year. The interesting feature of the present document, however, was the admission of the Central Committee that the recent elimination of their top-rung leaders have stung – and that too, quite venomously.

At the end of the 5th page, the document [symptomatic of its inelegant English] reads:

“preventing losses to top leadership is one of the most important tasks faced by our party. It is true....” and progresses into the next page:
“.....that people give birth to revolutionary leaders in the course of revolution. But it is equally true that once we lose such leaders, leaders who had gained decades of vast experience and have been guiding the party with unwavering confidence on the people and the revolution, it is not so easy to give birth to such leaders again.

We must take the preservation of our leadership........”

One thing the Maoist leadership failed to appreciate or rather nonchalantly ignored in the circular was the series of abductions which they carried out against bureaucrats, politicos and tradesmen in the last couple of years as a tactical means of furthering their agenda of dismantling the bourgeoisie political framework of India. In the process, they probably forgot the age-old adage of ‘tit for tat’.

Searching in History

Some three decades back in history, sometimes in the mid-1970s, Brigate Rosse – a communist insurgent group, relying on its core principles of kidnapping and assassinations – rose into prominence in Italy. David Johnson, a former senior lecturer in the department of War Studies and International Affairs at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst – writes cogently about the Italian left-wing ultras:

“they indulged in kidnapping of magistrates and the assassination of important legal figures to try to force the release of prisoners.”

Initially, then Italian government was a bit phlegmatic in its counterterrorism moves. However, the high-profile abduction of Aldo Moro – ex Prime Minister of Italy, shook the authorities up from slumber. Moro had a driver and a bodyguard in his car, followed by another car casing two more bodyguards – a near dramatisation of the recent kidnapping of the District Magistrate of Sukma in India’s central state of Chattisgarh. Nevertheless, the Italian reds were smart enough to overpower the bodyguards – their demand was simple – take Moro, and return Renato Curcio – their top leader. The Chattisgrah government too was served with a similar ultimatum in the case of Alex Paul Menon – the executive magistrate in contention.

A month later – the communists declared that Moro had to be condemned to death – as that was the decision delivered by a People’s Court. Was it the unyielding position of the Italian government that paved the way for the brutal death of Moro? Or was it the inherent insanity of the terrorists? In whichever way the answer goes – as it is surely to depend on perspectives – one thing remains factually correct; the Red Brigades lost their mass appeal through this wanton act of terror and it became easy for the Italian government to demolish it in relatively less time. The casualty in the process, nonetheless, was Moro.

It is not only for academic interest that another page from the history of guerrilla warfare may be extracted. On 13th October 1977, a Lufthansa Boeing 737 was high-jacked to Mogadishu, Somalia. The act was carried out by the activists of the Baader-Meinhof gang. This time too, the demands were naturally obvious – the release of the captives of the gang in lieu of the hapless passengers.

The West German government did not kowtow to the demands of the gang. Rather, it sent the efficient antiterrorist squad GSG9 to storm the high-jacked aircraft. The results were strikingly emphatic for the government – all the terrorists were obliterated with no casualty on the civilian side. What precipitated thereafter was the rapid decay of the Baader-Meinhof gang, with its leaders being eliminated in a surgical fashion by the West German authorities.

The hallmark of the counterterrorist strategies of both Italy and then West Germany was simply put, boldness. And it paid – not always without a loss – but nevertheless mostly with an overall gain.

If one compounds such a firm attitude of counterinsurgency with the targeted approach adopted by many states later on down the time-lane, it discernibly bottles the ingredients of ‘rule of law’ and ‘the moral-humanitarian angle’; on the debit side – with ‘effective counterinsurgency measures by the state’ for the ‘overall benefit of the populace at large’; on the credit side.

In November 2000, Israel was the first state to overtly proclaim that it operated a policy of Targeted Killing in its confrontation with Palestinian militants –informs Nils Melzer in his analytical doctoral dissertation. It was in the midst of the Second Intifada that the Israeli authorities started to bulldoze the Palestinian separatists with their Targeted Killing methodology. Since 11thSeptember, 2001, however, the United States has consistently conducted Targeted Killing operations against Al Qaeda and its associated members.

Colonel Peter M. Cullen asserts that in spite of the genuine controversy surrounding this subject of Targeted Killing, a carefully orchestrated policy of such a focused approach can be a legal, moral, as well as effective tool in the campaign against insurgency and terrorism.

The Legal [T]angle

Menzer continues, “The dramatic events of 11th September 2001 led the United States, and soon after also Pakistan and Russia, to openly induct the method of Targeted Killing in their repertoire of counter terrorism and insurgency. At the same time, Targeted Killing also became increasingly accepted in Israel, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Switzerland as a means of last resort in domestic law enforcement, particularly in situations of hostage-taking and against suspected suicide bombers.”

From the juridical point of view, Menzer concludes thus:

“.......the international lex lata [present scheme of law] provides a clear, and satisfactory, regulatory framework for State-sponsored targeted killings, which requires careful and coherent interpretation....”

Coming back to Cullen, he tersely states that the concept of Targeted Killing is a new paradigm with which international law is yet to come to terms. And probably he is justified in saying so as Nils Melzer’s thesis also speaks in a somewhat similar language. Melzer continually insists on devising a lex ferenda [what the law should be] so as to properly deal with the subject of Targeted Killing.

Blum and Heymann of the Harvard Law School opine that the rights of democratically elected governments to use deadly force against Its citizen is constrained by both domestic criminal law and international human rights norms which attempts to protect the individual’s right to life and liberty.
At the other end, Dr Tal Tovy in a 2009 paper published in the Journal of Military and Strategic Studies; while attempting to theorise Targeted Killing, nicely articulates:

“Targeted killings have become an effective operational tool, albeit a controversial one, within the complex of activities that a state carries out in the battle against terrorists or guerrilla fighters.”

Brian M. Jenkins, in New Modes of Conflict – a 1983 RAND publication, states that guerrilla warfare became terrorism at the end of the 1960s when the guerrilla organizations renounced their parental format of warfare and also understood that they may not succeed in their futuristic aims of converting their guerrilla focos or bands into conventional contingents. And we have categorically seen how anarchic acts of terror were curbed by some European governments in the late 1970s – by being firm and resilient.

Tovy lists some credible counterinsurgency programmes in the post-WW II era to substantiate his arguments. Mainly, the author quotes the suppression of the communist insurgency in Malaya and the effectively implemented Phoenix programme against the Viet Cong communist guerrillas by the US. In both these concepts, especially, in Phoenix – the counterinsurgents relied on targeting the leadership.

Interestingly and quite logically, Tovy consistently mentions in his article that the targeted approach in the Phoenix programme never actually always meant ‘Targeted Killing’. It in fact, denoted targeted imprisonment of the top leaders and extracting credible ground intelligence from them.

Theoretically Speaking

In a Spring 2012 paper published in the journal of International Security, Patrick Johnston of the RAND Corporation presents a mathematical modelling of suitable case studies “which challenges the extant notion that high-value targeting is ineffective....” Specifically, Johnston’s results showed “that removing insurgent leaders increases governments’ chances of defeating insurgencies, reduces insurgent attacks, and diminishes overall levels of violence”.

However, Johnston cautions us against a bind adherence to cent per cent efficacy of the targeted approach when he writes that “a variety of different empirical tests consistently demonstrated that governments were more likely to defeat insurgencies following the successful removal of top insurgent leaders, but this probability was consistently estimated at around 25 to 30 percent”.

Interestingly, in a master’s thesis submitted at the Naval Postgraduate School in December 2009, the scholarly triumvirate of Boyden, Menard and Ramirez raise suspicion about the efficacy of the Targeted Killing paradigm. In a crisp thesis, they propose a six-step methodology with an embedded robust analytic framework for determining the effectiveness of Targeted Killing. And by analyzing Israel’s program during the Second Intifada, they ultimately conclude that Targeted Killing was not effective – a viewpoint which would be contrary to Johnston and Tovy’s.

The Indian Way

It seems to be a significant feature that Indian authors on counterinsurgency have hardly discussed the targeted approach as a tactical methodology against insurgents. It is nothing unnatural though in the Indian context – which culturally repudiates any form of“killing” – even it may be for the establishment of law and order in the long run.

Furthermore, the constitutional provisions debar such an approach on the plank of the ‘principle of natural justice’. To clarify further, in India, a Targeted Killing is invariably interpreted as an extra-judicial “assassination” where the accused would be denied audi alteram partem or the ‘right to be heard’. Even any counterinsurgency operation which eventually leads to the elimination of a key leader; viz. Maoist spokesperson Azad or the dreaded Kishenji, is lambasted on unequivocal terms as ‘fake encounters’ by the rights activists.

Such an overpowering intellectual matrix, combined with the existing cultural psyche submerges the cognition of the targeted approach – which in maximum possible theoretical arguments – finally seeks shelter in the semantics of ‘murder’ and ‘brutality’. In this backdrop, it is essential to point out that in the Indian case, the targeted approach must connote Targeted Incarcerations, compounded with Killings of the insurgent leadership, as and when situation demands it. The latter, however, needs to be followed not as a matter of practice. At the same time, there is no need to shun it altogether.

It may be remembered that elimination of key leaders in the early 1970s actually derailed the erstwhile Naxal insurgency –forcing the movement to run out of steam. A repetition of that approach may yet be tested – and that too against the successors of the same enemy. Nevertheless, two paths may well be traversed. One, a national level legislative debate is warranted to arrive at any feasible constitutional adjustments so far as this controversial subject is concerned. And second, profound objective research must be conducted in the theoretical sphere in order to test the hypothesis of the targeted approach in the Indian scenario.

It must, however, be construed that the tactical weaponry of targeted approach as a measure of counterinsurgency is in no way a license to kill. It is by fair calculations, a tactical doctrine within an overall ambit of strategy. Equivalently, it must be borne in mind that the insurgent too possesses no license to kill.

Any opinion expressed in this article in no way reflects the opinion of the Govt. of India and is solely that of the author. The facts used in the article are in no way related to the present vocation of the author.

First published in "Geopolitics, Oct 2012, pp 64 - 66"


More by :  Dr. Uddipan Mukherjee

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Views: 3370      Comments: 1

Comment Nice one..

14-Oct-2012 14:59 PM

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