Army flaws led to Manipur ambush

An ambush in Manipur that claimed the lives of 18 soldiers and injured 11 others is the deadliest attack on the Indian Army in this insurgency-wracked state in over three decades. It is believed to be the work of an umbrella grouping of anti-India militant groups led by the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K). The NSCN-K and its allies have a strong presence in Chandel, the district where the ambush happened and Khaplang’s bases lie across the border in Myanmar. It is evident that following the split in his group, Khaplang is flexing his muscles and seeking to assert his group’s military capacity; hence the attack on the Army.

Attacks by the NSCN-K were expected in the wake of its pullout of the ceasefire. Was there an intelligence failure on the part of the army? Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh thinks so but the army has dismissed this allegation. However, it did commit mistakes. It did not follow the Standard Operating Procedures. Why, for instance, were 35 soldiers travelling in one vehicle and that too in an area that is known to be an NSCN-K stronghold?  It appears that the convoy was not preceded by a road opening patrol (ROP); the route the convoy took was not sanitised. An ROP would have detected the improvised explosive devices which were planted on the convoy’s route.  Thus, the mistakes made by the army made its soldiers vulnerable to the attack. When IEDs exploded, heavily armed militants waiting at the ambush site gunned down the hapless soldiers. 

 This is a testing time for the army. Soldiers will be angry and seeking revenge for the death of their comrades. Retribution is not the way to respond. Army leadership must act cautiously. While stern action is needed to hunt down the militants behind the ambush – this will require Myanmar’s support as they are said to have crossed the border – it must avoid a sledge-hammer approach to ‘teach militants a lesson’. Such an approach could end up taking civilian lives and will be counter-productive over the long-run. Hawks in the Indian security establishment will use the ambush in Manipur to argue why the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is needed to fight insurgents in the North-East. The decision whether or not to repeal the AFSPA in Manipur must be made after a calm consideration of the ground situation. An important decision like this cannot be taken when emotions are running high and calls for retribution rent the air.

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