IPCS Discussion

Dealing with Dirty Wars

19 Jul, 2017    ·   5330

Sarral Sharma reports on the proceedings of the discussion held on 21 June, 2017

IPCS report on 'Dealing with Dirty Wars', a discussion held on 21 June 2017.

Lt Gen (Retd) Syed Ata Hasnain
Member, Governing Council, IPCS, & former GOC, 15 Corps, Srinagar

There is no particular definition of 'Dirty Wars'. The terminology emerged from Argentina's employment of unrestricted use of violence to intimidate the Leftist opposition in the 1970s.
However, in India, it has ultimately come to be related with hybrid war because conventional war today is passé. India’s adversaries have frequently used the hybrid route to try and aid the achievement of strategic objectives through the employment of different domains of hybrid war. The counter to this lies in the activation of what is commonly referred as ‘whole of government approach’.
Within the hybrid domain, the utilisation of counter-groups, vigilantes and even rogue actions by regular forces constitutes a part of the dirty war/s. However, the viability of success through dirty wars remains in doubt.
The ethics of military warfare do not apply in these wars. A case in point is the beheading incidents on the Line of Control (LoC). No ethics within the military domain allow mutilation of bodies or beheading. But this aspect has manifested in India's environment at the behest of our adversaries. 
Dirty wars as a subset of hybrid wars can become a practice through which security forces and other agencies try to achieve their overall tactical or operational gains. However, denial as a part of the strategy is essential for any degree of success.

Dr. Tara Kartha
Former Director, National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), India, & Author of 'Tools of Terror: Light Weapons and India's Security' (1999)

What are dirty wars? It is the predominant type of conflict today. There are various names for such wars, which include asymmetric warfare, sub-conventional war, fourth generation war or hybrid war. These terms refer to the type of force used or the technology involved. Dirty War refer to the character or nature of these wars that are quite different from conventional wars or terrorism. In a conventional war, the rules and roles of involved parties are not only clear to both sides, but are largely similar. Terrorism on the other hand, is largely episodic in nature and involves only the police and intelligence agencies. 

Dirty Wars fall between conventional wars and terrorism. Examples are many. For instance, in Syria, six countries are directly involved in the ongoing conflict with over 30 rebel groups. Similarly in Yemen, approximately nine countries are involved and three or four indirect players are fighting against half a dozen armed factions. 

Dirty wars are therefore characterised by a plethora of actors, each with different agendas.  These include the armed forces, intelligence agencies, politicians, local population, and religious groups some of whom cooperate with both sides. The international community uses these wars to get their diplomatic concerns addressed. For instance, it will invariably talk about the apprehension regarding an India-Pakistan nuclear conflict - an issue which does not have much to do with the dirty wars - to apply pressure on both countries. Pressure tactics such as travel advisories to its citizens are used on a country.

Dirty wars are corrosive of governments. Despite elections, the government remains under constant threat. The main strategic objective of these wars is to dismantle the governance structure. Terror groups would not allow the smooth functioning of the government and would not allow peace negotiations. In Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), former terror heads as well as Panchayat leaders have been killed. Governance becomes the first casualty in these wars. At least six government task-forces have been undertaken to improve governance structure in Kashmir. But none of it has worked so far. In these wars, the conventional force is pitted against the unconventional. 

The Indian Army fares better than armies of most countries in conflict zones. The terrorists' objective continues to be to prod the army for retaliation. Terrorists operate under no rules, use indiscriminate violence and seek sympathy of the population. Conversely, the army operates under a legal regime and is mostly tasked to maintain peace to allow governance. Armies shift and change to deal with new wars by conducting cordon and search night operations and special joint investigation centres, which often turns the local population against them.

Intelligence agencies are an intrisic part of dirty wars. Intelligence games are dirty per se. The CIA used narcotics as a method to fund the Afghan war. Interestingly, terrorists are getting very good at gathering intelligence these days. The Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) has got cyber cells across Pakistan. 

Terror groups use violence to recruit a particular segment of people. While the Islamic State (IS) per se may not come in J&K, the fact that Zakir Musa is in touch with someone from the group may expand its influence. Traditionally, large established groups would not tolerate the rise of the IS. Smaller entities are the ones that may latch on to any such opportunity provided to them. Additionally, it is just the appeal that "I am bigger than you are" and not really the ideology which lead to increase in recruitment.

Dirty wars are fought through the medium of the media by both sides. Media sees terrorism as part of TRPs. In J&K, local media is usually caught between both sides of the narratives. Virulent social media activities results in advantage to terrorists against the government machinery. Fake news such as the polio drops story in Kashmir further leads to insecurity. Should security forces then take to social media and local bureaucrats be able to provide "breaking news?" 

India can use UN Security Council Resolution 2178 under chapter VII (2014) for its advantage to target threats posed by foreign terrorist fighters and prevent them from crossing their borders. India can argue for use of force. Because of the IS, which led to the phenomenon of foreign fighters, India can use law to its advantage.

State governments need to own projects. They should begin core development nodes in areas unaffected by militancy where private industries are willing to participate. In Kashmir, the state government is the first responder. Therefore, it can announce time-linked projects with complete transparency in tendering. It requires minimum ability of the state government.

Managing the media is a difficult task. Security agencies may consider using drones to get the live footage of an incident where militants are present among public to share the true side of the story. 

Taking down incendiary sites/fake news sites is also another option. UK's -terrorism internet referral unit took down over 120,000 sites since 2010. There is no need to counter religion with religion. Counter-narratives have to accept the low levels of the psychological warfare. 

Cross-border issues such as narcotics remain a low priority subject in India. At present, the narcotics department is under-staffed. It is important to rationalise other roles of the Indian Narcotics Control Bureau in addition to educating people on narcotics.

If this is war - and it is - the Minister of Defence (MoD) should be able to study, examine and provide the best technology available to the army and the police. To counter urban terrorism, the objective would be to move from troop intensive urban operations to one that relies on use of CCTVs, crowd control and dispersal, or use of drones to capture militant urban movement. 


If information is a major instrumentality in dirty wars, it is absolutely crucial to have a dedicated corps of information operations in the army to serve a military function. Similarly, information operations might also come up as a spin-off in the civilian sphere to fight the perception and counter-perception battle.

In acts of terror, those who are sought to be terrorised are those who are watching the terror, while the direct victims of an act of terror are not the real primary target. The primary target remains the audience - which, often, is not present at the spot or is directly being terrorised and made victims. This distinction needs to be made and considered while formulating counter-terrorism strategies so that one can avoid becoming a victim of the war of perceptions. 

All over the world, there appears to be a gap in information dissemination. There is still a lack of clarity between the civilian and military authority. 

In J&K, the present situation is due to complacency, lack of coordination among security forces and intelligence agencies after 2015 have led to the present situation. This needs to be addressed urgently because Pakistan's ISPR is deftly using and managing information as a weapon against its adversaries, especially India. 

The government should decide the appropriate authority to address the media to disseminate facts about ongoing terror operations. India requires a strategic communication body at the centre to address the concerned communities with subsidiary bodies in some important states.

Rapporteured by Sarral Sharma, Researcher, IReS, IPCS