Microdisarmament: Learning From Experience

Tara Kartha, Fellow, IDSA


The concept of microdisarmament was born in an era when the United Nations seemed to be set to act as the international fire control agency in a climate wherein brush fires seemed to be breaking out across entire regions, spread by the winds of over-weaponisation, poverty and lack of legitimate governments. From being a rather behind the scenes actor, the secretary general and his organisation were catapulted into prominence as he and his Secretariat struggled to find the men and the material to address increasing demands for peace-keepers and/or peace- enforcers. The agency acquired valuable experience as over twenty new operations were established in just over five years, but it soon became necessary that some lines and conclusions be drawn as the UN manfully struggled with escalating costs, troop delays and what was seen as at least one spectacular failure (Somalia) While the Agenda for Peace (July 1992) made a significant contribution in outlining the "missions and needs" of the UN and the dangers of the new type of conflict, three years in the field led to the follow-on Supplement to the Agenda for Peace1 which underlined the fact that small and light weapons proliferation were threatening the successful conclusion of UN operations. The "peace-enforcement option" outlined had met with no success in Somalia, while in Cambodia the Khmer Rogue had reneged on its promise to disarm. In the Supplement, the secretary general referred to the vital need for "microdisarmament" which he described as "practical disarmament in the context of the conflicts the UN is actually dealing with and of the weapons, most of them light weapons, that are actually killing people in the hundreds of thousands". Though his primary concern was with UN operations, the secretary general appeared to call for an international consensus that would deal with this issue as well as the other major security issues confronting the world (like nuclear and chemical weapons) calling for "parallel progress in conventional arms particularly with respect to light weapons" which was a pointer to action for global and regional efforts to combat the spread of the weapons which were capable of such destabilisation and crime.

The Need for Microdisarmament

At no point was the exact connotation of what constituted "microdisarmament" made clear, since the objective of the head of the UN was clearly a call for action, to fill a need that the UN was already beginning to feel as the peace-keeping doctrine failed to keep up with realities on the ground. Except in the case of Iraq, all other operations in which the UN was called in to help were cases of intra-state conflict, where the combatants were non-state actors of various hues, armed with a variety of weapons that largely comprised what is referred to as "small arms" or light weapons--assault rifles, carbines, rocket launchers, grenades, mortars, and landmines. In the face of a massive societal proliferation of weapons, the UN found itself helpless, and peace-keeping doctrines had to be scrutinised anew, even as the soldiers had to be equipped with better protection for themselves, and mandates rewritten to allow a measure of force to push through the objectives of the operation. In time, the quantum of force considered necessary increased steadily, with air power used in Somalia and Bosnia, and casualties increasing on both sides. With low casualty tolerance by the major powers, and the "CNN factor" operating, the enthusiasm for new operations began to wane significantly. This caution was not surprising--in situations (as in Afghanistan) where the spread of weapons made nearly every man a soldier, the UN could not possibly go to war with an entire country even if the threat to peace was clear and unambiguous. On the other hand, neither could it ignore the fact that expensive operations were increasingly being held hostage by trigger happy militants or clan leaders.

Elsewhere in the world, regional peace-keeping operations like the Indian peace-keeping operation in Sri Lanka found themselves facing the same odds that the UN found itself against. Militants armed with weapons often better than the peace-keepers themselves were able/allowed to field, almost succeeded in wrecking the entire operation. Policy makers in faraway capitals were disinclined to recognise the importance of stopping the flow of weapons into the hands of non-state actors, and when this was finally seen as a necessity, it was often too late to do anything very much about it. There was clearly a vast underground black market for weapons, and these appeared to move from previous hot spots to new conflict locations with ease. Even as police forces mopped up weapons within a trouble spot, more arrived by land, sea and air. Faced with an almost complete failure, the armed forces were brought in to aid the civil authorities, curfews were imposed, and the problem was damped down at best, but rarely solved.

While the politics and motivations of various conflict situations differ widely, it is an inescapable reality that any force attempting to bring back order and restore the writ of the state, will, first and foremost, have to find ways and means to reinstate at least one facet of the "status quo ante". The state had to remain the sole repository of the instruments of violence. In simple words, as long as non-state actors continued to field highly lethal weapons, the state could not carry out its functions, and ultimately the society at large suffered, leading in some cases to that phenomenon peculiar to the post-Cold War world--the failed state. Thus, microdisarmament could not remain an "add on" to conflict resolution procedures. It was, in fact, the primary requirement for all other processes--be it humanitarian aid, the holding of elections or developmental objectives.

This paper deals with the evolving concept of microdisarmament in the context of the reality of conflict situations, and questions whether this is a feasible "mid-term option" pending the longer term necessity of curbing the illicit arms trade. This is not an attempt to study peace keeping doctrine per se, but a review of the reasons why disarmament options failed or succeeded as the case may be, at various levels--international operations, regional and "in-country" operations (involving state forces) where cooperative, coercive or a combination of both tools were used. The overall objective is to look for practical ways to achieve the so far chimerical objective of microdisarmament, and in so doing, flesh out the term "microdisarmament" and the tools that may be used towards achieving this objective.

Disarmament in the UN Context

The term "disarmament" seemed to grow out of the war-time experience, when a defeated Germany had been "disarmed" by treaty, after peace had been restored in Europe. The Oxford dictionary defines it as "to render defenseless or to deprive of the power to hurt" and as disarmament evolved, it appeared to be a process that had the (unwilling) consent of the party to be disarmed. Between the superpowers, actual disarmament was a long time coming, and the first treaty which actually removed a whole class of weapons (the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty 1987), owed as much to a proactive stance by the United States and its allies, as to the fact that the USSR was in sore need of reduced tensions, and a better budget. Disarmament then carries with it an element of resistance by the parties concerned, the degree depending only on the perception of security benefits seen as arising from consenting to the process.

While thus far disarmament was restricted to national perceptions of security, in the rising spate of intra-state wars that the UN remains involved in, disarmament had completely different connotations. In terms of the conflicts that the UN has to deal with today, "microdisarmament" is an individual or group perception, and, therefore, one that is inherently unstable and heavily dependent on a myriad factors. This difference may not be easily appreciated by those who authorise the finances or draft peace-keeping mandates. Nonetheless, it is one that the man on the ground has to contend with.

Initially, the problem of getting thousands of guns off the streets was not one that greatly exercised the UN, taken up as it was with the problem of getting through humanitarian aid, holding elections, or a number of other tasks that formed part of the new mandates of the post-Cold War world. Yet, the difficulties of either persuading or alternatively forcing combatants to give up their arms was one that the UN missions faced in all major locations. As the UN was to discover, governments were easier to persuade than a set of militia commanders with dubious "control" over their respective groups, most of whom were in for the profit, rather than for ideology or loyalty. Faced with situations where weapons were more plentiful than food, individual UN operations tried out various new tools that included weapons control, buy back, food for weapons schemes, and such like where a modicum of agreement in the form of ceasefire appeared to exist on the ground. This was termed "consensual disarmament" for cases where the warring parties had agreed to the induction of UN forces for limiting or eliminating fighting capabilities. Where a ceasefire did not exist, UN forces were to use force to disarm or limit fighting forces in the exercise of fulfilling a larger mandate. While these were not hard and fast classifications, they did have certain important differences in terms of assumptions on the ground.

Consensual and Coercive Disarmament in Theory

The distinction between consensual and coercive disarmament hinges on a number of factors. Cooperative or consensual disarmament should ideally involve an outside actor (or one perceived as impartial) involved simply as a facilitator to an agreement that the two sides have reached, to disarm down to an agreed level, in a political situation where each is assured of a measure of strength and security. A ceasefire is a prerequisite, and a continuing necessity. "Consensus" also implies that all warning sides party to the agreement "control" their respective forces, and that once having disarmed even a part of their forces, each would not be able to secretly "outgun" the other. Weapons control and cantonment are some of the tools that have been used. The facilitator is perceived to be completely impartial, with no particular interest in any warring party's "victory". Troop strength of the facilitator would be enough for protection of its personnel, and to give all sides an impression of commitment by the contingent.

In coercive microdisarmament, an external force/authority with the requisite mandate would be actively involved in measures like cordon- and-search operations, confiscation of illegal weapons, and demonstrating an ability to launch sustained and heavy use of force when met with resistance. A ceasefire is sought to be put in place where none exists, but while no clear authority may be discerned, a certain "strategic level consent" was required. In other words, the operation would be generally perceived positively by large sections of the population, with the assumption that coercive measures would be used against only a small group of armed "spoilers"—militants, groups of bandits, irregulars under no one's particular control, and with little or no support from regional/outside states or non-state actors. Thus, in theory, the force would be able to access ground intelligence gathering, since it would have the support of a larger part of the population, and once a "show of force" could quell the spoilers, the rest would fall in line, to allow the major tasks (humanitarian, etc.) to go through.

These were the assumptions, but in terms of ground reality, the case in both consensual or cooperative disarmament was quite different. The following brief recap is only to highlight the main points about the disarmament component of each of these operations, with the aim of pointing out some basic similarities in the reasons why microdisarmament never got off the ground. Since the focus is on conflict situations rather than UN operations, the examples taken here include cases of coercive and consensual disarmament in UN, regional and "in-country" operations (that is, involving state forces only).

A Recap of Some Peace-Keeping Operations

UNTAC: Consensual Disarmament

The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) is taken here as an example of a scenario where it seemed that the operation had everything going for it, and disarmament by consensus had a distinct possibility for success. One of the first major peace-keeping actions in Asia, it was also the one of the most expensive in the UN history. Politically, the launching of the operation seemed propitious, since all major outside actors (involved as covert actors in the conflict) were in consensus on the need for a UN role. The agreement was basically a function of the changing relations and perceptions of these powers (and not one of any marked desire for peace among the local actors), and in ensuring "consensus", the assumption was that each would be able to control its respective protégé. This was the first incorrect assumption, and with the Khmer's ability to carry on operations without outside assistance, the group always had the choice before it of reneging or cooperating as it saw fit. As matters turned out, the Khmer saw its security in the former. Once it backed out of the peace agreements (Phase II),2 the disarmament operations were doomed. While the reasons for this are not yet clear, the assumption is that peace had exacerbated divisions among the leadership, and disarmament was not perceived as delivering positive gains in security. With little reason to trust the opposition, and the inevitable delay in the positioning of UN forces, the Khmer took the option of reneging from the agreement, and this option was feasible due to the following reasons.

l Firstly, the Khmer controlled a substantial section of a hostile border that allowed it to cross into Thailand at will. A lucrative trade in gems and timber gave at least a section of its leadership, an economic incentive to maintain the "status quo". Though the necessity to control the borders was recognised, in practice this was an impossible task for physical reasons as well as due to the problems that now commonly attend most peace-keeping operations.

l In line with UN ambitions at the time, the UNTAC mandate was wide and front-loaded. Disarmament and cantonment was one of its primary tasks at a time when the force was not yet operational3 and was not demonstrably able to prove its bona fides. Even when fully deployed, the force had to contend with hostile and porous borders with three states (Thailand, Vietnam and Laos) with more than 24 ingress and egress points that made the task of policing weapons movements physically a near impossible task.4 Later, there were allegations that China and Thailand continued to supply weapons (while the Khmer denied and said that most of these course from corrupt Cambodian Army officers5).

l The regional environment was marked by a flourishing underground black market in weapons, and the fact that the price of weapons began to fall steeply in Thailand, indicated that perhaps weapons were slipping out of Cambodia, as "disarmament" progressed with the price of an AK-47 quoted as $8.6 Weapons routes wound through China, Myanmar and Thailand and beyond, with the arms links surviving long after the official patrons had declared an end to such assistance.7

l Given the immense proliferation of weapons, even "non-combatants" (those who belonged to none of the armed groups) found no security benefits from returning weapons. It was assessed that most homes had at least one weapon.8 Overall, therefore, weapons control never got off the ground, and only old and rusted weapons were given in.

l Finally, UNTAC opted to torpedo the disarmament and demobilisation component and carry on with the elections. In the event, the elections were a huge success--but only for the moment. The dynamics let loose by over-weaponisation led to conflict and violence once again resurfacing, even as Cambodia became a major transit point for narcotics movements. Ironically in the overriding necessity of the peace-keepers "to hold elections and get out", some weapons were even given back to factions to help the polling process.

Thus, a vicious circle developed. The more weapons there were around, the greater the motivation to keep them or acquire more. Another input into the rising criminality was the growing ranks of the demobilised soldiers. The Paris Agreement required that all troops in Cambodia should be disarmed and at least 70 per cent of them should be demobilised before the election.9 However, the prospect of disarmament held few attractions for anyone in Cambodia, even less for the former soldiers, since retraining programmes were unimaginative and suffered from poor prioritisation, besides which the whole process stopped with the Khmer withdrawal. Predictably, soldiers began to use their weapons as a means to ensure survival for themselves and their families. Those who did not have one, hastened to acquire it from the black market. This created a closed cycle of weapon proliferation, and criminal networks flourished both within the government and outside. Today, it is important to note that the weakening of the Khmer is a direct result of the active participation of neighbouring governments in cutting off the source of funds, especially the Thais--who, in turn, are believed to have been prodded by the Americans. The armed factions have in essence been "boxed in" and there exists an opportunity to deal with the recalcitrant groups.

Coercive Disarmament: UNITAF, UNOSOM II

The Cambodian operation was a failure in its disarmament component, and it may be noted that at least some of these factors were common to the situation in Somalia where an even greater proliferation of weapons had taken place.

The United Nations International Task Force (UNITAF) fulfilled the requirement of massive military force (roughly 37,000 mainly from the United States, including 8,000 US troops at sea), clear lines of command and control (being a non-blue helmet operation), and a clear mandate with the limited aim (in limited zones) of creating a climate where humanitarian relief could proceed unhindered. No formal disarmament was considered, and it remained a secondary mission objective (the sentiment being that as long as the Somalis kept their guns to themselves, and did not hinder the operation, that was good enough). However, as conditions deteriorated (the Somalis were unlikely to be held in thrall for long by the sight of US might), the follow, on United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) II (a blue helmeted operation) had to be able to keep up the tempo of the security tasks in addition to its other responsibilities--this with less troops from a greater number of countries. Additionally, it was tasked with creating stable conditions for the whole of Somalia, and with disarmament.

The tussles between the UN, the US and the NGOs (non-governmental organisations) without doubt influenced the success of both missions, and these have been usefully discussed elsewhere.10 But the differences hinged on what constituted a "secure environment" with the former refusing to get involved in weapons that were not targetted at them, while the latter required disarmament as a part of operational needs. However, some basic points may be noted as regards the physical situation in Somalia.

l There was already in existence a thriving regional weapons market (fuelled by the fact that around 200,000 soldiers in Ethiopia were in the process of demobilisation, and those weapons are thought to have been part of the militia arsenal).11 Even given a sudden and unprecedented urge by contributing countries to fund a massive weapons buy-back (exchange for food, etc.), it is doubtful if this has been able to restrict weapons, considering the extremely porous border of the country, and the terrible poverty of inhabitants within and outside those borders.

l Coercive disarmament implied the ability to control those borders, an impossible task, especially when neighbours had not been brought into the process.12 Given the extremely limited capabilities of those neighbours to enforce an embargo against weapons movements (this being something even the most well equipped navies of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) and the WEU (Western European Union) failed to do in Bosnia, the possibility of reducing the movement of arms and quat, which was the source of income on both sides of the border, was clearly unfeasible.

l Within Somalia, UNSOM II was required to disarm in an environment where field intelligence was hard to come by, and when received, highly unreliable.

l After the issuing of "Fragmentary Order 39" which in effect gave peace-keepers a blank cheque in the use of force, the Pakistani contingent returned fire to what was perceived as hostile action. With these two moves, the progress down the "slippery slope" began, linked with a glare of negative publicity, as the operation became reactive to the actions of one relatively minor actor. Once Aideed was declared a "pariah", the hunt for him in populated cities proved to be the undoing of the operation (fostered by a "them against us" sentiment).

The fact that in small areas like Kismayu and Jubba Valley, a cooperative disarmament process had been set in place by coopting local authorities was largely forgotten--and today there is less writing on the success in those small areas than on the failure of Mogadishu. At least one Indian source had noted that most often they left problem solving to the Somalis themselves, while they got on with the problem of providing relief. When cordon-and-search operations were required, the village elders were kept informed and consulted, thus, using the "strategic level consent" option.13 The "CNN factor" worked ultimately to the disadvantage of the operation, leading to public posturing by political leaders in the US who branded the whole operation as a failure. In sum, coercive disarmament options were fitfully applied, and in different degrees areas with no clear commitment to a definite task by all the parties involved.

A Regional Peace-Keeping Operation: The Indian Peace-Keeping Force in Sri Lanka

Some of the factors cited for the failure of the disarmament mandate of UNTAC are strikingly similar to those experienced by the Indian Peace-Keeping Forces (IPKF) in Sri Lanka. Indian forces started their operation on July 30, 1987, as part of a somewhat hasty decision, with little information or education to the troops on what it was all about. The Indian leadership had been concerned not only about the ethnic war which sent in thousands of refugees into the nearby state of Tamil Nadu, (thus, creating considerable instability and encouraging secessionist tendencies in that state) but were also forced to act due to strategic compulsions.14 The militants received a sympathetic hearing in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu which identified itself ethnically with the Sri Lankan Tamils across the Palk Strait. Militant camps and training centres were soon set up and at least 38 groups were operating from India, with the most motivated of the groups soon recognised as the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) led by Prabhakaran who was soon to become the bane of the Indian forces. When as an aid to mediation efforts, all help to the militants was cut off (1986), the groups showed no apparent signs of being able to launch themselves on their own. It was, therefore, assumed that with the induction of the IPKF, and the stoppage of any assistance, Tamil groups would remain "advised" by the Indian agencies and hand over their weapons to the peace-keepers. If they did not, as the chief of Army Staff is reported to have remarked, "Indian armed forces would neutralise them in two weeks" and, more important, then they would not have the wherewithal to confront the Indian or the Sri Lankan government.15

The reality was completely and tragically different. These groups not only covertly continued to use Indian territory, but had begun to access the black market in weapons from Lebanon, and later Singapore, Myanmar and other countries.16 By 1996, the LTTE had even acquired a couple of sea-going ships, and later a fleet of powerful fibre boats to bring in supplies from the Indian mainland. From these diverse sources, they soon accessed AK-56s, rockets, RPGs, mines, several tons of explosives, and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons which they used with deadly effect. The use of shoulder-launched missiles in April 1995, in fact, was so effective that they were also able to keep the Sri Lankan Air Force bottled up for weeks in the air base at Palaly17, which was supplied solely by air.

l Politically, the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of July 29, 1987, was between two states, with the main party to the dispute (the militant groups) only a factor on the sidelines, and consulted only after the final draft had been prepared, mainly due to the reasons already cited.

l The mandate was again an ambitious one by any standards. Not only were Indian troops asked to police a ceasefire that was to come into effect within 48 hours of the agreement, but preside over a "surrender of arms" by the militant groups, consequent to which the Sri Lankan armed forces were to be confined to barracks in camps as on May 25, 1987.18 It was also to be the guarantor for the political clauses of the agreement, namely, the ensuring of devolution of powers to the Tamils, and the holding of elections of the Provincial Councils, and rehabilitation of the militant youth into the mainstream.

l The geographical area of operations was limited to the north and east of the island, which was about 68,000sq km19 (inclusive of Ampara). The eastern coastline was dotted with isles and inlets, making it virtually impossible to prevent the stealthy arrival and departure of speed boats that liaised with vessels off the coast. The western coast was only a short distance from the Indian coast, and even more difficult to police as around 10,000 fishing vessels put out to sea from 45 villages around the coast. The militants routinely mingled with these boats or alternatively used them to buy vital commodities like oil and medicines.

l The possibility of surrender of arms within 72 hours (as the agreement stipulated) of roughly 22,000 militants of varying degrees of hostility, was in retrospect beyond what could realistically be achieved. But since most of these were apparently friendly to the Indian forces (as were the Tamil people in the initial stages), it was assumed--especially by the army leadership--that this would be largely a routine affair with surrender of arms building up as confidence increased.20 However, the surrender turned out to be nothing more than a "photo opportunity" and only old rifles were turned in (around 600); it quickly became apparent that the LTTE were securing "caches" of their weapons.

l Pressed by the vital need to get the accord going, in the face of hostile Sri Lankan public opinion, the main hold-outs--the LTTE--were given no time to explain the reasons for surrender of arms to the lower rank cadres. The security of the group was not assured at this point in time and other groups inimical to the LTTE were already attacking the lower cadres, and from long experience, the Tamils had learnt not to trust the word of Colombo. Delaying tactics followed, that tested the patience of peace negotiations and a hostile Sri Lankan bureaucracy.

l With the arrival of a large shipment of arms via Myanmar from Singapore carrying some 700 rifles, ammunition and explosives, the fighting strength of the cadres was considerably restored. The finances for such large infusions of weaponry had been obvious to those who cared to see, that at least since 1982, the LTTE had been involved heavily in narcotics smuggling operations of Pakistani heroin and brown sugar into Europe. Over time, this source of funds was bolstered by "taxes" and extortion abroad.

l With the refusal of the LTTE to surrender weapons following the death of 17 LTTE cadres, the accord came to an end, and peace-keeping shifted rapidly to peace-enforcement. Once again, the intransigence of one actor (who had indeed been given the most prime time in the Indian Press) destroyed the whole operation.

l At this time, the peace-keepers had neither the strength nor the weapons that were needed for a changeover to "forcible disarmament". While the LTTE fought with the AK-47s suitable for the type of urban warfare that was their metier, the Indian Army used the old self-loading rifles. By the time the mandate was changed to a full-fledged fight for Jaffna, it had approximately 6,000 men instead of the requirement of around 15,000. Most of the battalions were under strength (around 30 per cent away on leave, training course, etc.) Troop strength was to climb steadily to between 50,000-70,000 as the mandate became open-ended, and over time, the IPKF were forced to become administrators, civil police, adjudicators, and ruthless pursuers of the militant groups. During this period, it was never clear whether the LTTE were to be contained, weakened or simply eliminated.

l With the commitment to hold elections and the desire to get out of the morass, the Indians were forced to create an armed police which, however, very soon collapsed in the wake of combined LTTE and Sri Lankan government forces attacks. Their arms (paid for by the Indians after the Sri Lankan government dilly- dallied,) were seized by both parties.

l During the height of the enforcement operation, supplies and medicines for militants continued to flow in from the Indian coast.

In similarity to other conflict situations, throughout the operation, the Sri Lankan government gave absolutely no priority to the need for demobilisation schemes for the surrendering cadres of other groups. As a result, the other groups who had been sidelined (and murdered, or tortured) by the LTTE, turned to criminal activities and many became hired guns. Overall, the gun culture has today seeped into Sri Lankan society, and political violence and assassinations are becoming more commonplace.

Success in the Punjab?

In the Indian state of Punjab, low level militancy received a boost after existing smuggling networks based in the border districts (Gurdaspur, Taran Tarn) were strengthened by Pakistani intelligence agencies.21 The Human Right Watch Arms Project noted that where earlier there had been 12 gauge shotguns, 303s and a few Stens, the influx of sophisticated weapons resulted in a dramatic increase in instances of violence on the unarmed civilian population.22 Seizures began to rise, with 398 weapons seized in 1988 compared to none two years earlier.23 By 1990, posters calling for recruitment to the ranks of the militants offered Rs 3,000 and an AK-47.24 The victims (overwhelmingly civilian), began to complain that where one government ruled in the day, another held sway at night. The sway of the militants (who numbered not more than 5,500), by using an admixture of terrorism, murder, and swift and surprise attacks, had practically managed to bring the state administration to a halt. Kidnapping had become a prime industry, and prominent individuals were targetted, and those speaking out against the militants, were eliminated. While it is difficult to encapsulate the extent of what was in effect a parallel administration, one instance that could be quoted was of a "dress code" which forced women to wear traditional clothes, and a "Press code" which delineated the terms newspapers and TV newsreaders were to use. Another was an incident (the Daheru encounter) where the police ran away, leaving their weapons behind. The judiciary was is the grip of this fear, thus, having a multiplier effect on the morale of the police who brought wanted criminals to trial only to have them released. Murders (mostly rural) climbed from 1,168 in 1989 to 2,591 in 1991, with the number of policemen killed rising from 110 to 497 in that year. In 1991, this position began to be reversed dramatically, and in less than two years, the "gun culture" had been eliminated, and by 1993, the death toll had come down to a mere 16. By 1995, the AK-47, once a symbol of power, had no takers. The new police chief began a new strategy that could be said to combine coercive disarmament, creating "strategic consensus" at the general level with a shrewd mixture of publicity and police work. The strategy had the following points as its main aspects:

l The mandate was clear, and made clear to the lowest echelons of the police. Once militants had refused the (repeated) offers of the police to surrender and be assured of fair treatment, "no quarter would be given and no quarter asked".

l State borders with Pakistan (which were the source of both free weapons and narcotics) were effectively patrolled by the army which was a job which it knew while the police did the job it knew--policing the cities and villages. All sources of weapons were effectively cut off.

l Political groups were left to sort out a consensus as part of a political process, but the anti militancy operations carried on without a break, and regardless of the "political process".

l The state apparatus was revived and made effective. The state forces (in this case, the police) were bolstered, in terms of numbers, training, and better weapons.25 Education, medical aid, repatriation and protection of witnesses, and most of all a revived judicial system, all added up to the basic message--the rule of the militants was about to end.

l Instead of random cordon-and-search operations (which earned more hostility than benefits), these options were activated only on receiving precise intelligence. Where search operations were conducted (by the army), this was usually followed up by free medical camps, food and other aid, and beefing up of civic amenities. The people were given the option to choose--the militants or the security forces, and when they chose the latter, the militants were denied their "sea" to hide in.

l Once this perception spread, ground intelligence improved significantly.

l Recruitment to the police was from the areas where militancy was the highest, thus, giving them a vested interest in protecting the family home and hearth. Many had had a member of their families killed by terrorists.

l One facet of the operation was that the militants were given a "fourth option" (from remaining hounded terrorists, dying on the job, or arrest) of surrendering on the understanding that lower cadres would be allowed to return to their homes (the message being that the "misguided youth" were part and parcel of the state, and not outcasts). The first few surrenders were highly publicised, and soon these began to increase (24 in 1988, to 537 in 1992)26 Most important, no formal rehabilitation scheme was announced, with the police chief convinced that such offers were "a sign of weakness"27 (possibly true in a border state that prides itself on guts and glory, rather than the tame way out). Former militants went back to their villages, with "honour" without the undoubted onus of having been "bought" by the state. (Those with infamous crimes to answer for, obviously did not come under this scheme.)

l After a particularly heinous crime was committed, all forces of the state were used in a sustained operation that did not stop until the concerned man was caught. Many a prominent terrorist was hunted down using the security forces in a concentric circles arrangement. At all times, the media was kept informed, and used with skill—this was positive media management, and the police and particularly its chief, became the favourites of the Press, anxious for a good story. The myth of the militants' invincibility was exploded with the active use of the Press, and this is one instance where lessons may be learned on media management.

What specially marked the Punjab operation? As far as this paper is concerned, the key factor was that the sources of weapons were cut off, and the option of militancy denied by a series of other measures. Side by side, the villagers (whom the militants had coopted) were given a set of choices, and then left free to decide on which side their benefits lay. Most important, the state's authority was revived and its ability to deliver security underlined. This was the most important facet of the operation.

Other than this, a clear command and control chain, a well marked out division of labour, and, most of all, the clear message that a gun in hands other than those of the state, was not acceptable. While the operation has come under scrutiny for "police excesses"--which was inevitable since the police had no business fighting a virtual war--nonetheless, a dangerous drift was arrested, and the problem solved with a certain ruthlessness that has made the state one of the safest in the country. Put baldly, the police chief made the life of a terrorist/militant an impossible one--in his own words, he shortened the life span of a militant--he had to die or surrender, and make up his mind quickly about it.28 The Punjab militancy killed over 4,000 civilians, and resulted in the assassination of a prime minister. The detractors of the operation say that Gill's tactics killed almost an equal number of militants in a period of three years, and was a human rights nightmare. Yet it is difficult to reconcile the fact that a helicopter operation against Aideed which killed scores of Somalis with so little effect was never targetted as a human rights violation, while the "bullet for bullet" policy of the police forces was seen as such. Indeed, this principle has become the core of counter-terrorist operations in the US and other developed countries.

The Reality of Microdisarmament

Weapons: Availability and Control

To review these disparate cases is to find several common factors that were undoubtedly responsible, at least in part, for the failure of peace-keeping or peace-enforcement operations. This is not to suggest that other factors were not contributory, but it is the author's contention that the realities identified--the large availability of weapons across the region, the low possibility of controlling borders, and perhaps most of all, the ability of insurgents/militants to operate on their own without significant covert assistance from patrons--are common factors in all conflicts.

Throughout, state actors under-estimated this factor, making deals over their heads, forcing them into a "consensus" which did not correspond to the ground realities. Willing to consider these alternatives, most groups usually had a period of indecision, which was rapidly pushed to a decision to opt out in the face of either governmental brutality, lack of faith in the peace- keepers, a combination of both, and additionally perhaps a strong profit factor (from the trade in narcotics, gems and other smuggling activities). In all cases, peace-keepers knew that weapons were coming in but could do nothing about it. Each group considered here had the capability to hold on due to its control over borders. When this was denied (as in Punjab), they rapidly collapsed.

In cases where an entire country has to be policed by UN forces, this can only be done by proactive help from neighbours in cutting off the arms supplies which should start well before the operation commences. Without this, any attempt at disarmament and weapon denial is futile. This facet of operations, that is, the denial of a "third option" (to carry on, instead of surrender/arrest/cooperate), must remain the primary task.

Weapons Information and Intelligence

While there was a large mix of weapons available, by and large, patron countries could not but be aware of the inventory of the group and, therefore, ways and means of controlling the ammunition (the M-16 ammunition, for instance, is not produced anywhere in South or East Asia). Other than Sri Lanka, all other conflict spots had weapons that had never been produced within the state. Logically, it appears that if covert operations can get weapons in, then the facilitating intelligence agencies would have a pretty good idea as to not only the weapons inventory, but also the actors involved, the weapons routes and sources. As far as this author is aware, no attempt was made to provide any of this information.

A complete armaments dossier needs to be provided on a mandatory basis to force commanders well before the operation planning begins. Particular routes and areas may need more attention--for example, reducing UN manpower and increasing air assets may prove more cost effective if a porous desert border has to be policed.

Disarmament Initiatives

In no case considered were substantial numbers of weapons handed in for any of the incentives mentioned (land, money, etc.). While the reasons for this in Cambodia and Somalia were partly due to the fact that these incentive schemes never got off the ground, the case of Punjab seems to give another possible viewpoint. The system of incentive schemes and rewards for militants is one that has many critics and supporters. Supporters cite, quite realistically, that unemployment and poor prospects would inevitably affect a fighter's decision to give up arms. In the case of officers of a demobilising army, adequate incentives also prevent the possibility of a coup. Undoubtedly, a full-fledged, well- funded incentive scheme would help in war-torn societies, but the trouble (constantly) is that former weapon suppliers who made millions in the trade are remarkably chary when it comes to providing for demobilisation schemes.

One possibility is that following the precedent set in the Chemical Weapons Convention (which puts the burden of removing these weapons on the supplier country), the weapons manufacturers should be asked to contribute a percentage of the costs. The problem faced in Sub-Saharan Africa points to the fact that often business collapses due to the overall weakness of the economy. However, marketing wizards are many, and the problem seems to be the inability to zero in on a country's core needs and then get it to produce these.

Critics of the incentive scheme also have a point. Their argument is that where conditions have not reached state collapse, such incentives put the militants in a separate and "upper class". In the Indian experience, such rewards have had extremely negative consequences in the north-east, where the waywardness of these "reformed" militants is unbelievable, since the threat that they would return to their previous life styles or join their comrades still hiding out has been a perpetual Damocles sword over the heads of the uneasy politicians. Most have proved themselves unable to adjust to the humdrum life of peace, and have turned to criminal activity. Secondly, experience shows that favouring the ex-militants creates resentment among those who did join these often murderous groups (at considerable risk to themselves) and in some cases created a new class of "pretenders" who turned up with guns claiming to be militant fighters. Incentives also pushed the groups into increasing their numbers (on paper) to grab a bigger piece of the cake. The Khmer, for instance, are known to have increased their strength on paper, thus, creating problems for negotiations, while in the Punjab, less than half of a group of 50-60 cadres were found to be fighting men, with the rest being hangers-on and unarmed. The same applies in the Sri Lanka case, except that they enjoyed a great deal of sympathy from the population, many of whom contributed as carriers, etc.

A way out has been to target developmental initiatives at an entire district which functions as a "militant catchment area" (a primary recruitment centre). These are usually found to be on the borders of a country, and would have the additional benefit of "securing" borders in the true sense of the term.

The Zero Hour

As noted, there is usually a period when the factions are in favour of participation or adopt "wait and see" tactics. This is the time when the Press can be used to the utmost, to create a new psychological climate where the "peace process" is highlighted. While all channels of communication need to be kept open, this is not a time to press for disarmament.

Keeping in mind that few (if any) peace-keeping operations are likely to start off at full strength, there seems little sense in requiring the few troops available to carry out the manpower intensive task of disarmament. Simply put, there's little point in insisting on what cannot be enforced. Moreover, if peace-keepers are seen as "failures" (few appreciate the tremendously difficult task of weapon retrieval) from the beginning of an operation, the whole is likely to be jeopardised. In the event of a consensual disarmament, groups need to be allowed to keep their own safe areas, as far away from other factions as possible. Group leaders need to be kept informed of all actions of the peace-keepers, at all times. They could be encouraged to police their respective areas, with peace-keeping contingents advising them but remaining uninvolved in decision making (this would be a follow-on to the closing of borders noted earlier).

Neutral Weapon-Free Zones

For too long, NGOs have been operating in conditions where such activity has been clearly unfeasible. Their cries for protection then endanger the larger operation as a whole. Also the uncomfortable question needs to be asked whether the Red Cross and other activities actually help in sustaining militant activity. In Somalia, NGOs had to pay "protection money" to armed groups to be allowed to operate. In Sri Lanka, militant groups used the medicines and food for their own men rather than for the children they were meant for.

The creation of neutral weapon-free zones--essentially heavily protected areas where NGOs and civilian contingents of the UN would be allowed to operate (remaining out of other areas where the possibility of their being taken hostage would arise)--which would slowly expand or establish nodal points would be perhaps more efficient than the present system. This would have the added objective of giving peace-keepers a "human" face since they would be involved in relief and reconstruction operations. Facilities and amenities would be provided within this area to all equally, provided weapons were not brought in.


The above concept could be adapted to situations where whole armies have to be demobilised. The need to provide security to these demobbed elements cannot be over-emphasised. This could be done on a village to village basis (since most soldiers double either as agricultural labour or have to look to family obligations) with each then being declared a safe zone where all possible amenities would be made available. At each stage, the demobbed men could be involved in the process. This was a process that was tried to a limited extent in the Indian north-east with surprising success. The demobbing again was done with "honour" intact, but with the difference that all were grouped together in one or two villages (sufficiently remote from the others), allowing them to guard this (with very limited weapons) in addition to the army being around for help.

Mandates and "Getting With The Job"

Too often, peace-keeping operation are "front-loaded" with too many tasks to be carried out at once, at a time when inevitably troop strength has not reached the required levels. Political masters (usually sitting in faraway capitals) press for an end to the mission, which in Cambodia was the elections--the main issue that had become a prestige point for all the actors involved. The same was the case in Sri Lanka, for which the peace-keepers ended up arming sections of groups to assist in polling, or to beef up the elected government. In Sri Lanka, this force quickly collapsed, while in Cambodia, many turned to criminal activities. In Punjab, a temporary vigilante force had to be quickly disbanded.

To prevent "loss of face", the UN needs to keep weapons reduction on the top of the agenda before any elections can be considered. The belief that broad-based "elections" will solve all matters has proved to be misleading, especially if the broad-based government spends all its time quarrelling. Either way, the UN has to resign itself to long periods of being involved in getting cooperative structures going at the village level, where all factions get equal representation. Any system that ensures that peace is maintained must be respected--tribal or otherwise. Imposition of Western democratic structures at a time of deep-rooted inter-clan suspicions may not always be the answer. The question of trusteeship may need to be looked at afresh.

In conclusion, it must be admitted that there is really no such thing as "voluntary disarmament" in a war-torn society, due to the simple fact that nothing can be of greater value than life itself. As long as security is not guaranteed (which may well take a very long time) individual weapons will be hidden away for an emergency. The best that a UN operation can hope for is that these weapons will remain hidden for as long as possible. However, it is not these weapons that the UN needs to worry about, but the ones that may be used in war to sabotage a ceasefire. These are the weapons that need to be acted against proactively, with a firm and sustained show of force. Such a force would have to resign itself to remaining till at least human rights organisation (HROs) slowly spread out into more and more safe weapon-free zones. As the Punjab experience shows, the force does not need to be everywhere at once, but should be capable of reaching a trouble spot well in time, which, in turn, means depending on good intelligence--which, in turn, can only be built up over time. The weapons caches need to be brought in only after this phase has proved to be enduring. It may be noted here that it may be better not to use enforcement techniques at all, rather than raise the ante with a force that expects to be gone in a few months.

Both French and Russian peace-keeping doctrines recognise the importance of sending in as strong a force as possible right at the beginning, with the understanding that any breach of a ceasefire would be regarded as a hostile act to be met with force. This is "impartiality" in a proactive sense, since it (in theory) covers all factions. This was followed in the Punjab in the fullest sense, in that anyone at all breaking the peace, was likely to be dealt with unceremoniously. The possession of a gun became a dangerous thing for its owner, and more and more guns turned up in disused wells--rusted and beyond repair. With the reduction in weapon-toting, overall security improved, removing the incentive to smuggle in weapons.

In all cases considered, the major sources of weapons were from outside the state, and the UN operation was essentially tasked with pulling chestnuts out of a Cold War fire that had been partly doused. Covert supplies of weapons, however, continue to be the bane in various other areas where the UN fears to tread. The most challenging testing ground for any weapons disarmament programme would be Afghanistan, which is awash with weapons of every description. Here it seems that the passage of time has changed nothing, and there is very little effort in trying to hide the support of patron groups though regional actors persistently chant the mantra of "non-interference in the affairs of the Afghan state". Any solution for Afghanistan would have to perhaps begin with a verifiable stringent weapons embargo now, to be able to make an impact in five years (or more) when the UN may decide to do another mopping up act. Unless the slippage in time noted earlier, between th need to disarm and the need to control the black market is aligned, microdisarmament will forever remain a fire-fighting exercise--trying to put the clock back, even as it ticks faster into the future.



1. A/50/60, S/1995, January 3, 1995.

2. Phase I of the official ceasefire ended on May 9, 1992, while Phase II was to deal with regroupment, cantonment, disarming and demobilisation of forces starting on June 13, 1992.

3. UNTAC was fully operational only after July-August 1992. See Trevor Findlay, Cambodia: The Legacy and Lessons of UNTAC, SIPRI Research Report No. 9. (Stockholm Peace Research Institute, 1995).

4. Jianwei Wang, Col R. Bendini et al., "Managing Arms in Peace Process: Cambodia" DCR Project, UNIDIR, New York, 1996.

5. See Tara Kartha "Narcotics and Weapons" The Case of Myanmar" Strategic Analysis, vol. XIX, no. 3, June 1996.

6. Ibid.

7. For an insight into the arms and drugs trails across Thailand and Myanmar, see Bertil Lintner, Opium and Insurgency Since 1948 (Boulder, Colo: Westview Press, 1994).

8. n. 4, p. 75.

9. For details, see The United Nations and Cambodia, 1991-1995, The United Nations Blue Book Series, vol. II (New York: Department of Public Information, United Nations, 1995).

10. Clement Adibe "Managing Arms in Peace Process: Somalia" UNIDIR, New York, 1996.

11. Arms Control Today, December 1992, p. 20.

12. Estanislao Angel Zawels et al., "Managing Arms in Peace Processes: The Issues," DCR Project, UNIDIR, New York, 1996.

13. Maj Gen Ashok Krishna "International Peacekeeping" (manuscript, to be published).

14. The intrusion of foreign powers with hostile intentions, the suspicion that Sri Lanka would be used as an intelligence and listening post, and various other motives also influenced the Indian decision. These motives are described by the then Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit, Assignment Colombo (Konarak: New Delhi 1998).

15. For the, Intelligence agencies' estimate, see n. 15, p. 172.

16. See Rohan Gunaratna, The Indian Intervention in Sri Lanka (Colombo: South Asian Network on Conflict Research, 1993).

17. See also for subsequent attacks, Far Eastern Review, July 27, 1995, p. 24.

18. Text of the Indo Sri Lanka Agreement to Establish Peace and Normalcy in Sri Lanka, Colombo, July 29, 1987.

19. Department of Census and Statistics, Statistical Abstract, 1992.

20. Author's interviews with army personnel at the time, June 1997.

21. For a background to the conflict, see Abida Samiuddin, ed., The Punjab Crisis (New Delhi: Mittal, 1985).

22. Human Right Watch Arms Project, vol. 6, no. 10, September 1994.

23. Manoj Joshi "Combating Terrorism in Punjab", Conflict Studies 261, May 1993.

24. Frontline, December 2-21, 1990, p. 4.

25. This included, for instance, changing archaic rules that permitted a recruit to fire only 20 odd rounds during training--this was increased to more than 200 rounds in training (while ammunition constrounts constantly bedevilled the police forces, the terrorists suffered no such constraints), Interview with the then Director General of Police K.P.S. Gill, July 17, 1997.

26. IDSA Files.

27. Interview with the then Director General of Police K.P.S. Gill, July 17, 1997.

28. Ibid.