February 10, 2015

Fight Like a Buddhist: The Key to Success Behind Bhutan’s Military Operation.

War at phukabtong

Exactly ten years ago, Bhutan undertook a military operation.

Though it only lasted two days (15-16 December) it was both a strategic and tactical success. The ‘Low Intensity Conflict’ was fought using a combination of guerrilla and conventional tactics. The overall strategy went against many established military doctrines but adhered to the Buddhist principles of non-aggression and restraint.

As Commander in Chief of the Bhutanese army, the Fourth King, led his soldiers on foot and fought the battle fearlessly with intelligence and gentleness; in the same spirit as the legendary Buddhist warrior, King Gesar.

Being a Buddhist warrior means using the ability to look within and recognize the cowardly nature of the mind. In doing so the warrior develops the courage to cut through the small-minded struggle for security and develop the expansive vision of fearlessness, openness and genuine heroism.

Established strategies and tactics

Military Commanders in the West follow different strategies. Most of them are based on a set of standard doctrines, principles, and practices relating to battlefield tactics. Whilst different countries develop their own tailored versions of these, their similarities demonstrate a common way of thinking. A proposal to conduct a military operation in disregard for such standards would be met with derision by many military leaders.

The German Field Marshal Graf von Moltke (1800-1891), considered one of the greatest military strategists, expounded the practice that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” He wrote that it is only possible to plan the beginning of a military operation and the key to success is having a plan that incorporates numerous contingencies.

Throughout history, Moltke’s philosophy of flexibility has been a key consideration in battle planning. Accordingly, Commanders have always kept a reserve force for tackling the unknown.
A Commander, who plans an operation in accordance with these established practices, will recognize the fundamental principle of the unpredictability of the battlefield situation and the necessity of having back-up plans or alternative scenarios.

Hence, it is vital that the Commander is located in a strategic position ensuring him reliable communication, control of his reserve forces, logistical supply, and his fighting forces in order to be able to adapt the plan as the battle evolves.

The Insurgents

Around 1995, three groups of Indian militants entered Bhutan illegally. They were not economic migrants but rather armed resistance groups—each fighting for the independence of their own native lands.

By 2003, 30 camps had been established on strategically located vantage points in the foothills of Bhutan close to the border. From these positions it was possible for the insurgents to conduct raids across the border.

The presence of these armed Indian militants threatened the security and undermined the sovereignty of Bhutan. For eight years (1995-2003), Bhutan negotiated for the peaceful dissolution of these camps.

When the talks ultimately broke down, the country was forced to react.

According to intelligence report, an estimated 3,000 militants lived in these camps. They were highly mobile, well armed, determined, and in an established defensive position. A military operation in the thick forests of Southern Bhutan—against such a battle-hardened and well-fortified force—would, indeed, represent a very major undertaking for any country.

The Bhutanese Position

To face the estimated 3,000 militants, Bhutan would need at least 30,000 soldiers or the equivalent of about half of the 68,000 US soldiers currently on operation in Afghanistan. The estimate is based on a general military doctrine that states that the ratio for guerrilla warfare is 1:10; for every militant ten soldiers are required.

Bhutan’s army is only ceremonial and its strength is only about 7,000 soldiers, including the reserves of about 700 militias.

Bhutan was 23,000 soldiers short. Clearly, an operation against such opponents would not only require an unusual strategy and clever tactics but also an un-conventional Commander to implement them.

The Bhutanese Strategy

The King of Bhutan is the Commander-in-Chief of the army and takes personal responsibility for safeguarding its sovereignty and protecting the security of the country. In 2003, the Fourth King did exactly that. Prior to December, His Majesty had already endured a lot of hardship and repeatedly risked his life and met all the leaders persuading them to leave the country peacefully.

By the end of 2003 the King had visited all of the 30 camps. He had studied the militants and knew how they lived, how they fought and how they thought. It was this knowledge that enabled him to use their own tactics to defeat them. The Bhutan army operated in the same manner as the guerrilla fighters: few in number, familiar with the terrain and mobile.

No permanent headquarters was established.

Why were the Bhutanese to be so successful in this military operation?

Instead of operating with multiple or alternative scenarios, the Bhutanese preparation aimed at identifying a single ‘appropriate’ strategic approach and excluding all others.

In order to overcome the odds, the plan had to take into consideration the very distinct challenges of the specific situation that was so much in favour of the militants. Therefore it was necessary to ensure that the plan would not only survive the first engagement with the insurgents but also offer viable guidance throughout the battle.

Bhutan did not have the resources or backup for repeated confrontations; they had one chance to succeed.

Drawing on Buddhist principles, the King’s strategy mobilized the inner strength and courage of the soldiers and their understanding of the necessity of the operation itself and the long-term goal of peace.

For many, the stereotype image of a soldier is an individual trained and conditioned to be strong, direct and aggressive. In modern warfare, this image does not paint a complete picture. We often hear of Commanders striving for “courageous restraint” or “tactical patience,” whereby troops need to show restraint in the face of hostility.

Examples of this strategy used by forces in conflicts in Afghanistan or other theatres of war are often partnered by images of operational failings, where the front-line troops have felt exposed and powerless.

The 2003 conflict showed the world how such restraint could be well executed and pivotal to a successful outcome, without betraying Buddhist principles.

Prayers and rituals were part of the Army’s preparations for battle, cementing the bond and enforcing the trust between the King and his soldiers. The spiritual preparation emphasized the need to avoid any unnecessary aggression and to recognize the opponent as another human being.

Shortly before the battle the Fourth King addressed his Army. His Majesty updated his soldiers on the current situation, instructed them on the need to be mindful and the importance of restraint.

His Majesty said that Bhutan was like a weak boxer fighting a strong opponent. It has one chance during which it has to ensure that it knocks down the opponent with the first blow and then pray that the monks had done their job too.

If not, then it would the beginning of the end of the state of Bhutan.

As Commander of the Army, the Fourth King led a company of infantry soldiers on foot to launch an attack on the main camp of the Indian militants. Being at the front of his troops the King gave up his strategic position and hence had little control of his fighting force, the reserve or logistical supply as prescribed as vital conditions for military success.

The only advantage of the King’s position at the front was that by sharing the highest risk with his soldiers, he was able to be a model of restraint and non-aggression and instil courage in the soldiers around him.

The King’s plan had to be absolutely faultless—from this position it would be impossible to modify it in the heat of the battle. Consequently, the plan not only had to survive the first engagements with the insurgents, but also offer viable guidance throughout.


Imagine a war with few casualties, no collateral damage and no post war repercussion. That was the ‘Two Day War.’

By military standards, the result of the operation of the 2003 Low Intensity Conflict was a big success—but the Bhutanese chose not to celebrate the victory. Instead, many butter lamps were lit in all the monasteries of the country and 108 temples were built as an expression of repentance.

Because the mind of a Buddhist warrior is developed to overcome un-controlled aggression, he is neither arrogant nor conceited. He becomes humble and compassionate, not trapped by the pettiness of hope and fear. It is through the use of these qualities that made the Bhutan experience of resolving conflict unique.



Ahimsa Be Damned: When Buddhists Attack.

Using Religion as a Path to Inquiry. 



Author: Tshering Tashi

Editor: Renée Picard

Image: painting via the author, by Dasho Karma Ura

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