Lt Gen (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain analyses developments in Kashmir in light of the successful military operations.
This essay is all about the robust aspects of the operational environment as seen in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in the wake of the highly successful operations conducted in Kashmir Valley recently. While celebrating the success is one part, taking stock of the situation is the other aspect.
At the outset, it needs to be said that robust operations are essential to ensuring military domination in a sub-conventional environment. However, that takes nothing away from the fact that they always have to be balanced with operations from other parts of the security spectrum. The use of soft power to temper the effect of robust operations is a doctrinal give. In this essay, we analyse the part concerning the robust operations.
The biggest operational achievement in J&K in the counter-terror or counter-infiltration domains that I can recall was a total of 40 terrorists killed. It was in Poonch back in the early 1990s when an entire track of terrorists was duped into walking into an Indian Army ambush after they had crossed the Line of Control (LoC) with ease. Thereafter, through the 1990s and in this millennium, the Army has executed some outstanding operations on both sides of the Pir Panjal range. Figuratively, I can recall the number six as crucial. That is because when six or more terrorists were eliminated, the operation was considered highly successful. Six was not an uncommon figure and there were many operations in which even 10-15 terrorists were eliminated at the higher reaches in inhospitable terrain. The operations around Beerwah (Budgam) in 2003, deep in the hinterland, led to the elimination of a track of 10 terrorists who had infiltrated through Gulmarg. The operations at Ahogam in Pulwama in 1998 stretched to almost a week before nine terrorists were gunned down.
These are things of the past, at least to over 10 years ago. The new era of terrorism brought with it smaller numbers. As the terrorist strength reduced due to controls over infiltration and recruitment, the terrorist strategy changed too. A concentration of not more than two or, at the upper limit, three terrorists became the norm. From 2009 onwards, the figure six became less frequent, although there were stray cases when the Army and the Special Operations Group (SOG) were fortunate in getting a lucky break with intelligence and capturing leaders in Handwara, Sopore, and Lolab.
Even through the last two years, after the killing of Burhan Wani and the almost complete shift of focus to the South Kashmir area in the hinterland, it has been a rarity to find a concentration of anything more than four terrorists together. Then, on 31 March 2018, one finds out about the elimination of 12 terrorists in two engagements at Dragad and Kachdoora villages in Shupiyan; one more terrorist was killed at Petha Dialgam in Anantnag. The Army too suffered three fatalities among its soldiers. How does one view these developments?
There could be a temptation to brush aside these events with a brusque ‘too early to predict’ approach or ‘one set of engagements changes nothing’. However, pragmatic observers who keep a watch on Kashmir can deduce much from these developments. For local terrorists recruited within South Kashmir’s ‘safe houses’ have never been a problem. Since the language and customs are familiar and there is sensitivity towards the local population, the alienated populace many times considers it their duty to help the “boys”.
There was always a problem with foreign terrorists, who were insensitive and had no qualms about treating the locals, their hosts, poorly. Women were never safe in their presence in the hideouts so painstakingly built inside houses. So safe houses for foreign terrorists came at a premium, as much as the information about such hideouts, available to the security forces, did.
For those unaware of the system that the terrorists follow, it needs to be recalled that for an infiltrated Pakistani foreign terrorist, survival is all about safe houses once he is received by elements in the forested and harsh terrain in North Kashmir. Foreign terrorists are guided from these areas to safe houses in villages and towns and very often meet their end in encounters at the reception area itself, once they have successfully infiltrated past the LoC dragnet. They are also often neutralised on their way to the safe houses. Once they are there, it’s a question of how long they can risk being static at one place. Information about the presence of mehman bhai (guests from Pakistan) often leaks out. Thus the need for frequent movement to other safe houses. The more there is such movement, the greater is the risk of running into Army ambushes and getting eliminated. To have a large number of safe houses, there is a need for money, because buying loyalty is also essential in a murky world where money can play a major role on either side. When they don’t have the money, the number of safe houses falls. Safe houses need infrastructural modification with underground shelter and facilities for clandestine storage of weapons and explosives; this needs money in addition to what is required for buying loyalty and resources such as food.
Terrorists cannot live in mountain and jungle hideouts forever. To execute their plans, they need to come down near villages and towns. That is when these safe houses come in handy. However, if the money flow reduces, the concept of a safe house itself gets compromised. Fewer safe houses means that even the limited number of terrorists (the numbers are always debatable) have to live in larger numbers, meaning that where two or three lived, now five to six or more will live. The meaning of this should be obvious.
Even in South Kashmir, this analogy applies, but to a lesser extent. Here the local terrorists are “boys” with greater local support. They can sustain with reduced money flow. Movement is facilitated far better too, due to physical resemblance with locals. The ‘fish out of water’ and ‘drying out the pond’ to isolate terrorists, concepts the security forces apply, are more difficult to use because of the affinity with the populace. Yet the principle of coming together in numbers no larger than three equally applies here.
So the fact that the security forces in the recent operations could move in on seven terrorists in one place and five in another should lead to some deductions. First, the security forces were plain lucky to get intelligence about a possible temporary concentration for strategising and planning; terrorists have to do that in the absence of internet or mobile networks or for fear of monitoring of the network. However, luck can also be viewed as a case of better and quicker intelligence, as also excellent cooperation among the various players. Second, it can be ascribed to overconfidence of the local terrorists in the loyalty of the populace among whom they exist; a compromise in loyalty means better intelligence for the security forces. Third, and very important, it can be ascribed to the drying out of finances, which does not permit enough safe houses to facilitate distribution of terrorists in smaller numbers. This last one should be a major lesson in view of the National Investigation Agency’s continuous monitoring and busting of financial conduits. It is for long that we have believed that finance is key in counter-terrorist operations.
Cooperation among the security forces has risen to a much higher level, but two challenges remain. First are the casualty figures, which have been mounting through 2017 and now, 2018. The assumption that local terrorists do not have the capability and will to fight is now considered erroneous. The same vigour and zeal have been on display, as has been seen in the case of foreign terrorists. No doubt, a part of this motivation comes from the infusion of religious zeal into the game. The turnout at the funerals of local terrorists has also contributed to a quasi-religious and sub-nationalist motivation. Second is the near-continuous and spontaneous concentration of mobs at encounter sites in South Kashmir. While the security forces have devised standard operating procedures to counter these elements, they are not always entirely successful. The Director General of Police S P Vaid has said on record that at one of the encounter sites, operations had to be prematurely ceased to prevent more civilian casualties. A total of four civilians died in these disturbances and at least a hundred are known to have been injured.
While an expression of apprehension of a hot summer in the Valley is rife, it is more important to be aware of a couple of things. First, the strength of terrorists in the Valley could be higher than the numbers being put out, and therefore the degree of preparedness and expectation of violence too should be higher. Second, much will depend on the control of infiltration and local recruitment, both of which need to be given priority over the next six months. Third, the nature of violence could undergo change at some stage. I say this with a bit of trepidation because as mobs get emboldened, local terrorists fear less for life and the according of iconic status to the “boys” killed for the cause rises, we could be heading towards a period where the entry of the suicide bomber could not be far away. This is something we need to be watchful about. Suicide bombers paralysed the operational environment in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
This sets the stage for an analysis of the non-robust domain of operations because as the security forces strive to achieve higher levels of military domination, they cannot forget that soft power involving outreach and winning back the populace, still remains the ultimate aim of all sub-conventional operations. Whatever the uninformed may keep saying, the security forces are fully aware of where their ultimate success lies. Through the coming summer, the interplay of hard and soft power must be the norm, with the full understanding and cooperation of all stakeholders.