General Officer Commanding (GOC) of 15 Corps Lt Gen J S Sandhu (C) during a joint press conference with police and CRPF, on 19 November 2017 in Srinagar, India. (Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • Lt Gen (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain deduces several points of significance in the aftermath of the successful Hajan encounter and summarises the ground situation as it stands now in Jammu and Kashmir.

Photographs of senior army and police officials addressing a joint media conference after the successful Hajan operation on 18 November, is one of the symbolic messages of communication strategy I have been long looking for in the complex maze that is Jammu and Kashmir. It adequately conveyed the convergence in strategy of the security forces. The Jammu and Kashmir Police has long been the most effective partner of the Indian Army in the 27-year-old campaign and although inter-dependence of the two forces has been a norm, little was done earlier to bring home this message. Visibility is a great force multiplier and we should see more of this in the future.

The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) is an equally effective force and, in the current run of operations, its presence at the point of contact with terrorists is always reassuring as it takes the brunt of the public’s ire, attempting to give terrorists a reprieve to escape the dragnet. That is why the senior security leadership needs to be complimented because cooperation has always been the norm, but conveying this strongly through visual messaging adds to the effectiveness.

It is because of effective cooperation and coordination, besides the large strength of terrorists (definitely higher than claimed), that we have seen some good gains in the last six months. The Hajan operation is a demonstration of the same. Elimination of a six-member Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorist group in hinterland operations has probably not been achieved for fairly long. It was a norm in the nineties and early 2000s to see terrorists in large numbers and concentrations. Those were the days when in South Kashmir alone, six to seven simultaneous contacts with terror groups were monitored and managed by the HQ Victor Force, the Army’s counter-terror force in South Kashmir.

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The large terrorist strength supported by an equally large over ground worker (OGW) network frequently moved from base to base and one safe house to another. Interception by the Army in ambush mode was a rarity; ambushes helped in domination and preventing free movement at night, as much as they do today. Yet the real success always came from intelligence-based surgical operations or from search and destroy operations (SADO).

The Hajan operation gives two deductions of importance. First, terrorists appear to be moving and residing in safe houses in larger numbers than in the recent past, when they remained in twos or threes. This could be because of the dwindling OGW network, due to financial constraints being faced by terrorist and separatist networks as a result of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) pressure. It’s likely that the number of safe houses has also reduced, forcing this larger concentration of terrorists in groups. While it would be premature to take this deduction as a gospel, the trend seems to be headed in that direction. Perhaps terrorists may quickly learn the lesson under advice from across the Line of Control and go back to the older norms, but it won’t be easy.

The second deduction and lesson are that persistence in focusing on a terrorist group and especially one which has escaped dragnets in the past, is key to success. Tactical-level leaders sometimes prefer to play the numbers game by adding to their tally rather than focusing on the quality and history of the notoriety of a group. Higher commanders therefore must remain committed to eliminating the latter type of groups because the resultant effect on the terror networks is much greater.

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Recent surrenders

The social media has witnessed over the last week or so, many exchanges on the surrender of Majid Khan, a young Kashmiri footballer recruited by the LeT. The story line has been that Majid’s mother appealed to the terrorists to release her son from their group as he was the only earning member of the family. It led to Majid returning home to be united with his family and friends with even the LeT taking credit for showing concern and sensitivity for an impoverished family.

Of course, the truth lies in the fact that Majid actually initiated the case for his return through Army sources. It was Victor Force and Jammu and Kashmir Police which set up the management of public sentiment and the messaging besides overseeing the safe return of Majid. The LeT, obviously seething, had to project a face saver. A second case of a youth (identity correctly not revealed) returning under somewhat similar circumstances in South Kashmir a day ago is giving rise to speculation that this could be a floodgate. It could very well be because such sentiments do sometimes go viral.

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However, experience dictates otherwise. Queried publicly on television about this possibility, this writer maintained that the history of surrender in the Valley is not a very happy one. There have been far too many undelivered promises based upon frail and unsupported surrender policies. Unfortunately, even the recent history of the proxy conflict is rarely read by practitioners or even commentators who speak in television debates. There are a couple of thousand surrendered terrorists who were promised much, but they languish today bitter with the experience of broken promises and lack of credibility. They are ready-made recruits for terrorists but have largely remained outside the ambit of violent activity. Thus, to base our future planning on imagined sentiments arising out of a stray but extremely well-managed case wouldn’t do justice to strategy.

What we need is a surrender policy in place – a well thought-through, comprehensive policy which must receive the central government’s total support. Without the latter, it remains unimplementable. While evolving such a policy, the failure of the past must be kept in mind as much as attempts by the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) to emplace sleeper agents through surrender. Risk is inherent in such a policy, but that should not be a deterrent when indicators on ground point towards a potential wave. The continuum of operational pressure and success must remain at a high, as will be explained later in this piece.

Islamic State presence in Kashmir

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It was good to see the Home Minister strongly and quite convincingly refute the idea that Islamic State, the displaced terror group from Syria, Iraq and other Middle Eastern areas, has entered Kashmir. Ever since 2014, when Islamic State emerged into the limelight, attempts have been made to project its presence in the Valley, apparently as an act in support of the Ummah.

Much before this, there were similar attempts to prove how serious al-Qaeda was in attempting to show solidarity with Islamists in the Valley. Neither al-Qaeda nor Islamic State are a credible threat in the Valley because while attempts are made to seriously link the larger campaign of political Islam with Kashmir, the Kashmiris have showed no propensity for such a linkage. The radicalisation which has gone on unabashedly right from the nineties, has succeeded to a large extent in penetrating the mosques, and the Ahle Hadees philosophy has taken some root.

Yet the Kashmiri populace has displayed a general dismay against the methods of al-Qaeda and Islamic State. The flags of Islamic State, which emerge from time to time as much as the Pakistani flags, are a means of distraction for the intelligence and security organisations. They are also an attempt to instigate and draw an irrational response from the security forces, which can then be used for propaganda.

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Last, on this issue, the terror groups in the Valley zealously guard their functional space and would not like the hijacking of the Pakistani and separatist agenda by a wayward group such as Islamic State. The authorities, of course, have to stay on alert and continue to clutch the proverbial straws which will indicate anything contrary to this assessment.

Headed for the winter

The central government’s direction to the security forces in Jammu and Kashmir to continue maintaining the pressure through hard operations is a prudent one – even as it follows the path of interlocution. It’s been a good campaigning season in Kashmir with a high level of domination by the security forces. The intelligence agencies and the local Jammu and Kashmir Police intelligence have been very effective. The NIA has added much to the overall effectiveness through its sustained efforts against finance networks.

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There is a wrong notion prevalent among some practitioners and Kashmir watchers that winter is a low-activity and achievement period. It’s an incorrect assumption. My years in the Valley leave me to recall that winter can be as much a campaigning season as any other. While the state government delivers governance and does outreach with the Chief Minister leading, as demonstrated in recent months, the security forces, intelligence agencies and NIA must continue with their run of operations. With infiltration not easily possible, recruitment must be prevented through social media and direct contact with susceptible areas such as Tral, Shupiyan and Kulgam. The strategy of summer should continue with the same energy to reduce terrorist strength. Some fidayeen-like attempts to push the security forces on the defensive will be made by terrorists. As such, domination of crucial vulnerable areas and points must be ensured.

The situation appears well under control, but our adversaries will always have a surprise or two up their sleeves. My strong recommendation is that the unified command must remain activated for joint brainstorming and planning. Come summer 2018, we should have crossed over to a more sustainable position of strength.

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