How The Army Should Handle Psychological Pressure Of Long Drawn Hybrid Conflict In J&K

by Syed Ata Hasnain - May 31, 2017 11:15 AM +05:30 IST
The Army Should Handle  Psychological Pressure Of Long Drawn Hybrid Conflict
In J&KGeneral Bipin Rawat. (File Photo)
  • J&K remains the tinderbox especially if there are candid interviews which speak on recent events and the changing dynamics. Lt Gen Ata Hasnain explains the nuances of the situation and how such situations need to be handled.

    Educate, be quiet and do your work are the theme, he suggests.

A few years ago, while in uniform, this subject would have been anathema for me but the world has moved on and so have I making us both comfortable with examining and analysing some uncomfortable subjects. I usually like assessing situations the way the Army taught me; by imagining that I am the enemy. Sitting in Rawalpindi some keen hawkish Pakistanis must be keeping the tabs on every utterance of the Indian Army Chief and other important leaders who matter. They would also be reading the deluge of articles in the Indian mainstream media (MSM) and the regional Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) media to get an idea of which way things are going with regard to India’s national security. The prime focus would be on J&K considering the current situation and the beginning of what is known as the ‘campaigning season’ in 2017 in J&K’s parlance.

It has been 28 years since the commencement of the ongoing proxy conflict. Judging from the Pakistani point of view it is obviously not a slap dash military affair. The proxy war was never designed to be so. It was to challenge India’s resilience, open up cracks in its unity, prevent it from achieving its aspirations, project it negatively to the world, motivate the population of J&K to remain alienated with a perception that it had no place in India, create and nurture a separatist leadership, run clandestine networks to finance and resource the struggle, make religious ideology and affinity an important unifier and run a propaganda machine that could exploit situations to advantage. With all the above it wished to draw the Indian Army and other security and intelligence agencies into the fray to tire them out, keep them away from their main role and embroil them in a thankless task fighting an insurgency like situation with no end in sight.

The low cost proxy conflict was ultimately designed to frustrate India and its institutions, and force it into so many errors that would make it self-defeating for it with whatever was done in J&K. Such a strategy could be made to work through activation of many domains making this conflict hybrid in nature and preventing India’s response from being sufficiently comprehensive. The primary target has been the Indian Army, the nation’s strength and ultimate resort. It has fought professionally, largely kept itself out of unseemly controversy, calibrated the employment of force, performed tasks that many others should be performing and frustrated the designs of the adversaries at every step.

In recent days, the Indian Army has suddenly come into the eye of the storm with many intellectuals and even the senior veteran community finding fault with some of its activities in Kashmir and being critical of its Chief. It makes the soldier in me sit up and take not only notice but actually do a deeper introspection. The Army Chief has been making quite a few statements in a suddenly proactive engagement with the media. That itself is fuelling speculation about a change which General Bipin Rawat apparently seems to be bringing to the table in the handling of operations in Kashmir besides some other areas.

It’s clear the Indian Army holds a fine reputation in Kashmir. Its detractors have to say many negative things about it which should be reasonably expected. They also manipulate events to besmirch its reputation because that reputation is good; and even the separatists realise it. There was a time when the Army used hard methods to contain turbulence of all kinds, but since 1997 it has consciously chosen to balance the use of hard power with a measure of soft power, engagement and outreach. Senior commanders are extremely watchful of this. The restrictions such as the Standard Operating Procedure of Northern Command Headquarters, the Army Chief’s 10 commandments, the principles enshrined in the Sadbhavana doctrine and the Do’s and Don’ts of the Supreme Court, all add up to the humanisation efforts of the Army. Much that has been written by respected analysts in recent days has appreciatively covered all the above without naming them, that being a matter of detail. So the concepts are all clear to them. These are simply concepts which any professional Army must follow to bring a turbulent militancy/proxy war under control. The people remain the centre of gravity.

What is not appealing to this segment of the intelligentsia is perhaps a perception that the Army has lost its focus and its long term aim. Such hybrid conflict (long war) is never static in character. It remains dynamic and the adversary continuously seeks ways of obtaining advantage. The concept of balancing hard and soft power which the Army follows has therefore to be dynamic too with the ratio between the two segments of the balance undergoing calibration which forces a change in the method of handling. Agreeably this change must be subtle and must not reflect frustration of the rank and file nor be overtly provocative such that the carefully crafted narrative of years is upset in any measure which can lend advantage to the provocateur. The latter has a wily mind and is ever watchful for opportunities to exploit and this is what Pakistan is doing and doing it rather well.

The current situation in Kashmir is not of the Army’s making. Hopefully this is clear to all. It has faced all kinds of situations and bested them. It is not necessary to recall why the situation has come to the current pass. However, it is the presence of the Army which ensures that the periphery is held tightly while the process of stabilisation is taken up. ‘Holding the periphery’ is a term which needs correct understanding. It involves the conduct of such operations as to prevent any surge in terrorist strength, prevent the leeway they seek to carry out their nefarious activities, give the police forces the confidence that there is always a fallback and assist in conveying the message of impossibility of the adversary ever attaining its aim.

The issues which upset the applecart and seemingly brought an element of frustration to the Army’s ranks was the interference by flash mobs at encounter sites leading to some fatal casualties, the fatal targeting of Lt Umar Fayaz by terrorists, the baiting of the Central Reserve Police Force by targeting its personnel returning from a difficult duty and lastly preventing the Army from carrying out its legitimate duties of protection of election staff. The cumulative effect of all this on all ranks of the Army and the pressures of the long counter proxy campaign could perhaps be telling although I believe the Army is far more resilient than that. Yet the pressure cooker existence brings frustration in its wake. From the Line of Control to the transit camps to which the soldiers travel while on leave, the effects of proxy conflict seem omnipresent in the tension that is felt by the soldiers.

I am aware that Pakistan would find much glee in my words but it has yet to contend with the professionalism of the Indian Army. It is not necessary to pick and choose every word that the Army Chief has spoken. What he has conveyed is that measures will be taken by the Army to secure itself far better even if it has to use a higher ratio of hard power temporarily to overcome the current situation. The stone versus AK-47 is a long debate which also went the full way during the Palestinian intifada. The stone is classified by many as a weapon of the poor and by others as a weapon of non-violence. That is fine until the ‘non-violent weapon’ hurts and upsets operations of a larger nature. That is when armies lose patience and respond. It may attract allegations of rights violations but it is clear there is no absolutism of rights when lives of soldiers are also involved. That is the message the Indian Army Chief has conveyed.

There is no need to join the voices in support of or against the Army Chief unless you comprehend the nuances of conflict situations. The intellectuals and the veterans who have warned about the Army losing its moral ascendancy are entirely right. There will be a degree of compromise in such ascendancy when hard power returns to the environment and rights are not seen in more absolutist terms. The Army knows this too and much better than most. Where I choose to disagree with my own Army, and it is intellectual honesty to do so and say so, is in the sphere of communication.

Unfortunately, none of the major sets of principles of war of different countries yet include communication as an entity deserving to be a principle of war. However, the world is changing rapidly because of communication. The power of communication is such that signaling can be done in different ways with the message reaching the right quarters and having the desired effect. If conceptual changes in policy are necessary this can be conveyed through the powerful communication tools within the Army itself.

In a democracy, executive policy changes can be briefed to the Parliamentary Defence Committee and equally be sent as directives to the tactical levels through classified notes. It is not necessary to openly state such changes to the media. The art of communication empowers senior functionaries such as the Army Chief to speak in different languages. Warnings need not be vitriolic or threatening. Events perceived by a class of people as unbecoming will take place. These are compulsive effects of conflict where right and wrong are blurred into a more relevant ‘maybe’.

What we can definitely do is not to keep revisiting these events. As said before, the Army’s internal communication system built on the edifice of its strong system of loyalty is well geared to spread the word of the Chief to the last man. Clarity is the key here and that clarity never carries through media. If it is motivation which is important along with the support given to even genuine mistakes the Army still works on the good old ‘personal for all formation commanders…’ type of format. Social media and MSM only confuse on the basis of perception generated and perception can be of many kinds.

So there is some change in the concept the Army is adopting and rightly so; it is in keeping with the dynamics of hybrid conflict which hardly remain static. It is also to frustrate the designs of the adversary. Soonest that the situation returns to a higher degree of control there will be reversion to another well perceived ratio of hard and soft power. There is nothing wrong with debate in a vibrant democracy but it is communication which holds the key to perception.

It is best to appreciate the compulsions of difference of opinion which is bound to take place. Strong expression of sentiments through public forums is not what is going to strengthen the hands of the Indian state; it only puts unnecessary pressure on the most effective instrument of the state. Being quiet and doing what is necessary may be a better answer.

The writer is a former GOC of India’s Srinagar based 15 Corps, now associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

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