By Lt Gen (Retd) Syed Ata Hasnain*
The third quarter of 2017 in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has been characterised by the marked success of Operation All Out; a reduction in the quantum of violent incidents; and an overall stabilisation of the situation, which has permitted the government to continue looking at avenues of development with a lot more seriousness. The summer of 2016 and its aftermath had not permitted governance to take effective shape with all focus being on the state of law and order.
Operation All Out continues to be a large scale undertaking by the security forces in Kashmir to regain full dominance over the counter terror grid after a series of setbacks that have given a perception that their hold had slackened. The Operation has achieved spectacular results considering the comparatively lower strength of terrorists present in the Valley today; that actually makes the job much more difficult, especially when the local content of terrorists is also high. The near dismal situation in the first quarter of 2017 when ratios of own casualties to the number of terrorists killed had slid almost to a par of 1:1, and when the Army and other security forces were being ambushed, has been restored. This is a result of some timely and sensible measures that were adopted.
First, additional troops have been made available. The Shupiyan-Kulgam belt, which needed a higher presence of troops, was accordingly populated. Second, the counter infiltration grid was further tightened; the absence of any major battles with terror groups in the traditional reception areas of the Kupwara forests appears to confirm that infiltration success could only have been marginal. Third, intelligence has been of a higher order especially after the run of atrocities against policemen. Fourth, the concept of focusing on terrorist leaders as against a general campaign against run of the mill terrorists of all hues has prevented the consolidation of any of the leaders in the post Burhan Wani period. Fifth, the security forces have undoubtedly achieved a high degree of cooperation and coordination in the face of the tactics of flash mobs intervening at encounter sites. The level of joint-ness and understanding of each other’s strengths and shortcomings has been very effective. Lastly, the Army in particular has correctly gone back to some of its older tactics. The cordon and search Operation (CASO) has been demonstrated, albeit results may not have been immediately forthcoming. Such operations assist in keeping an area under domination disallowing freedom of movement to terrorists at any time of the day and night.
There cannot be any doubt that one of the major contributing factors towards effectiveness and prevention of street turbulence has been the strict control over finances. It is only now that the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has been finally tasked to unearth the clandestine networks that finance street turbulence, terror acts and ensure maintenance of the separatist leaders.
Domination of the military space by the Indian Army and other security forces has been a recurring phenomenon throughout the 28 years of proxy conflict in J&K. This begs the questions: is it possible to sustain this? Or, are the sponsors and terror groups capable of innovating to either upend the situation in their favour or do something to put the pressure back on the establishment?
The other strains such as al Qaeda, which have through the summer attempted to establish a footprint, are not yet relevant. Its impact or that of the non-existent Islamic State (IS) in the Valley can only be felt if it brings a more violent form of conflict such as suicide bombing into the Valley. However, that does not seem likely; and the degree of radicalisation has not reached such levels.
However, the existence of mosque power is yet worrisome. This field is far more difficult to neutralise than the terrorists because there is a diffused existence of radical ideology mixed awkwardly with a sense of sub-nationalism. There are steps afoot to counter this but perhaps more will need to be done. Measures on a war footing in the manner the NIA is undertaking against financial networks would be the need.
Winter is approaching and with it, there could be a change in nature of conflict and its focus. In the run up to December 2017, the proxy masters will attempt two things: first, they will attempt to target the intelligence grid, which has to be protected at all costs. Second, they will aim to get the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) to infiltrate more Fidayeen squads to maintain pressure through actions against camps and posts.
2018 is election year in Pakistan. Although Kashmir does not form any part of the political agenda during elections, Hafiz Saeed is aiming to acquire a political role with the Milli Muslim League. Kashmir provides him the fodder for his politics. If he can convince the Pakistan Army about his relevance in ensuring that India does not acquire irreversible military domination in Kashmir, the beginnings of Saeed’s plans could be witnessed through winter. What these plans are is something the intelligence agencies must be tasked to reveal.
Some aspects must be focused on during the upcoming winter: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi made very relevant remarks during his Independence Day speech. India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s long visit must be followed up by continuous engagement with relevant local players who could well be fence sitters but no separatists. Third, if the security forces led by the Army can prevent resurgence of violence, then there needs to be a much larger emphasis on governance to give the Valley a better winter. Fourth, the absence of violence must be exploited to set forth a greater agenda for interaction between the three regions of J&K, based on social, educational, economic and other needs. Jammu is often ignored at our peril.
The current time period is a consolidation phase following a temporary reverse. It is important to ensure that the current stability does not get diluted through any trigger. The government must not come under any pressure to reduce the Army’s presence, especially from South Kashmir and there is yet no need to talk to anyone except the people with whom an informal dialogue is always possible. That is what the agenda for winter ought to be.
* Lt Gen (Retd) Syed Ata Hasnain
Member, Governing Council, IPCS, & former GOC, 15 Corps, Srinagar