J&K : Mix of Old and New Makes A Workable Strategy
Burhan Wani, new militancy, the scourge of the stone thrower, terrorist funerals, emboldened school children resisting the CRPF, manipulated video and the like are all associated with the new Kashmir situation. For veterans of the past who saw a different dimension of the militancy it is not easy to appreciate the new threats and the dangers they spell. However, there are some basics which apply in every situation and not for nothing do accomplished practitioners of operational art advise their subordinates to go back to the drawing board or ‘back to basics’ to address most problems.
In the world of soldiering the nature of conflict may rapidly change but most essentials just remain the same. Basic instinct tells a soldier what is the next thing to do. A prudent mix of the old and new makes a workable strategy. Here is how.
I ascribe the above understanding to the adoption of the Cordon and Search Operations (CASO),now under execution in South Kashmir. Lots of veterans would recall how populations loathe these when they are conducted as per the book. They are also great occasions to fraternize and even attempt to change the minds of the public. Earlier CASOs were invariably accompanied by a civic action team comprising a Regimental Medical Officer (RMO), his staff and administrative elements. Off late, at least since the beginning of the millennium we have been carrying out only intelligence based search operations. The scope of generic CASO was reduced to just a few houses on basis of suspicion. With the kind of situation which has recently developed in the area bounded by Kulgam, Shupian, Pulwama and Bijbehara and the daily run of bank robberies, the writ of the state has virtually come under question with governance nearly paralyzed. A series of CASOs of the old-world style, a sweep through, selective searches and broad domination, appear to have been followed displaying flexibility in thinking. When in trouble going back to the drawing board and to the basics, appears to have been followed as a notion.
When there were attempts at intimidation of the columns through stone throwing coercion was given a bye. However, if these operations have to continue for effect and there is more intimidation, limited coercion will have to follow. This cannot be one off and needs to repeat often irrespective of material results; domination and prevention of freedom of movement being the essential focus.
Surprisingly there were expectations of definitive results from these operations, even by some people in uniform. It should be well known that CASOs rarely produce results but are outstanding means of measured ‘intimidation’, domination and psychological pressure on terror groups and their supporters. These active day and night operations will keep terrorists on the run. The crossings on the Jhelum River need to be controlled, in fact dominated, even if Marcos from Bandipura have to be redeployed. Obviously more troops are required and these should be brought in very early, possibly a division worth along with a HQ. We cannot have HQ Victor Force alone responsible for the Amarnath Yatra, Central and South Kashmir. Troops had been redeployed from South Kashmir to the LoC for the counter infiltration grid when things had become quieter here. Prudence demands that there need be no hesitation on part of senior commanders to turn the clock. If tactics of old are to be followed so must force levels of the past be restored.
A notion which needs analysis is the idea that Kashmir is back to the Nineties and that India is losing it. Somehow Pakistan also perceives as if it is winning the proxy conflict and its perception is prevailing upon the Indian public in no small way. I can recall the number of times this question has been put to me through the last fifteen years or so. Each time the security situation slips self-doubts rise. It is to the credit of the Indian Army that despite the ups and downs due to the inability of taking the situation beyond security stabilization, we have still managed to keep it well short of the Tipping Point towards which Pakistan wishes to push it. Yes, the situation today is bad and alienation is very high but in 1990 when it all came to a head we were responding with virtually shoe string resources and experience only of Sri Lanka or Nagaland. Today we have 63 battalions of Rashtriya Rifles (RR) in J&K and we need to be thankful these did not redeploy to the Red Corridor as was being contemplated in 2010. There are close to 60 CRPF units in the Valley alone and the JK Police has its own numbers. More than anything else we have the experience and the benefit of success and failure. That, however, is a subjective asset contingent upon the amount of intellect we wish to apply and quantum of failure we wish to admit. Converting near failure to success is an art of leadership and I would always look upon the current situation as a grand opportunity to apply the lessons of failure and reinforce the lessons of success. The only thing we definitely did not have in 1990 is 24x7 media penetrating our homes and minds. How this can be converted into an asset is another aspect which has been insufficiently examined.
A public order situation as the one in Kashmir,seen to be crossing a threshold, needs to be tackled the robust way in a calibrated manner. We did it in 1990 and some years thereafter. Formal adoption of Sadbhavana as a hearts and minds exercise only commenced in 1997 after we had crossed a threshold of control through the employment of legitimate hard power. The Security Forces (SF) therefore have to demonstrate firmness with correctness. They need to ensure that they are not baited into overreaction. Qualification of what is legitimate hard power must be clearly understood by commanders down the chain and an extra effort must be made to embed the altered rules of engagement into all ranks.
There are other domains which need to be simultaneously addressed. As a policy the Government does not wish to engage with separatist leaders or anti-India elements that for long appear to have been legitimized as the potential future political leadership of J&K. The events of 2016 were like a watershed when the reluctance of these very elements to engage with India became almost final. The Government then decided not to engage but rather delegitimize them; it has actually led to their disempowerment in the eyes of the separatist cadres too. However, it has also led to the creation of a dispersed under cover leadership which may not fully have been discovered even by intelligence agencies. This identification is a necessity and must form one of the elements of focus of the intelligence campaign.
Among all supportive dimensions relevant to the restoration of the situation in Kashmir, two stand out. First is the identification and engagement of the right people whose support will work against the anti-national elements. Second is to follow an effective policy of countering the proactive Pakistani and Separatist propaganda; ideal is to have a proactive policy of information handling to take your own message to the people before the adversary’s message. In other words it is all about messaging the narratives openly, transparently and sufficiently.
Engagement and Outreach
One can start with a definition of the term which has rarely been attempted in the past. It can involve the following:-
A series of actions taken over time to meet and fraternize with different Definition. segments of the public for better understanding of culture, faith, social environment, aspirations and level of alienation.
• Involves determining specific administrative problems of the people, resolving those that can be within means and taking up issues with Government authorities for resolution of the remaining.
• Also assist in explaining Government’s views to the public.
• Countering Pakistan and Islamic propaganda.
Functionaries I meet who know J&K well all recommend engagement and outreach alongside robust no nonsense operations but remain hesitant about how this can be done in the face of ongoing violence and alienation. I find this strange; a lack of application of experience, intellect and an inability to take risk. “It requires creativity and will to explore ideas”, as one experienced journalist puts it. The dearth is of ideas which flow when you keep channels of communication open with diverse entities. If you do not meet people and do not go down to villages to speak to those who matter little, the ideas will seldom come. It is not for me to suggest models of outreach but I would follow a simple dictum of hybrid conflict; ensure what you do carries the stamp of the whole of government.
Start from places least affected by violence; there is never a need to jump into the eye of the storm. It must start small with local administrators and police officials, the security and administration being provided by the Army.
Ensure presence of maximum young people and also women plus a few members of the clergy.
Use the points of the above definition to good effect.
Listen rather than talk and allow legitimate grievances to be aired. Resolve what one can be with assistance of the civil administration.
I am aware that the resentment among the youth is immense and there will be attempts at rabble rousing but that is the risk one takes in such initiatives. The event must never be labeled an Army initiative but a local government one for greater legitimacy. A small medical camp on the sidelines increases the legitimacy; lady doctors and pediatricians are a must.
This is just a model of the past which needs adaptation to the current. It needs to be done at unit level. With a few elders, one or two members of the clergy and some youth; there can be legitimate discussions even at company level. I always admit that better than me were my company commanders; the young majors of 46 RR (Sikh); in dealing with the populace of Baramula. That was our strength and still is, in that very sensitive town. Implicit faith in the capability of the junior officer and his Commanding Officer holds the Indian Army in great stead and that should never dilute. From the peripheral areas when the word spreads replication can begin in the inner core in a gradual spread. The recent move, in Victor Force to conduct engagement in small groups, is already receiving positive feedback.
It is a question of understanding and experience. The kind of engagement described above gives no political legitimacy to anyone; it only gives administrative empowerment to the people and the administrators. The security so necessary for the safe move of administrators is provided by the Army and Police along with intelligence backup. None of this goes against the national discourse of not giving in to violence as a means of coercing the government. In due course it will assist in political outreach too.
There has to be a media imprint for this. National and local media can be sounded. ‘Government Functionaries interact with Local Youth’ at different places in Kashmir should be headlines in local media and the subject of discussion in the evening on national visual media. Repeats of this will multiply interest and create more faith and more hope. That has what has been destroyed in the last one year which needs to be restored.
Counter Propaganda and Strategic Communication
There is a physical dimension to outreach as explained above but there also exists a virtual one. It’s old wine to keep regretting how Pakistan realized the significance of the information domain and continues to exploit it to the hilt. The recent uploading of videos, WhatsApp messages, generation of flash mobs and anti-government propaganda have only one source, the Inter Services Public Relations wing (ISPR) of the Pakistan Army. The important thing is to realize that without a campaign to counter the ISPR and build favorable narratives; our efforts to stabilize Kashmir may not fully succeed. It’s not for me to suggest themes, narratives and ideas but suffice to flag that this has to be institutional. It cannot be left to the Army to run although we can build on its efforts which continue with limited resources. There has to be a national effort which has to be civilian oriented with ownership at both Central and State Government levels. It may also be prudent to advise that these campaigns need professionals to run them with deep insight into the situation, cultural and political sensitivities and psyche. Since this is something quite new and the information domain has hardly been our forte ever since its very effective handling in 1971, we need a body to examine this thoroughly on fast track. The mechanism for execution must be established in less than six months.
The Indian public need not be demotivated or disturbed by any notions of having lost Kashmir. It will take much more than just a couple of stone throwing demonstrations for Pakistan to wrest Kashmir from us. In fact that is the underlying theme of the very first campaign which must be crafted.
Bringing a nation of 1.25 billion people with an Army of 1.3 million to its knees by attempting to take away a part of the national territory and its people is surely not something Pakistan is ever capable of achieving.