J&K 2018: A Strategic Appreciation, Time to Turn on The Soft Power Screws
Predicting anything about J&K and trying to justify the predictions can be risky exercise. However, when an important aspect of national security is at stake one can afford to stick out one’s neck essentially for the sake of timely decisions. J&K’s situation has been dynamic to the extent of being highly unpredictable. When multiple players are involved, trans-border issues dominate and narratives change frequently; it is then that people who have the experience and the domain knowledge must step in and advise more uninhibitedly.
2017 in Kashmir was a year in which the security domain just had to dominate over others. It was a year following the disastrous 2016, when Kashmir erupted on the back of the emotions of its young generation. Violence emanating from within and stoked from across the LoC left little choice with the establishment other than opting to pursue the security route. Ideally, counter militancy operations comprise diverse domains. The security domain dominates the first few years but then the social, governance, economic, political and psychological domains take over and security takes a back step. Unfortunately in J&K the security domain has never been able to take a back step. When it did seem to be ready in 2008 and in 2016, both times enhanced violence levels forced a different approach. 2017 was a year, too soon after the tumultuous 2016. No one should have expected any miraculous changes in approach because the security domain was once again expected to dominate. In Apr 2017 when numbers started to tell a different narrative and the ratio of losses to gains became matching (almost 1 soldier lost for every terrorist killed) it became worrisome. However, on the back of some excellent cooperation between the security forces (SF) and their resilience a high degree of domination of the security domain was achieved by the end of the year. Ordinarily, experienced military hands will tell you that for effective functioning of other domains in militancy hit areas the security domain must first reach a predetermined status of dominance and sustain itself. Happily this dictum was not dogmatically followed and 2017 did witness serious attempts at reinvigoration of the governance domain in the social and economic sectors.
Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s initiative at outreach to the grassroots, even as violent incidents continued, followed directions to her political representatives to go back to the people at any cost. At the end of the year the decision to conduct the panchayat polls after the successful ones held in 2011, was a bold one. If taken to the logical end of sharing power between political representatives and the elected representatives at the panchayat level it could spin a different narrative in the empowerment of the people.
2017 was also distinctive in terms of the initiative to re-focus thinking on the need for winning hearts and minds. The Prime Minister’s Independence Day message was timely from the psychological angle and will need to become the center stage of the effort once stabilization seems to sustain. The appointment of the Interlocutor for initiating dialogue with stakeholders was also timely and in fact well before expected as levels of violence had not yet plateaued. The follow up to this initiative in 2018 is expected to pay dividends.
The LoC, unfortunately remained extremely active with constant exchange of fire between the Indian and Pakistan Armies and loss of lives of both soldiers and civilians alike. For Pakistan the aim of keeping the J&K situation in the focus of the international community was achieved to some extent. However, the Indian domination of exchanges at the LoC is slowly communicating a different message in this domain with our willingness to also take the initiative and not be seen as only responders to Pakistan’s cease fire violations.
In the field of infiltration the Army made redeployments based on experience but it is clear that the effectiveness of the LoC Fence may now be passé as enough counters to it have been developed by the adversary. Thus in spite of killing 210 terrorists or more during 2017 and having commenced the year with a ball park figure of 300 terrorists in the Valley, with zero infiltration we would be looking at a figure of less than 100 terrorists in early 2018. However, it doesn’t really work in this way. Zero infiltration is next to impossible and perhaps only a technology transformation will make a larger difference in the disruption of the numbers managing to infiltrate through the LoC in North Kashmir. Then there is the LoC south of the Pir Panjal from where infiltration occurs and then moves over the Pir Panjal into South Kashmir. The numbers game continues with the rapid recruitment of youth from South Kashmir. At one stage HQ Victor Force of the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) estimated that with 85 killed in its area of responsibility almost 90 had already been recruited. Thus to reduce numbers a twin strategy of more effective counter infiltration and counter recruitment has to be followed in 2018. The former is a purely military operational domain while the second is the domain of multiple players.
Towards the end of 2017 there were instances of the return to mainstream of local terrorists after shunning terror. This was based upon a fledgling campaign of communicating messages of parents to young renegades and strengthening emotional chords to take an upper hand over faith and ideology which have come to dominate the youth all over Kashmir. This too will have to be followed up much more vigorously if it has to culminate in a movement; it has only seen marginal success so far.
Gazing at 2018
A couple of things in 2018 will need to hold our attention. Among them are the internal situation in Pakistan and increasingly the situation on the Sino Indian border. Doklam has indicated that the years of single focus on either Pakistan or China are over. The collusion between these two is likely to see an upward movement. Even as Pakistan prepares for its elections in Jul 2018 the collusive perception of the two could well appreciate the need to keep India focused on borders even as other domains of hybrid conflict are brought to bear internally in the rest of the country.
Kashmir holds the potential of being a major attention grabber and distraction from borders elsewhere. Subjecting the people of J&K to intense psychological warfare is likely to be witnessed through 2018. Counters to this are not easy. They need intense preparations and human and technical resources besides the right doctrinal guidance. This is a domain in which India needs to do much more including the civilianization of the military strategic response (civilian presence provides the necessary continuity and limited military presence the guidance).
Pakistan’s internal situation remains none too stable. It will have an interim government in place through half the year. With mainstream parties largely weakened the marginal political elements are sensing opportunity. Although Pakistan has really never thrown up radical elements in elections, this year may just be different. In order to gain from the situation such parties (as Hafiz Sayeed’s yet unrecognized Milli Muslim League) could draw upon the anti-India fervor to set up one or two prominent high profile actions inside India or just in J&K itself. Their aim will be initiate triggers to cause mass unrest and violent turbulence for which the Indian SF will need to be geared.
The mosque continues to draw out of proportion power and no major counter strategies by SF have yet been evolved to tackle this. The flow over from 2016 of radical vigilantism is reported to be still rife. It is this which has the potential to become larger than life when triggers are initiated. It is known that some initiatives at counter radicalization by the Central Government have been launched but will have to be expanded in scope with more local involvement and cooperative clergy to take control of this challenge.
The continuation of the security domination to the next levels must be an abiding intent through 2018 without yielding space to the terrorists or any other anti-national elements. The existence of a large number of over ground workers (OGWs) who have different domains in which they work and specialize ensures that even as the weapon wielding elements may dwindle in number there are sufficient numbers prepared to step in. OGW support to the separatists and the terrorists has to be diluted if sustained domination of the security space is to be achieved. However, there will be political obstacles to overcome and sensitivities correctly perceived. This is a minefield which SF leaders are usually very reluctant to understand and cross. The local media gives impetus to these elements that remain on the lookout for opportunities to embarrass the SF or create triggers towards enhanced alienation.
Towards the end of 2017 and in early 2018 two aspects have drawn attention from one off incidents. First was the presence of two local youth in the ranks of the three youth involved in the so called Fidayeen action at Letapur police set up. This was one of the rare actions involving suicide attacks by local youth after two such acts in the beginning of the last decade. The second was the unfortunate martyrdom of four policemen of the JK Police at Sopore as a result of a remotely controlled IED. Successful IEDs have not been prevalent in the environment since 2008 and this sudden emergence may not augur well for 2018. The availability of local Fidayeen recruits spells a change which could have far reaching effects if this becomes a recurring phenomenon. The return of IEDs and ‘IED doctors’ has scope towards a major change in the nature of conflict. A yet missing phenomenon of such violent situations is the potential of the introduction of suicide bombing, something rampant in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Explosive laden vehicles being rammed at buildings and IED fitted personal vests have had a major impact in these countries.
The employment of soft power remains a wide open challenge. The Army is usually not comfortable beyond the scope of Sadbhavna which too after 20 years finds reluctant takers. The Army will always have in its ranks a couple of outstanding leaders who will show the way forward but the weight of effectiveness achieved by broad acceptance of a tested strategy will be monumental if its rank and file understand much better the concepts of hybrid warfare. To imagine that soft power tasks do not fall within the purview of a professional force such as the Army is sacrilege and a deep dent on the Army’s long standing professionalism. The Army’s leadership needs to refocus on this.
The Army needs to convert its soft power capability to the next level with complete cooperation of the JK Police and CRPF. All initiatives must be joint ones especially where there still exist overlapping boundaries between RR and CRPF units. Perhaps the achievements in the field of joint operations against interfering mobs would have given the realization that much can be achieved when all forces put their effort together. Taking a cue from the Chief Minister’s initiative of reaching out to segments of society who have not been engaged for all these years perhaps the next step should be to enable the political representatives to reach their people.
Post the panchayat polls the security of the panchayat representatives will need to be achieved in no mean way otherwise the gains of the polls will be frittered away. Intelligence and security of a higher order through the harnessing of Special Police Officers (SPOs) and intelligence sources will need to be taken up more robustly.
As far as the international border (IB) in Jammu and the LoC in Kashmir and Poonch-Rajouri sectors are concerned the cease fire of Nov 2003 is now associated more with the breaches rather than the adherence to it. Domination of the LoC and IB is a patient game of waiting but has its own degree of specialization. It should not be treated as just any other domain but must receive total attention from the tactical, equipment and infrastructure point of view. It is heartening that after years of efforts and recommendations by the Army 1400 community bunkers for border villages have at last been sanctioned. These should be pragmatically distributed on actual need basis and not become an issue of political contention between different sectors, forces or for that matter, political parties. I am aware how much scope for corruption at the lowest levels exists in such schemes.
The IB sector is likely to see more action in 2018 much as it happened in 2015-16. The area despite heavy BSF presence does not have a high density counter infiltration grid and the terrain offers sufficient scope to execute terror acts in the Kathua – Samba belt after a successful one night infiltration. The Army does step in to reinforce second tier security from time to time and may have to resort to this more often.
The LoC is also likely to witness the continuing phenomenon of Border Action Teams (BATs) to attempt moral ascendancy through actions such as beheadings. The Indian Army has to war game its options beyond just robust fire assaults. On 25 Dec 2017 it launched an effective retaliation in the Rakh Chikri area of Poonch sector; a tactical level action 300 metres deep with a strategic intent. Calibration to levels above this must become the norm for all LoC units and casualties in the execution of bolder and quicker actions will have to be accepted but minimized through better post/picquet drills. We cannot have so many sniper casualties; it does not reflect well on the LoC commanders. There will have to be covert actions with acceptance of full responsibility with transparency, to drive home the message at the strategic level. Anything more substantial, deeper and with employment of other force multipliers must remain within the realm of secrecy and need not be discussed.
While the scope and plausibility of predictions remains open ended, there are just two other areas which have been chosen for comment. First, social media continues to proliferate. Attempts at control of the electronic spectrum to prevent its misuse have not always succeeded and will be even less effective. It can therefore be safely accepted that sustained efforts at influencing alienation and creation of false narratives will continue unabated and answers for this will need to be found. More likely our own measures to get our messaging across will need to be more effective.
The second area on which I have extensively dwelt in most of my writings and talks on J&K involves the better streaming of all three parts of the state, Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, with each other. Jammu region and more specifically Jammu city have a major role to play. We need to get the people of the three regions into much closer huddle in interest based groups to understand the challenges before them and allow them to suggest the charting of the course of change. As stakeholders in peace let the people be empowered in deciding their future. The involvement of Kashmiri Pandits in these parleys and allowing them leeway to interact with other groups is the first step towards their eventual return. Hopefully 2018 will bring about such realization.
On the face of it the degree of turbulence in the world dictates the course of events of strategic interest. However, J&K is a region largely isolated from such linkages and therefore charts its own course. 2018 will not witness path breaking change or unprecedented levels of turbulence. At best one can expect that there will be peaks and troughs through the year, with hopefully more efforts at finding durable internal peace and stable borders.