J&K in search for lasting peace in the Emerging Strategic Environment

Sub Title : The current situation and events that will have a lasting impact on the state of affairs

Issues Details : Vol 14 Issue 6 Jan – Feb 2021

Author : Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain , PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM  (Retd)

Page No. : 24

Category : Geostrategy

: January 25, 2021

Consequent to various proactive measures adopted by the Indian government, the prevailing situation in J&K is largely in our favour. Pakistan will endeavour to alter the situation  negatively and exploit to calibrate it to its advantage. It is therefore incumbent on us to ensure that the decisive advantage which has accrued from the 5 Aug 2019 decisions is consolidated and Pakistan’s nefarious designs warded off

J&K remains as unpredictable a conflict zone as it has been in the last 30 years. If we take the many positives of 2020 there may be indications of things moving positively into the future especially with Pakistan’s current war waging and calibration capabilities severely curtailed. However, far too many times in the past have we squandered an advantage painstakingly built and allowed Pakistan and its proxies to bounce back and recalibrate their anti-India activities all over again. In the current environment two events could  make a difference to J&K and set back our achievements; first the Ladakh standoff since there is an intrinsic link between Aksai Chin, Gilgit-Baltistan, PoK  and the areas under current Indian control; second the transition in the US with the coming to power of the Biden Administration. Pakistan may sense these as opportunities to build upon which makes the review of these imperative.

The Situation

The constitutional decisions of 5 Aug 2019 helped stabilize J&K to a great extent but the hump is yet to be decisively crossed. It would be unfair to think that a long pursued active proxy conflict could end suddenly on the basis of constitutional and administrative decisions which have no doubt had far reaching consequences. Undoubtedly the post decision operations and actions have limited the influence of anti-national networks which ruled Kashmir for many years. Terrorist recruitment has reduced quite drastically and GOC 15 Corps in a recent interview has put the figure of the strength of terrorists at approximately 215, the lowest in many years. Infiltration from across the LoC has been under control with strengthening of the counter infiltration grid in the LC segment of Kashmir. The Separatists have been marginalized to a great extent with incarceration of many of them, legal proceedings against some and inability to communicate freely with their networks. The financial conduits have been brought under effective surveillance and many of these have been busted by agencies. The proof of effectiveness of this is the fact that narcotics seems to have suddenly bloomed in both Jammu and Kashmir divisions as an alternative to currency; not an unknown phenomenon in CI/CT environment. They also need to be neutralized. The availability of weaponry and wherewithal also seems to be low considering attempts to bring as many as 10 weapons from across the LoC by four infiltrated terrorists who were killed in the Nagrota encounter in Dec 2020. Efforts to open alternative routes via Jammu division or less frequented infiltration routes in the Valley (Gurez and Gulmarg) will probably continue as soon as the winter 2020-21 is over. Ideologically it is not certain whether any change has occurred after the declaration of ban on the Jamat e Islami (J&K) and the sentiments of separatism too cannot be accurately assessed. Some analysts have concluded that a fair turn out for the District Development Council (DDC) elections is an indicator of change of heart. This could be a premature conclusion yet. However, there are some positive indicators in this domain too. A number of pro India handles on social media have emerged and are challenging the Pakistan sponsored narratives. Even if partially credible this is a good development.

Politically, there is no doubt that the DDC elections were a great success but the results reflected the old narratives of political polarization in Kashmir, Jammu and the Chenab Valley. The BJP, however, did score better than ever before although the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) together had the largest number of seats. These elections were a good democratic exercise in the interim between the abrogation of Article 370 and the assembly elections that will take place after delimitation, probably around 2022-23. They add to the potential of at least some grass root politics which may partially satisfy the democratic desire. However, the eventual nature of politics which will decide the political fate of J&K is as yet unclear. The only thing reasonably clear is that Pakistan’s ability to calibrate J&K’s politics has been largely marginalized. The internal players such as the Hurriyat also appear weakened although not completely neutralized.

With the prevailing situation largely in our favour the question is how can this be altered negatively and exploited by Pakistan to calibrate to its advantage? A peripheral look appears to reveal very little in favour of Pakistan but a deeper examination shows that a direct approach may not be followed. There may be different means of diversion of focus from the integration process which India is attempting. How would this be possible? The terminal end of any strategy that Pakistan adopts would aim at creating situations by which all that has been neutralized and disrupted by Indian agencies and security forces is restored. Since this appears difficult in the foreseeable future it is likely that Pakistan will wish to demonstrate the capability of its hold in J&K through a big ticket action into which it will invest its time and focus. This could be a major IED attack, a political assassination, an intrusion into a security forces camp with aim of creating mass casualties or a campaign of killing of elected personalities. Something similar to the latter was attempted against sarpanches (local elected officials) in 2012-14 and against police personnel on leave during 2018-19. Pakistan may presume that its diplomacy of denial and proactive blame game against India may work better in the emerging strategic environment where the US may not be as positively inclined towards India as it was during the Trump Administration. It may also presume that India’s options of response to calibrated sponsored acts of violence in J&K will progressively reduce both due to change of US Administration and the LAC standoff in Ladakh. Pakistan could also plan and execute such acts to draw the attention of the international community to J&K.

The External Factors

Pakistan’s efforts to internationalize J&K are its best bet in view of the altered strategic environment which could emerge. Some of the external issues which impinge on this situation are as follows:-

♦    Although the strength of Indo-US relations had moved into the realm of a strategic partnership under President Trump there is an element of hesitation about the relationship under President Joe Biden. Nothing may change but transitional situations can sometimes be exploited quite negatively by adversaries. India’s outreach to the new administration must be immediate.

♦    If the Biden Administration continues with the Trump policy on Afghanistan and withdraws US troop presence it would per force have a major stake in ensuring that Pakistan optimally manages its western neighbor to prevent it from again turning rogue under the Taliban. That would keep Pak-US engagement at a higher strategic level. In one way some distraction on Pakistan’s western flank would be advantageous to India.

♦    General Lloyd J Austin the new US Defence Secretary in his confirmation hearing before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 19 Jan 2021 stated – “The Biden Administration sees Pakistan as an essential partner in any peace process in Afghanistan and believes that continuing to build relationships with Pakistan’s military will provide openings for the US and Pakistan to cooperate on key issues”. The statement has created some flutter within India’s US and Pakistan watchers but must not be over assessed. US relations with India and Pakistan are not in the ‘either or mode’ and Pakistan’s geo-strategic importance needs to be constantly kept in mind among those who are assessing the way forward in the subcontinent and J&K in particular. Pakistan’s military is a significant part of the deep state which runs Pakistan’s foreign and security affairs and has a traditionally strong relationship with the US military. The US, however, cannot ignore India and its strategic outlook.

♦    When it comes to weighing in balance the strength and benefits of US relationships with Pakistan and India, it’s the Afghanistan factor with Pakistan and the China factor with India that accrues advantage to the US.

♦    President Biden’s approach towards China, the overall strategy of containment and cooperation, will decide the way the future order pans. If the impact of the selected policy leads to greater Sino-US confrontation then tension between China and India is unlikely to abate. In the latter contingency China’s demand will increase on Pakistan to play a balancing role on India’s western borders. That will increase the search for Pakistan’s ways of upping the ante in J&K’s hinterland and the LoC.

♦    As the international environment progresses under the new US Administration it is certain that Pakistan will seek ways of attempting to build anti-India narratives. The Democrats in the US are known to have greater commitment towards aspects such as human rights (HR). Pakistan’s well-oiled public relations machinery is likely to energise its efforts towards past milestones of allegations against India’s record in J&K. Pakistan employs lobbyists to do this and has a widespread network with think tanks and media in the US. Its aims will be to have strictures passed against India’s record and even consider a rollback of Article 370. India needs to be proactive to counter this through the strengthening of its own international diplomatic networks and also project Pakistan’s extremely negative social environment relating to issues such as minorities, women and blasphemy laws. Our outreach into western capitals and other influential cities in the East and other regions needs to be drawn up on a war footing. The fact that India is a member of the UN Security Council in this rotation and will be its President in Aug 2021 must also be exploited to the extent possible.

The Internal Factors

Pakistan’s outreach to quarters within J&K would be primarily designed to create an impact on the morale of the Separatists with intent to restore confidence in them to continue the struggle against India. The situation appears far more complicated when viewed from the angle of the mainstream political parties now working under the umbrella of the PAGD. These parties owe allegiance to the Indian Constitution unlike the Hurriyat; they have held power in J&K under the same Constitution but are now opposed to the Centre’s attempts to integrate J&K under one Constitution. It is not certain whether they will participate in elections at the assembly and parliamentary level. The aims of the PAGD parties and Pakistan are quite different. The former is looking for a rollback of the constitutional decisions of 5 Aug 2019 while Pakistan is also looking for that and simultaneously promoting separatism and secession. Politics of J&K is likely to get hugely mired in complexity which is going to be dangerous and likely to create conditions for promotion of greater turbulence in Kashmir and prevent any rapprochement between the people and representatives of Kashmir and Jammu regions. This is likely to be the single largest contributory factor towards prevention of stability even while the security forces successfully keep control over the security environment. We have witnessed this before; a period of relative stability in 2011-13 awaited political initiatives which were then the need of the hour but were never initiated. The Central Government could of course have in mind some undisclosed political initiatives for the next three years or so. That is a positive hope to live with.

If the political environment remains stable and social initiatives and governance is on track it is usually difficult to create any turbulence in the streets. The emphasis then has to lie in bringing sincere and well-crafted influence operations to the fore. These cannot be left to the UT government or the Army alone. It needs the hand of the Central Government whose ownership makes all the difference. Institutional outreach to engage various segments of society would be needed. These segments would include women, youth, traders, teachers, lawyers and clergy; progressively more segments could be included. While political parties will have their own agenda of engagement there is a need for apolitical engagement too. It has a powerful message to convey when people from other parts of India are involved in such an effort.

The Indian Army’s successful and yet highly misunderstood military civic action program Operation Sadbhavna needs to be given a fresh lease of life through greater and more comprehensive all of government ownership. Let the Army continue to lead it but resources and effort must be integrated and the UT government has to create administrative accountability for the programs which are undertaken. This includes the human resources aspects such as development of sports, as also national integration and education tours.

There is demand rising in some quarters to thin out the Army from the CI/CT grid to reinforce forces in conventional role on the LoC and LAC. This is due to the current standoff in Ladakh and expectations of greater collusion between China and Pakistan in the near future. This mistake must not be allowed to be executed. Realistic threat assessment and matching of resources will reveal we have the capability to deal with collusive threats on the conventional front. However, if the CI/CT grid is diluted at this crucial juncture we may have to pay a very heavy price to restore the situation once again. The adage –‘the absence of violence is not normalcy’ must be clearly understood by security decision makers. The stabilization of a zone involves the continuous absence of violence and dismantling of all networks; only then can one risk force reduction.

Lastly all enablers that can even remotely ensure bounce back by Pakistan and its proxies must be neutralized effectively. This involves the collapse of all financial conduits, circuits and OGW networks. A responsible but free media must remain; it adds to our international credibility. Control measures to limit scope of freedom of action by OGWs, Separatists and terrorists should be in  place at all times.  Importantly incidents of human rights violations must not occur. In this domain manipulation by anti-national elements also remains a live possibility and the police and army must remain on alert for such allegations.

The decisive advantage which has accrued from the 5 Aug 2019 decisions must progress in the political, social and economic domains. In the end remember there is no military solution to this; it’s only the political and social approach under the umbrella of effective military stabilization which will finally tilt the balance completely in India’s favour. Our ability to assess Pakistan’s strategy and neutralize it well before it can be launched through denial of conditions which can be exploited is the surest way forward hereafter.