Long Drawn Counter Proxy War Campaign in J&K – Part -1

Sub Title : Knowledge and understanding of what happened through 30 years of Proxy Hybrid War in J&K will enable better conflict management

Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 1 Mar – Apr 2021

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

Page No. : 36

Category : Geostrategy

: March 27, 2021

Consequent upon a recent visit to Kashmir the author pens down a two part article on the importance of knowing and understanding what happened through 30 years of Proxy Hybrid War in J&K to enable those involved in conflict management today to be better empowered with knowledge to analyse and appreciate the current strategy and decisions. This is the first part.

In a recent visit to Kashmir, I was invited to speak to the officers of the Indian Army serving in the challenging environment of the LoC, or in the hinterland in various capacities. I spoke to some through video conferencing while others were present physically to listen to me in the comfort of Badami Bagh. The latter is usually the most happening place in the Indian Army, now given some competition by the Leh garrison. It’s always good to speak to the rank and file, especially if you have kept yourself updated regarding the happenings in J&K. I went through the dilemma of choosing what I should speak on. Yet the final decision was quick simple because for long I felt that Indian Army warriors always prefer to function in the present with no baggage of the past. That is how it should be but in a profession where the past keeps revisiting you once too often, you better be aware of what happened in all those years before you, lest you be condemned to repeat mistakes made by predecessors. Equally you better appreciate some of the most challenging decisions they took. Dots of the past also help you predict the future in an environment where everything happens in cycles which seem to repeat themselves every few years. Consider the fact that after the turbulence of the period 1999-2002 emerged the ceasefire at the LoC on 26 Nov 2003 and a peace process ensued till 2008. 13 years after Mumbai 26/11 we seem to be coming into another cycle of engagement with Pakistan after having undergone a period of turbulence since 2016.

It’s not just the idea of history being imparted to the current generation; it’s also a lot to do with connecting those dots of the past with happenings in the current environment, the noises being made across the LoC, and most importantly linking many non-military aspects which make such a huge difference to the understanding of the current military leaders; they anyway do not have the time to dwell on the past so much are they committed to activities of the present. Minds which function in isolation from history can never fully grasp the import of issues as they continue to unfold.

I pegged the year for commencement of my brief at 1971 bringing out that when a nation is divided in half by its adversary there is no question of forgiveness, retribution is bound to be the quest. I brought out the basics of the Shimla Agreement; how irrelevance of the UN resolution was achieved, no further role for UNMOGIP, no third party intervention and all further resolution of disputes through bilateralism. The 1974 nuclear test at Pokharan gave Pakistan the perception that it would always be held to ransom by the sheer size of India, its armed forces, economy and scientific progress it would make. Thus, as soon as the Pakistan Army lost patience and overthrew Zulfiqar Bhutto the making of a basic doctrine with retribution at the core was inevitable.

The Zia Doctrine. The Zia Doctrine was based upon the basic assumption of asymmetry with Pakistan always being the weaker side. To neutralize asymmetry, it was necessary for it to go nuclear. Since it could not expect to win a conventional war it chose to fight India unconventionally whenever the opportunity presented itself. The unconventional strategy was hybrid in nature with terror at the core, psychological operations to promote alienation in J&K and the creation of multiple clandestine networks in domains such as finance, academia, bureaucracy, media, clergy and youth. This hybrid strategy would be ready to be unleashed once suitable conditions were created. The events of 1979 set this back with Afghanistan suddenly becoming the battleground and Pakistan the frontline state. It’s where Pakistan refined the strategy of hybrid war even as it exploited the situation in the Indian state of Punjab where a separatist militancy was raging.

Conflict Initiation. The end of the Cold War, defeat of the Soviet Union and the rising sentiments in J&K against India’s alleged occupation was considered the best opportunity; the botched management of the elections of 1987 was just a trigger which had the sentiments of the local populace flowing against India. Zia-ul-Haq died in Aug 1988 and a rookie Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was manipulated by the ISI Chief Hamid Gul and the Army Chief Mirza Aslam Beg to give consent to the commencement of hybrid war in J&K. Interestingly, Pakistan withdrew its commitment towards the separatists in Punjab and with the situation in Afghanistan under its control it could focus on the new campaign; the J&K theatre. Conflict initiation was with acute separatist sentiment exploiting the low density of troops and the police forces. The LC had virtual highways across it with many who illegally crossed being gunned down. Slogans such as ‘Hum Kya Chahte, Azadi’   and ‘Kashmir Banega Pakistan’ coming from POK created an impression as if India had already been militarily defeated and J&K was about to be occupied by Pakistan.

Local recruits in J&K could not sustain the tempo. Pakistan realized this early as it found the movement weathering. That is when transnational terrorists who were unemployed after their sojourn in Afghanistan were recruited and infiltrated into J&K. They sustained the low intensity hybrid conflict for at least six years until 1996 when the pipeline from Afghanistan started drying up.

Warriors of today often wonder how in the Nineties terrorists could walk in and out of J&K with relative ease. They compare that situation with what exists today, the deep multi layered counter infiltration grid which focuses on the Anti-Infiltration Obstacle System (AIOS) sometimes also called the LoC Fence. With limited Rashtriya Rifles (RR) resources and sparse density of regular troops terrorist tracks found infiltration a relative song. It is always good to quote a few figures; especially the one regarding the total number of terrorists killed in 2001. The number was actually 2100, the highest in the 30 year hybrid proxy war. Compare that to 220 killed in 2020 and 254 in 2019.

I did draw attention to the intensity of operations in the late Nineties when I recalled that as Colonel GS of the HQ Victor Force at Awantipura there were times when I was handling nine to ten contacts with terrorists in the area of responsibility. Compare that to the three or four contacts that may occur in a month in current times. It’s a measure of success of the Indian Army and other security forces (SF) that violence has been reduced to such a great extent. Knowledge of the past helps people understand their own achievements.

Conflict Progression. I did take out time to explain how conflicts move through various stages with each stage having its own dynamics and strategy. The identified stages were – initiation, progression, stabilization, transformation, resolution and termination, followed by peace building. There are no cut off dates for such stages and each of us can have our own perception about the transition from one to the other. The important lesson for today’s warriors that I conveyed was the absolute necessity of ensuring that the hard power utilized at conflict initiation should not become the norm at stabilization. Balancing the quantum of hard and soft power through the progression and transition is the essence of a cerebrally led organization. Uniformity of strategy throughout is the belief of the unthinking who consider kinetic power the only way to resolve such conflicts.

The years 1993-96 were extremely significant and the understanding of these brings home many lessons. In 1993 the major siege of Hazratbal took place. In early 1995 the operations at Charar e Sharif were launched against Mast Gul and his men who managed to melt away. The Al Firan kidnappings took place in 1995. But in 1993-95 India was also under intense international pressure brought about by the presence of Robin Raphael, the US Assistant Secretary of State who always had an axe to grind with India on account of the misplaced belief that it was India behind the crash of the aircraft in which both General Zia ul Haq and her husband Ambassador Arnold Rafael perished in Aug 1988. Potentially on the mat due to alleged human rights violations and with Raphael pushing for the third option on J&K – Azadi – India fought back politically and diplomatically. In a rare show of consensus the political community came together to pass the Joint Parliamentary Resolution of both houses of Parliament on 22 Feb 1994 declaring all territories of erstwhile state of J&K under the Maharaja of J&K as Indian territories and declaring the intent to aspire to regain the ones not in Indian possession. I mentioned to the warriors that both the Shimla Agreement and the 22 Feb 1994 Joint Parliamentary Resolution were occasions when Article 370 could have been abrogated with full political consensus. The consensus in 1994 helped India wade through the crisis situations that year and it is such consensus that we should always hope for.

I stated that by 1996 the conflict actually started to enter early stages of stabilization. Many important things happened in 1996-97. First, the pipeline of mercenaries from Afghanistan dried up leading to the initiation of infiltration of a greater number of Pakistani terrorists of the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) type. Second the elections took place with miniscule percentage of turnout but yet a bold decision was taken by the Indian Government to bring back democracy so early in a conflict situation. Third, was the commencement of Operation Sadbhavana (1997), the Indian Army’s military civic action (MAC) program to win local hearts and minds; I called it the humanization of conflict.  Fourth was the issue of certain Do’s and Don’ts by the Indian Supreme Court to the Army in 1997, as guidelines to ensure a better human rights reputation. All this was the fall out of the events of 1994.

Most warriors of today may not give as much credence to the RR as it deserves. The worth of the RR is realized when it is explained that it was raised originally for Punjab but rushed into J&K. It ensured the handling of the hinterland and by 2006 acquired capability for a semi conventional mode of war fighting through allocation of relief tasks at the LoC. The second lot of units were raised post Kargil 1999 after the first raisings were considered a major success. The six company concept helped in no small way.

An aspect which I dwelt upon in some detail was the entire concept of soldiering beyond kinetics and understanding the environment around us. As much as the importance of the physical terrain and its exploitation, it is important for warriors fighting hybrid war to be proficient with understanding the cultural terrain in general and of their area of responsibility in particular. This involves a working knowledge of faith, caste, sensitivities and the impact they have on the society.

Many who have proudly served in J&K and as many who continue to do so today bemoan the existence of religiously and ideologically radicalized elements in J&K that provide the raw material for recruitment as terrorists or functioning as over ground workers (OGWs). This trend has remained existent for almost the entire period of the proxy war. J&K’s milder, less obscurantist and more tolerant Islam existed in sync with India’s secularism. So even if a largely anti-Indian belief dominated the socio-political environment the pull of syncretism did remain powerful enough to prevent a serious separatist movement emerging. Pakistan realized that without aligning an obscurantist Islamic linkage from the Middle East to Pakistan and to J&K, the sentiment for creating a break from India would never manifest in J&K. It is with this belief that a large scale plan to alter J&K’s tolerant religious ideology was undertaken. It was executed through much of the Nineties and early part of the 2000s and perhaps continues to the day. It succeeded in bringing the more obscurantist beliefs to prominence in Kashmir as a good number of mosques saw change of hands in terms of the clergy who ran them. This clergy attempted creating an anti-India wave on the basis of ideology forcing a political dispute towards becoming an ideological one. None of this is as important as the fact that hardly is this recorded and how few know it. Those who do wonder how this happened so silently under the watch of the Army, police forces and intelligence services without a word uttered in the state assembly or in any major commentaries in media. The answer is simple; it was ignorance about the ways of war. Hardly were the tenets of a silent sponsored proxy hybrid war known to military or security professionals from other domains. For the Army in general the idea of studying and examining domains of conflict other than the kinetic was simply beyond its scope. It was not alone in its predicament; most armies around the world when confronted by such trends try to avoid getting involved with them. The invisibility factor contributed towards the success of the cultivation of the ideology Pakistan wished to spread. Pakistan could achieve this during a period when even basic telecommunications were non-existent in the conflict zone which is actually a measure of how astounding was the success and how dismal the failure to prevent it.

The ability of Pakistan and the Separatists to elongate and sustain the movement against the combined weight of Indian security forces (SF), was only possible because existent within J&K were and still are,   invisible networks  in a plethora of domains such as media, legal, financial, government services and education. Again, all these have persisted well before a single computer or mobile phone reached J&K. Money the biggest driver of hybrid conflicts continued to flow in and out of J&K in every clandestine way until much later when a sustained campaign to weed out financial networks was undertaken once the full understanding dawned. In the period of increasing mobile internet penetration it is little wonder that 4G mobile networks were the first to be placed under control after 5 Aug 2019 when large scale disturbances were anticipated.

Much is spoken of the power of modern information technologies to clandestinely launch and sustain campaigns against adversaries, external or internal aiming at influencing minds and cultivating ideologies without making the manipulators visible. The example set by the Islamic State with various models for recruitment will likely remain existent to build more campaigns. They have the capability to also strike at the core of various networks which sustain modern day living. Education, banking and entertainment are just three domains which have that capacity and many more continue to be identified. Thus modern wars can remain in state of standoffs without resort to kinetics, and bring to bear influence and cyber operations in a bigger way to sway minds away from existing loyalties and ideologies while attempting to paralyze governance and administration.

In the next part of this essay, I will relate and join many of the dots relating to conflict, attempted peace, generational transition in J&K and the continuing effect of radicalism. Please do ensure that you read Part – 1 all over again before attempting Part – 2; that way you will ensure that the dots weave together a pattern which can be easily discerned.