New shades of an old conflict

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With the LoC ceasefire as good as collapsed, repeated attempts at fidayeen suicide attacks on military camps and continued efforts to stoke the fires in the streets of Kashmir, for Pakistan and India this is a situation of hybrid war which is never declared, is long-term and manifests as varied threats. It is not necessarily restricted to borders and the targets can be multiple in nature.

A few weeks before the Sunjwan camp attack in Jammu city, I had predicted through a series of analyses that it was a just a matter of time before the bad times returned to the Jammu-Samba-Kathua belt. Any keen observer of the sequence of events could have predicted that. First, the Jammu hinterland, from Poonch to Kathua, once an area of varying grades of militancy and terror, had sufficiently stabilised, enabling the Indian Army to shift its focus and additional resources of counter-terror operations almost entirely to the Valley sector. Second, targeting the Jammu sector creates more controversy and Pakistan always hopes that a communal situation will emerge while the deeper effect of religious schisms will also travel to the rest of India.

Third, tying down military resources in the securing of their camps, stations and garrisons would ensure the tiring out of the Indian Army. Fourth, Pakistan’s wide open political arena in a crucial election year is also stoking the political ambitions of elements that have thus far remained outside the political ambit; muscular threats to India as proxies of the Deep State are perceived as a ticket to greater future political relevance. Fifth, Pakistan’s increasing security collusion with China is giving it an out of proportion strategic confidence, enabling it to test the waters beyond the ordinary in order to prove its worth as a partner.

Even as India contemplates response options, with the taking of hybrid war into Pakistan’s territory as one of the prime ones, there will be a necessity to secure many more of our vulnerable areas (VAs) and vulnerable points (VPs) right from the Valley stretching south to entire Punjab. The reasons for the threat having been clarified above, it’s equally important to know the nature of the threat.

While threat to major cities in the Indian hinterland would require much more planning and resources by Pakistan, the border towns of J&K and Punjab and some of the military garrisons in Haryana and Punjab would remain vulnerable to small teams infiltrated through the LoC or international border (IB) and traveling to the hinterland with the help of surrogates. An aspect Indian intelligence agencies will have to factor in is the idea of “copycat terror”. This is nothing but a manifestation of the intense competition within Pakistan between the so-called friendly and unfriendly terrorist groups.

The Tehreek e Pakistan Taliban (TTP), an “unfriendly” group, achieved a signature profile through targeting of air bases, military academies, schools and training centres of the Pakistan Army/AF. The Lashkar e Toiba (LeT) and the Jaish e Mohammad (JeM), the latter in a suddenly rejuvenated avatar, aim to project their higher capability, outreach and nationalist fervour by targeting similar facilities in India and remaining one-up on the “unfriendlies”.

That makes even cities such as Dehradun, Meerut, Roorkee and Bareilly as vulnerable as Pathankot, Gurdaspur, Jalandhar and Ambala. While alarm bells need not be sounded yet, there is need for far greater earmarking of response elements, intelligence resources and a revisit of the security infrastructure, equipment and SOPs. The perceived difficulty of the Indian Army of securing itself from suicide attacks at installations and institutions arises due to the absence thus far of credible threats to these. This is no longer the case. For an army trained to deliver hard blows in conventional operations and conduct routine LoC and anti-terrorist operations, the sudden emergence of credible threats in the “rear of rear areas” is nothing short of a transformational change in the threat pattern.

This is designed to keep the Indian forces pegged to securing themselves rather than training, managing their equipment and simply carrying out rest and recuperation of units which have spent hard grinds at the border for up to three years and sometimes even more. The adversary’s intent is to ensure that army formations and units are as committed, if not more, than the units of the Pakistan Army. A senior Pakistani Army veteran in conversation with me lamented the state of cantonments and garrisons in Pakistan where facilities lie in a state of neglect as a majority of troops do service at the eastern and western borders, a problem much of Pakistan’s own making.

With the targeting of the family residential quarters at Sunjwan, it is quite obvious the most vulnerable segment of the garrison was selected. In the coming summer, many formations and units of the Indian Army would move out of their garrisons and proceed for collective training, leaving families behind with school buses and other such amenities of routine military life. These would be even more vulnerable. Civil military cooperation is usually perceived as the military coming to the aid of civil authority at the time of emergent contingencies. Rarely does the idea of securing the military garrisons with the assistance of civil authorities arise. That situation is now more likely.

Intelligence and security cooperation and coordination in towns and cities in depth will become as important an activity as the routine aid to civil authority.

What the army has to immediately realise is that its own security has to go beyond just the earmarking of quick reaction teams (QRTs). A hundred per cent arming of all troops with sufficient ammunition on each man in peace locations is not a very palatable notion. While frontline fighting units are fully capable of this, there are many softer segments within the army too. Hospitals and schools make up a majority of this. Training establishments will probably have to earmark a part of their demonstration troops and absorb additional troops made available by fighting formations, with command and control from within their establishments.

There cannot be an overnight improvement in the neglected security infrastructure but much can yet be overcome with more robust awareness, training and willingness to be less comfortable than usual. It has to be supplemented by the government’s directions to ensure no bureaucratic hurdles in the way of security, with some form of accountability in the event of grave errors. This must not be restricted to the army’s garrisons and camps alone but equally take all resources under the MHA in its ambit.

Lest all this should sound defensive and paint a grim picture of India at hybrid war, let it not be forgotten by the government that attack remains the best form of defense. It should hold nothing back in its quest to hurt the adversary, whether at the border or deep inside his territory. Two can surely play this game.

(This article was originally published on February 22nd 2018, in The Indian Express. It has been re-published here with permission from the author. Read the original piece here)