Since it is almost a situation akin to Stop Press when the announcement of Cessation of Operations in J&K came on the eve of Ramazan, I decided to use this column to attempt an explanation of why the Central Government may have accepted the request of the J&K Government for the same. In the interim readers would have picked up analyses from the media. However, I do feel there needs to be a larger understanding of the Kashmir situation dovetailed with the last experience of such cessation of operations to get a truly realistic picture of the situation.
It would be recalled that Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti had taken the consensus of an all-party meeting (BJP never confirmed its endorsement) to take up this initiative. I am not sure how much the political community really understood the dynamics of what they initially called a ‘ceasefire’. The Army did the right thing by probably explaining to the Centre that the ceasefire was nothing akin to the same term that is used for the Line of Control (LoC). What the Army clarified was that in sub conventional operations activities are not just ground to a halt with the Army taking a break in its barracks. The only concession is that proactive offensive operations against terrorists are ceased provided there is reciprocity. It essentially alludes to cordon and search (CASO) and search and destroy (SADO) missions. The counter infiltration grid and other operations there remain as active as ever, as do area domination, security of installations, road opening and intelligence collection. The concept of operations revolves around the rationale that the situation must not slip from what the Army and other SF have been able to achieve. It should allow the civil authorities to commence the psychological initiatives while providing basic security. Should the entire exercise collapse following some major setback, or an extension is not feasible the units and formations must be able to get back to operations without wasting time.
The Centre’s rationale is not being easily comprehended in the Army or the public. This should be expected. This is classic hybrid warfare on which no pamphlets or set piece publications exist. Surprisingly it is not even being taught in our institutions apart from counter insurgency operations which are a mere subset of hybrid warfare. What does surprise me is the notion and understanding that robust operations will finish terrorism and separatism in J&K. The current run of success in Operation All Out has been excellent from a tactical and perhaps even an operational point of view but needs to be taken to the level of strategic advantage. Despite neutralizing over 300 terrorists in 18 months, if as many have joined through local recruitment obviously something is wrong somewhere. Now that local recruitment appears to have replaced infiltration from PoK as the main multiplier of strength there may be no limit on the number who can join militancy unless something transformational is done in this regard.
The following summary borrowed from another writing of mine may do justice in explaining why the Centre may have opted to support the Chief Minister’s recommendation for cessation of operations:
• First, domination achieved through Operation All Out must go beyond military achievement and translate into strategic advantage.
• Second, the military space is secured but the social space is in turbulence. This social space needs to be calmed and addressed for which daily triggers from military operations need to be avoided.
• Third, military operations can continue interminably without peace in sight as the focus of ensuring numerical strength of terrorists has shifted from infiltration to local recruitment. More than the number neutralised is being locally recruited. This needs to be addressed through larger engagement with youth.
• Fourth, for all the criticism of the Centre’s ‘robust only’ policy, an opportunity has now been created to spell out counter-narratives to neutralise the dominant separatist narrative that Azadi is attainable.
• Fifth, with Pakistan under severe pressure from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) perhaps this could be an extendable window during which balancing our approach may fetch better response without commensurate negative Pakistani response.
• Sixth, the timing appears symbolically most suitable in sync with Ramazan although the inclusion of Sri Amarnath Yatra period even at the outset should have been considered. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has stated that it will be one step at a time and could extend to the period of the Amarnath Yatra if the response from the anti-national elements is positive.
Readers with a military background are well aware that the soldier’s complaint has always been that the Army succeeds in taking the situation in sub conventional operations to a point of conflict stabilization but thereafter the political leadership falters and takes no initiative. This time a risky initiative has been taken by the political authority. So, there should be no grudge. I find social media full of half-baked ideas on how momentum will be lost because of cessation. If you know your beans the Army must ensure that nothing changes. It has to work harder than even during operations. My experience of the NICO period revealed to me that our professionalism was really at a test and I revel in the lessons it taught me. It’s a different thing that NICO in 2000-01 was far too premature when the counter infiltration was still weak and strength of foreign terrorists (FTs) was at an alltime high. You cannot hope to win over FTs but with local terrorists (LTs) it’s a different game.
Having said all the above I do not have any great hopes from this decision because our psychological and information tools are insufficiently developed. To wait for that development indefinitely may be self-defeating. Balancing the military approach with psychological initiatives is the key. Perhaps another failure this time will yet temper us into understanding this better.