Challenges of hard operations

With the coalition out of the way in J&K and Governor’s Rule back in place, media commentaries are speculating on the nature of operations that the Army will adopt now that political compulsions are out of the way. Most have alluded to the return of a muscular policy and of hard operations. Fortunately, a few sensible ones have rightly emphasised on the necessity of balanced operations. BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav pointedly stated that anyone talking of just a muscular policy was not doing justice to the universal concept of counter-terrorist operations that the government wished to follow. That is as sensible as it can get because uninformed opinion usually considers such situations to be tailor-made for a carte blanche employment of brute force. The term ‘operations’ in a hybrid conflict environment is used generically for physical neutralisation of terrorists, outreach and engagement with interest groups, taking apart the networks of over ground workers (OGWs), building networks to generate intelligence and, most importantly, conducting appropriate tactical movements to achieve domination.

Closer to the Line of Control (LoC), it is its sanctity that has to be secured and the counter-infiltration grid energised to prevent infiltration or at least minimize it; these, too, constitute operations. The only thing soft in these operations is the outreach and engagement initiatives. That can commence in small measures in areas less affected and gradually increased as greater success is achieved. Yet, it remains the most difficult challenge. The promotion of political activity at the grass roots is essential but in Governor’s Rule there is reticence among political parties not being sure how to respond. The translation of success in hard operations, if left unbalanced by the absence of this type of outreach, will result in squandering away the gains. Thus, what Ram Madhav said bears much importance and must dominate the narrative over that of ill-informed opinion which only demands kinetic operations.

The Army understands its role well and is fully aware that unless a threshold status is achieved, getting the political community to engage with the people or to give any spurt to development work is just not possible. One of the favourite questions of some television anchors is whether the situation is akin to the Nineties in terms of alienation of the public and levels of violence. For those who have been witness to the history of 28 years of strife in J&K, it is an interesting comparison for a couple of reasons. The challenge of 2018 is unique in its own way. First, the LoC is not leaking terrorists; there is much greater control over infiltration of foreign terrorists (FTs) who earlier kept the numbers intact. The LoC fence, constructed in 2004, continues to pay dividend in counter-infiltration. Second, North Kashmir has very small terrorist numbers and prominent among them are probably drafted as reception elements for potential infiltration through the season. South Kashmir has below 200 local terrorists (LTs) of different shades; some without weapons, others with snatched ones and a few well-armed and kitted FTs. So, the numbers are a fraction of the earlier times. The use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) has dried up, notwithstanding, two crude attempts this month. The major difference lies in the nature of alienation on display. In the Nineties, stone-throwing was a phenomenon witnessed only in the first few years and by comparison was benign. It came back with a vengeance in 2008 when the strength of terrorists reduced substantially. The fear of the gun targeting errant stone-throwers, who got too bold, was then largely evident. That fear has now disappeared. So, the challenge of 2018 witnesses lower strength and quality of terrorists but combined with stone throwers at encounter sites there is a more unique threat which is not easy to handle. The confidence and cockiness of the stone-thrower needs to be countered. This fearlessness results in more civilian casualties, which is never a palatable thing and it helps drive more alienation resulting in more recruitment.

The Army Chief correctly stated that the Army’s operations are not affected by any political turbulence. However, under Governor Rule there are no political sensitivities to cater to while undertaking initiatives in hard or soft operations. With the Governor chairing the Unified Command, there is a natural progression in the chain of command to the Centre. The expectation is that better flow of intelligence will occur when the Army, JK Police and the CRPF all report to a single point, the Governor. However, in my experience, the maximum flow of actionable intelligence is an outcome of personal relationships built between sub-unit commanders and the Special Operations Group (SOG) personnel who operate together.

I do sometimes perceive that the strength of terrorists has no link with the quantum of troops needed to be deployed. It is important to ensure no major spaces exist where gravitation of terrorist strength may take place. The emergence of Shopian-Kulgam area as the veritable hell hole occurred because we had few troops to dominate that area with our focus then on North Kashmir and infiltration. The famous Tral bowl has never had more than a unit worth of deployment. It could absorb a brigade but must receive at least an additional unit for now to dominate its inner ring of villages. The Army need not be hesitant about increasing strength where it is necessary, even if that is temporary. Additional units for Amarnath Yatra would already have arrived. If some more are required for sanitisation let these also be brought from the south of Pir Panjal. Of course, that area too cannot be denuded beyond a point. Additional strength must remain in the Valley until greater control is established.

All that leaves us with one nagging challenge and that is dealing with the emboldened stone-thrower beyond the use of hard power which must, of course, be demonstrated in a calibrated way. More on this will follow in subsequent analyses.

*Initially published on dnaindia.com

** Image from dnaindia.com