OPINION: The informal war

NEW DELHI (The Statesman/ANN) - After the killing of over 40 CRPF personnel in Pulwama, the blood-curdling war-cries and threats of repeated Balakot-style airstrikes will not ensure enduring stability. 

To forestall future Pathankots, Mumbais, Sukmas or Pulwamas from happening would make us safer. Today’s terrorist groups are revanchist in character, medieval in their objectives, yet modern in their methods of operation. Cyber terrorism and remote controlled missile attacks are no sci-fi threats.

Surendra Nath, once the head of Jammu and Kashmir’s own counter-espionage service, had played a key role in formulating a counter-terrorist strategy till his death in an air crash in 1993. He had authored a classified history of India’s counter-intelligence campaign against terrorist groups in Jammu and Kashmir from 1948 onwards. The Report on Pakistani Organised Subversion, Sabotage and Infiltration in Jammu and Kashmir, according to Praveen Swami, is perhaps the sole history of the “informal war” (“proxy war” in colloquial terms), and provides a detailed account of its course. A major portion of the report covers the period between 1964 and 1965. The “ceasefire which came into effect on the 1st of January, 1949”, Nath wrote, “was merely a prelude to the Pakistani efforts to grab Kashmir by other means”. The objective of Pakistani sub-conventional efforts, he argued, was to create conditions in which the government established by law in this state could not function, to arouse communal passions, to assassinate important nationalist leaders and ultimately overthrow the government and capture power either through their agents or by direct intervention.

Was Nath prophetic? It is time to take stock of how many instances of prevention, as they are better than a cure, have been made possible in proportion to intelligence gathered and this calls for nothing short of an inquiry commission. “We have a policy of zero tolerance against terrorism and the Modi government has the will to implement it on the ground. Whenever we are attacked, we will give a befitting reply. Enemies will now think ten times before doing something,” BJP president Amit Shah said. The first-ever “non-military preemptive” strike at Balakot by the IAF reinforced Modi’s image as a man of strength and decisive leadership, besides putting him on a crest of nationalism. But isn’t it better to pre-empt terror acts before they happen than to revel in triumphalism?

After the killing of over 40 CRPF personnel in Pulwama, the blood-curdling war-cries and threats of repeated Balakot-style airstrikes will not ensure enduring stability. To forestall future Pathankots, Mumbais, Sukmas or Pulwamas from happening would make us safer. Today’s terrorist groups are revanchist in character, medieval in their objectives, yet modern in their methods of operation. Cyber terrorism and remote-controlled missile attacks are no sci-fi threats. Maritime terrorism, as seen in the instance of the Mumbai attack of 26/11, can be devastating. The Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Sunil Lanba, has warned about the threat of states sponsored terrorism that India faces, in the context of “reports of terrorists being trained to carry out attacks with varying modus operandi, including through the medium of the sea.”

Those who do not learn from past mistakes are likely to repeat them. Warning a state of threats before the worst happens is the most important of all intelligence duties. Many attribute the surprise suffered by India at Kargil to the failure of reconnaissance efforts to collect information about the movement of Pakistani units. The Henderson Brooks report on the massive intelligence failures in 1962 underlined how lack of coordination among the agencies concerned, fragile credibility of sources, and inconsistent feedback resulted in India’s defeat against China. Near-total ignorance about Chinese intentions and capabilities in Tibet and their designs against India in the 1950s led to serial disasters.

Those who refuse to accept that Pulwama was a big-time intelligence failure are in a state of denial. Pakistan has long been harbouring terrorist groups and stoking unrest in Kashmir. Had the level of penetration and outreach of the terrorist groups like JeM in the Valley been sufficiently known, it would have helped us to realise the measure of indoctrination that had morphed the likes of Adil Ahmad Dar, Fardeen Ahmad Khanday or Afaq Ahmed Shah, all Kashmiri youth, into lethal suicide bombers. JeM finds a safe haven in the midst of a highly disaffected and alienated population. This is evident from its ability to plan attacks with meticulous reconnaissance and several dry runs. Further, it is in contact with people harbouring a sense of hatred and humiliation towards the security forces.

Adil, the suicide bomber who blew himself up in Pulwama to ignite the carnage that he did, was reportedly made to rub his nose on the ground by the Jammu and Kashmir police’s counter-insurgency unit, initially called the Special Task Force and now the Special Operations Group. He also made a circle around their jeep with his nose. “He kept mentioning this incident again and again,” his father was quoted as saying.

Unfortunately, our government at the Centre looks clueless about the ideological aspect of this problem ~ how years of alienation, muffled hatred, broken promises, coupled with political ham-handedness and economic neglect in Kashmir have grown into a poison tree. The Maoist movement that has emerged as the single most serious internal security threat to India in terms of the levels and spread of violence, extending across a wide swathe of West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh thrived on exploiting the societal grievances of backward tribal communities and stoking antagonism against the state to their advantage.

As regards alienation, when General Zia-ul-Haq entrusted the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) with the task of preparing a viable plan for waging a potent and serious ‘proxy’ war against India ~ taking care to keep Pakistan officially out of it ~ most of the urban youth were disgruntled with the government of the National Conference. This helped the Pakistani agents to enter the Valley in different guises as they found favourable conditions for their plan to succeed. General Zia, though resentful that the “Kashmiri brethren in the Valley” were not as martially inclined as a Punjabi or an Afghan, had wanted to ‘exploit’ what he called their certain ‘qualities’. “The Kashmiri”, he observed, “had a few qualities which we could exploit. First his shrewdness and intelligence, second his power to persevere under pressure, and the third, if I may say so, his being a master of political intrigue.”

In contrast, in 1965 for instance, Pakistan’s attempts to capture territory in J&K were foiled when Muslim Kashmiris refrained from supporting the intruding Pakistanis. Many of them handed over the infiltrators straight to the Indian Army or to the local police, who independently arrested many undercover Pakistanis.

Demonetisation was partly aimed to curb the flow the money for anti-India operatives in Kashmir, like those who receive money from Pakistan to fight in Kashmir, or some Kashmiris who provide sanctuary and support to militants, or some who patrol the LoC allegedly taking bribes to ‘allow’ militants to cross over to the Valley.

Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik did own up to the attack in Pulwama as being “partly” the result of an intelligence failure not the least because security forces could not detect the loading and movement of the explosive laden car. He admitted that while security forces were busy “eliminating” local militants ~ including those belonging to Jaish ~ there was no warning or intelligence input about any of them being trained to become a “suicide bomber.”

(The writer is a Kolkata based commentator on politics, development and cultural issues)

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