February 2016 News

Unlearn Fast To Fight Kashmir's New Battle

24 February 2016
The Tribune (Chandigarh)
Arun Joshi

Jammu: The encounter at the multi-storey building at Sempora, just a kilometre outside Srinagar, which lasted for more than 48 hours from Saturday to Monday afternoon, (from February 20 to 22) is a perfect lesson on how not to conduct an anti-terrorism operation in Kashmir. The sanitisation of the massive building with 44 rooms was still on as the security forces disposed of unexploded explosives and searched for the booby traps left by the slain trio. Over the years, lulled by the obsolete battalion approach, the Army has not devised any new strategy to deal with new threats. It has also ignored the growing challenges on the ground in a self-delusion that its 'Sadhbhavana' or goodwill operations, granting computers to schools or sponsoring all-India tours of children and the aged, have generated new sources of information and the pro-militancy sentiment has retreated. Contrary to that, the fact is that the situation on the ground has worsened. If there were any doubts, the Saturday to Monday gun battle offered ample proof of the worsening situation. Acute complacency about the situation, despite claims to the contrary, and declining interaction between the top Army leadership and the men in the field, is hampering the emergence of new counter-terrorism strategies. Rather than devoting adequate time at map-reading in operation rooms, much time is consumed in projecting themselves before the cameras. Much has changed since 1990, the calendar year of the start of the armed rebellion in Kashmir. The Army has taken certain things for granted and taken its eyes and ears off the ground, where Kashmiris have developed a psyche of drawing a vicarious pleasure from the prolonged exploits of militants in their fight against the security forces. The Sempora encounter, which started with an ambush of the CRPF convoy, in which two troopers were killed and nine injured on Saturday afternoon, had multiple inbuilt challenges. After the ambush, the militants deviated from the hit-and-run option, a familiar strategy they would adopt during the 1990s. Instead, they walked into the Entrepreneurship Development Institute building, where they asked the civilians to flee. They forced those who were reluctant and scared to run by firing in the air. Major-General Avinder Dutta, General officer Commanding, Victor Force, based in Awantipore in south Kashmir, made an apt observation: 'Militants had sought to provoke the forces and cause collateral damage.' However, the unanswered question is where was the quick-reaction team that is supposed to follow the convoys? The fact that raises a pertinent question is that at this very place a similar attempt had been made to ambush the same convoy two months ago and yet it did not ring alarm bells. The CRPF team entered the premises but had to withdraw because of the intense assault by the fully armed and equipped militants. Then the Army adopted a flip-flop strategy, losing two Captains and one Lance Naik. It was a much heavier price in terms of the ratio of 1:4, before it pounded the building with rockets. What needs to be asked is: Could not what the Army did in the end have been done in the beginning? Perhaps what has not been factored in is that a prolonged encounter etches an image of macho terrorists who die fighting a much larger number of soldiers. Undoubtedly, they were in an extremely advantageous position, hiding in a building that is more than 60 feet, with many windows and nooks and crannies. Why had the Army never calculated such a scenario in its counter-insurgency strategies. That something happens for the first time is no logic. Fidayeen attacks are nearly a 17-year-old phenomenon in Kashmir now. The reliance on the past practices, when the Army would conduct cordon-and-search operations for hours together in extreme weather conditions and the people would bear them, is not a good strategy, to put it mildly. What has been seen is that the locals of the areas, whether after being instigated or voluntarily, march toward the encounter sites. At times, they even provide the militants a human shield to escape, while at other times, like at Sempora, a message of solidarity is broadcast through pro-militant slogans and anti-India exhortations. It is the time to review the counter-terrorism strategy against the backdrop of the changing face of militancy in the state battered by militants for the past nearly three decades. Counter-terrorism experts need to come out of their drawingroom mindset and study the field situation afresh in Kashmir. At the same time, it becomes incumbent upon the Army commanders posted in this sensitive, terrorism-hit state to interact more with their men rather than showcasing themselves as messiahs pedalling goodwill missions which burden the taxpayer. Old tactics cannot and should not be applied in the changed situations where terrorists adopt new techniques and are equipped with a new mindset to fight for days together. In the 1990s, when the Army used to cordon off areas and go in for anti-terrorist operations, it would overwhelm militants with its numerical strength. The soldiers would use that advantage to neutralise militants after a brief spell of gunfighting. This was followed by a phase when militants would take shelter in mosques as part of their hit-and-run tactics. The public disapproved of this strategy of the militants. Elders would act as intermediaries to get mosques vacated. There was always a next time for the soldiers to take on the militants. The Fidayeen cult, the signature style of Lashkar-e-Toiba, which came into vogue after the Kargil War in 1999, is continuing. The basic training to deal with such battles where militants create an imminent death-like situation has not been worked out for the past nearly 17 years. Raising boundary walls and seeking safety in the rolling out of concertina wires has not served as a deterrent. That was obvious in Pathankot as well. Another tactic adopted by the militants was to storm civilian buildings, hotels and then attract the security forces to surround them. It was patience and intelligence that paid dividends, not knee-jerk reactions. That time, the public did not come out and no attempt was made to reach the site of the encounter to create a law-and-order situation. Now the youth, armed with stones, often reach the site where the gun battle is underway. The delay in concluding operations can create other disturbing situations. Again, this eventuality has not been taken into consideration. Complete coordination between the police, paramilitary and the Army in such an eventuality is a delusion. The ground situation is an altogether different story. What have been recorded as the 'peak years of militancy' in Kashmir, now appear like its infancy as compared to the level and intensity of the new terror attacks. Die-hard elements among militants, who want to go down fighting instead of offering to surrender to a higher number of military personnel, reveals a hardened mindset. Earlier, picking up the gun was a romance. It was believed that merely carrying a gun, or firing bullets on security pickets or patrols or hitting and running after hurling grenades was enough to show commitment to the 'cause of the liberation of Kashmir' or earn the aura of a 'martyr'. At one stage, their death was treated merely like that of militants and not martyrs. This is no longer the case now. The battle at Sempora has proved it beyond any doubt.