Bottomline | Hanging by a Thread

Afzal Guru’s execution has rendered Indian national security more vulnerable

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

While agreeing with Jammu and Kashmir chief minister, Omar Abdullah that the hanging of Afzal Guru, like Maqbool Bhat’s in 1984, would strain the uneasy peace in Kashmir, I would venture further saying that India’s national security appears more vulnerable today than in the Nineties. It is unrealistic to expect the India-obsessed Pakistan Army (PA), however critical its commitments in Afghanistan and coming domestic elections, to let go of the opportunity that has rallied all sections of Kashmiris once again against Indian insensitivity. The imminent threat will be radically different from what it was when insurgency erupted in the Valley in 1990 sweeping off balance both India and Pakistan. In stark contrast, the PA today is prepared to exploit any opportunity, however unexpected, to bleed India.

1990 saw the beginning of the proxy or unacknowledged war, called attack-by-infiltration in military parlance, by the PA in Kashmir. Uncomfortable with this new warfare, the Indian Army (IA), inducted in sudden large numbers in the state, identified Kashmiris as much as enemy as the PA, and bludgeoned them to fall in line. Also conscious of the need to guard the Line of Control (LC) against conventional war, the IA raisveed massive numbers (60,000), in short time (10 months), of Rashtriya Rifles (RR) units in 1994 for counter-terrorism (CT) operations, which quickly came to be viewed as an epitome of brutality. While being the regular army, the RR culled together from various regiments lacked cohesion, camaraderie and esprit de corps which provide balance to army units in face of threat. It took RR units many years to metamorphose into regular army, by when, unfortunately, the IA had started relishing this avatar where it has usurped the state’s law and order responsibility.

Despite the commitment on the LC, the IA focussed on CT (subsequently modified into a more humane counter-insurgency operations), so much so, that it was caught unawares by the 1999 Kargil conflict on the LC. Luckily, PA’s brashness and civil-military fault lines in Pakistan saved the IA from what could have been a national embarrassment. Following the November 2003 ceasefire in J&K, the IA erected the fence along the LC in 2004 and since then has lulled itself into believing that CI ops, under the cover of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is its raison d’etre.

Neither the IA nor the government have bothered to re-orient themselves to the altered threat dynamics from the PA supported by China. On the one hand, the conventional threat to J&K has increased manifold, completely neutralising the numerical advantage the IA had in the state. On the other hand, the proxy or unacknowledged war by the PA has since 2004 (when General Ashfaq Kayani was the director general ISI) gradually shifted its footprints beyond J&K, to the whole of India, with 26/11 terrorist attack in Mumbai demonstrating the ultimate audacity of the PA and the failed nuclear and conventional deterrence of India. Two factors have prompted this move: the preponderance of security forces in J&K, and the ceasefire on the LC which each side is loath to disregard for fear of losing sympathy of Kashmiris. J&K today faces significant conventional threat, while the rest of India confronts the unacknowledged war; the external and internal security threats have intermeshed necessitating a combined effort involving the defence and home ministries. The Afzal Guru hanging needs to be assessed against this transformed threat scenario.

It is thus logical to conclude that the recent terrorist attack in Hyderabad is part of the proxy war sponsored by the PA (the ISI is a part of the PA and not an independent entity). This does not imply that General Headquarters, Rawalpindi had ordered this attack, but that one of the numerous terrorist outfits sheltered in Pakistan under ISI’s benevolence had activated a local sleeper cell to do the dastardly act. To be sure, Lashkar, Jaish, Hizbul and Pakistan Taliban have given the clarion call to avenge Guru’s execution. It is therefore reasonable to expect more terrorist attacks across India, outside Kashmir, all of which would be traced back to Pakistan, not necessarily to the ISI. What are the options available to Delhi?

On the defensive side, there is as much disorder as existed in the aftermath of 26/11 attacks. There is little movement on the National Intelligence Grid, the National Investigation Agency remains hamstrung in bureaucratic wrangling, and the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), sought to be set up by the then Union home minister, P. Chidambaram is yet to acquire shape. The ambitious NCTC is caught up in the political football between the states and the Centre, with states, on their part, doing minimal to modernise and train police forces to meet the terrorism challenge, which goes way beyond the law and order roles.

The Union home ministry also has done little to assuage the genuine grievances of paramilitary forces. Why else would officers of the BSF, CRPF, ITBP and SSB go to court seeking redress for 10,000 cadre officers against unjust service conditions, especially with regard to the sixth pay commission? Moreover, intelligence, the key to combating terrorism, is both in short supply and usually unavailable in specifics and real time. The people, caught in the political blame-game remain at the mercy of terrorists, with scant protection from the state, whose primary task is security of its people. On the offensive side, the government’s bankruptcy of options was exposed during the 26/11 attacks: 166 people were massacred over three days in Mumbai by ISI backed Lashkar terrorists and India did nothing beyond exercising restraint, a euphemism for unpreparedness and ignorance.

Let’s now turn to Kashmir. It is a no-brainer that a war between India and Pakistan will begin here. There are three military held lines in Kashmir: the 745km Line of Control and the 76km Actual Ground Position Line against Pakistan, and the Line of Actual Control against China. By definition, a military held line is not a mutually agreed border and thus it can be tactically altered by force. Until 2010, the military threat was mainly from Pakistan, which is not reconciled to a status quo and therefore both sides have fought four wars over Kashmir. The threat comprised both conventional and unconventional (terrorism) war being unleashed simultaneously by the PA, a capability it had demonstrated successfully during the 1999 Kargil conflict. The role of the People’s Liberation Army was limited to providing logistics support to the PA in a war with India, in addition to adopting an aggressive posture on the LAC to ensure that the IA strength facing it could not be moved against Pakistan. In military terms, it was to be a one front war with material and moral support from China to Pakistan.

The IA plans to meet this threat comprised raisings of South-Western command and 14 and 9 corps to streamline command and control for battles in J&K theatre. An important element of the war plan will be to pull out as much as 50 per cent of RR troops (80,000 strong) from CI role and move them to the LC for conventional war. (This could be a war winning factor in J&K as operations in mountains are excruciatingly slow and dependent on numbers game. The PA has viewed IA’s large numbers in J&K as its operational gap that needed to be plugged). The RR would be replaced by paramilitary (CRPF) and state police forces to ensure that internal lines (army logistics moving on roads towards the LC) remain free from terrorists’ violence. The implementation of the RR move has two critical aspects: the earmarked RR units should be familiar with their conventional role; and the paramilitary and state police should be confident of undertaking CI ops in the hinterland to replace the RR at short notice. The first requires the RR commanders to be more than familiar with LC battles. It needs a mental re-orientation of troops from CI to conventional ops, and training with orbited formations on the LC, both of which need some time to grasp.

The second issue is more time consuming as the CRPF and state police would have to deliver under heightened terrorism conditions. This preparation entails that the CRPF and select state police forces be trained comparable to the RR forces; why not by the RR itself? To accomplish this, the RR should vacate areas, mostly urban, where its presence is not pressing and instead operate in the hinterland and defined terrorists’ enclaves. Simultaneously, the CRPF and state police forces could be trained in IA’s CI training schools in the state, in larger numbers than is being done. Over time, two objectives would be achieved: the RR, as regular army, could go back to its primary role on LC, while being available as trained forces-in-being in the theatre for unforeseen situation. And, this would help the state government make the point assertively that peace (however fragile) exists in the state.

This is precisely what Omar Abdullah has been seeking by the lifting of the AFSPA from select towns, a move fully supported by the earlier Chidambaram home ministry. Regretfully, the defence ministry under A.K. Antony seems to have abdicated its responsibility by allowing the army to take the call. The latter, for self-serving reasons is unwilling to relinquish its purported imposing stature: while being advisors to the chief minister at the Unified Headquarters, the three-star army officers dictate rather than follow governance rules. In this, the IA, is supported from outside by a motley crowd of retired officers and ignorant experts who rave and rant on television shows, taking pride in the RR doing a better job than paramilitary and state police. It does not occur to them that comparing the army with other security forces is being unfair to both.

Instead of asking to be relieved of the CI operations, which is not its primary job, the IA has concocted spurious reasons to explain why AFSPA remains indispensable. Having been stonewalled by the army on selectively lifting AFSPA from Kashmir, the Omar Abdullah government has now come up with the alternate of more powers for the state police by carving out special security zones in sensitive areas under the ‘J&K Police Bill 2013.’ This is not the perfect answer but having security forces under the state government is certainly better than the army calling the shots and needlessly meddling with governance as well.

In totality, it is clear that the IA continues to fritter away its numbers advantage in J&K for conventional war. But the PA is not taking any chances; it has finally convinced China to show its hand daringly. The case in point is the Chinese new position on Kashmir since 2010, where by declaring that it has a mere 2,000km long disputed border with India mostly in Arunachal Pradesh and none in Kashmir, it has unilaterally altered military dynamics in the state. The most affected region is Ladakh as, according to the previous army chief, General V.K. Singh, nearly 4,000 PLA soldiers are in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, something that China has denied and Delhi has pushed under the carpet. This is an extremely serious matter as the trigger for a two-front war in Ladakh stares India in the face and IA’s numbers superiority in J&K stands neutralised.

The question now is: will the PA with its military advantages in Kashmir not avail the opportunity presented by the hanging of Afzal Guru? The answer lies in when and how and not whether.


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