Syed Ata Hasnain | The Rajouri encounter: It's about Pakistan's relevance

It’s hardly a riddle or a quiz why encounters with terrorists continue in the Rajouri-Poonch sector of Jammu and Kashmir and why, more often than not, surprise is gained by the terrorists. We need to be analysing how these encounters can be more productive for us, instead of the fairly obverse ratios currently prevailing. To begin with, let’s be very clear that there is nothing wrong about the way the Army’s operations are being directed at the operational level and executed at the tactical level. The operations are mostly intelligence-based and terror trends are now at a low, while there is also a desire on the part of the military leadership to seek contact and eliminate the remaining terror elements. However, in sub-conventional operations, this is the stage when the dying embers of terrorism also seek to revive. The security forces take much more risk to achieve while the terrorists minimise their own risk to survive and thus revive. It’s an axiomatic situation, which somehow is rarely realised by those responsible for the conduct of operations. Tactically, there is nothing wrong in going for the last few terrorists, but it cannot be done employing the same tactical concepts as when operating at the beginning or at the height of a terrorist movement.

It should be reasonably clear to all responsible that Pakistan has invested 33 years of sweat and blood too to fight us through the sponsored hybrid route. There have been ups and downs for us, and also for the adversary; it’s not as if we have always been at a high mark of achievement. In its psyche, Pakistan’s Deep State considers every situation as temporary, something which can be turned around in due course. It perceives the post-Article 370 situation in J&K as just a temporary setback awaiting restoration of advantage. While awaiting opportunities, it would not like to lose the networks it has established, nor the relevance it perceives that it has created for its own cause among the local population. Therefore, with every long phase of inactivity, it perceives it will lose support and face. Thus, for Pakistan, a strong capability to continue terror strikes must be retained even if it has to be in a limited segment of J&K. There exists no remorse about leadership; it could be serving or veteran. The area for operations chooses itself for attention by Pakistan’s proxies.

Since the Valley is flush with troops of the Army, CRPF and J&K police and the counter-infiltration grid is layered and very effective, conducting operations in the built-up areas is extremely challenging. Money circuits have dwindled, and also have safe houses. South of the Pir Panjal ranges, few gaps in deployment in the depth areas exist and the grid is definitely not as strong as the Valley. The presence of long routes of maintenance of the Army through thickly wooded tracts provides adequate scope to conduct one-off strikes every few months. In addition, the existence of rocky outcrops and broken ground just 25-30 km from the Line of Control (LoC) enables the terrorists to melt into the mountains. This is the nature of operations conducted by terrorists and that is how 33 of our bravehearts have lost their lives here in anti-terrorist operations in the past two years.

This is a description of the cause and tactics of the adversary. We need to look at the history of operations in this area too. The militancy that converted to terrorism did not begin here. This only became a hotbed after the fire was initiated in and spread in Kashmir. This is the area which controls the routes into Kashmir from the LoC near Poonch and Mendhar. Over time, this became the transit area to access South Kashmir in particular. The local population is Gujjar, Bakarwal and Pahari. Though largely their sentiments lie with India, loyalty can be bought at a price; at best this is a grey zone. By 1999, it became one of the areas with a heavy terrorist concentration, especially the forested mountain tract of the Pir Panjal. Without local support, there could be no survival. Small-scale operations were successful, but it took a division size, four-phase operation in 2003 to evict terrorists out of the Hilkaka region, where they were holed up. This too after intense planning and setting up of logistics capability. A large number of terrorists were killed escaping to the Kashmir side.

Therefore, if Pakistan’s guidance to the terror groups led to the selection of the Pir Panjal forested tracts as the area to revive the arc of terror, what should we do to prevent them gaining the upper hand? First, it seems that our existing methods of search and destroy are leading us into traps that are being set up by terrorists; drones have been ineffective in penetrating the heavy foliage cover; intelligence seems to be vague and insufficient; “population control” measures are probably non-existent to prevent resources reaching the holed-up terrorists through sympathisers. Second, the winter is usually not a time for large-scale operations. However, there is nothing sacrosanct about it. Brigade-size operations can still be conducted in the lower reaches. The higher reaches will be out of access for the terrorists; low foliage cover will make drones more effective. With snow, the established system of Wide Area Surveillance and Observation (WASO) flights of the Army Aviation Corps need to be used more liberally, even if more aviation resources have to be moved into this sector. It is my conjecture that there is adequate balance between Poonch-Rajouri and the other parts of the Jammu region, with some fresh formations having been redeployed here. Yet, if commanders feel the need for more, the Army should have no hesitation in moving them to these areas. It may not be advisable to redeploy from Kashmir which is now stable; disturbed stability there will be counter-productive.

Third, a large-scale fraternisation drive with the locals must be initiated by the Army, J&K police and local administration, with several grievance meetings with the public. It does not behove us to advise the Army to review some SOPs that it follows, especially in movement, response and first contact. Each negative operation of the recent past will give several lessons, which must be documented and disseminated for overcoming weaknesses. I rest assured that it won’t be long before the Army and all other security forces regain full control over the errant areas.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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