Lt. Gen Syed Ata Hasnain
The car bomb attack against the CRPF ‘up convoy’ near Pulwama, and the horrendous results of that has focused attention not only on convoys but the entire concept of movement by vehicle in Kashmir. There is so much ill-conceived information doing the rounds that it can only be put to rest through an informed commentary based upon years of experience in running these convoys and securing them.
The public must know what convoys are, what the necessity is of running them, why they are vulnerable and what goes into securing them. However, before that one idea needs to be put to rest. The Pulwama tragedy has given a notion that there is a car bomb lurking at every corner of a road and IEDs are strewn all over. Let us correct that. In 30 years of proxy war three cases of car bombs were reported; this is the fourth one. Before Pulwama the last one occurred in 2004 near Pattan on the Srinagar Baramula Road. It was fortunate that the effect of the ramming of a Maruti 800 with a gas cylinder bomb inside, on an Army bus strengthened by extra armour plating, had only marginal effect although regretfully the driver was killed. The extra plating on the sides was an improvisation, as was the pasting of melted rubber waste on the floor board of the bus. It saved many lives and led to the order to harden all buses run by the Army; an order valid even today. Two other incidents remain in memory. First the attempt again with a Maruti 800 at the Batwara gate of Badami Bagh and the second at the J&K Assembly building, both in 2001. The last reported IED which had a major effect was on 20 Jul 2008 against an Army bus in which major casualties occurred. The IED and car bomb threat abated thereafter. However, in the intervening period till the recent Pulwama incident the whole idea of IEDs and car bombs got increasingly refined in the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Analysts with ear to the ground anticipated the return of IEDs and car bombs to Kashmir with expertise gathered in these war zones, especially since the strength of terrorists had been reduced greatly and the security forces enjoyed relative freedom of movement. The deep state in Pakistanis is always on the lookout for ways by which alienation of the local population against India and the security forces increases. By targeting convoys which are considered comparatively soft targets the sponsors of proxy war want the security forces to increase the population control measures; that means more check points and more interference in daily lives and that causes much dismay in an already vitiated social environment.
A convoy is simply a collection of vehicles traveling together. A military convoy is however something different. It has a system of regulated movement, security and command and control. Ideally convoys should be run as small manageable groups of vehicles but in operational areas the dearth of dedicated security resources to act as close protection, causes larger sizes; more the deployment for convoy protection lesser the number of men for active anti-terror operations. Convoys have a mix of passenger vehicles and logistics lorries. In Kashmir as many as 10-12 large army convoys run every day in summer because of the larger need for logistics as winter stocking goes on. Some of these could have as few as 20-30 vehicles and some could stretch to 100 vehicles or more. The CRPF and BSF also run a convoy each up and down to Srinagar from Jammu; the smaller ones within the Valley join the Army’s convoys. In winter the convoys reduce in size and number but road blocks over few days force larger convoys to be pushed through to vacate transit camps which get filled to their limits. The CRPF convoy on 14 Feb was one such convoy larger than usual, although Army convoys are mostly even larger.
The security of the convoys is within the classified realm but conceptually anywhere in any conflict zone it is twofold. First the road is sanitized by road opening parties through checks for planted IEDs or any telltale signs. Thereafter there is a static element deployed all along the road and a few elements in depth from the road to create a secure corridor. The challenge here is from the hundreds of built up areas along the highway through which the convoys pass. While alert is high through the day it becomes higher when a convoy is supposed to pass a built up area. Drone security for generic surveillance or lookout for any suspiciously moving vehicles will always be a superimposed aspect although there are currently few resources to afford this on any continued basis. The second security measure is the dedicated security element within the convoy. Usually a sub unit is assigned this task for a specified period. This element is distributed through the convoy with segments of the convoy dedicated to the detachments which move in their own vehicles, always alert towards any threat to the unprotected vehicles. There are practices such as distribution of a few weapons among the passengers for self defence in the event of a contact with terrorists who may attempt to target the vehicles.
While on paper all the above is good remember the road protection personnel are on long hours of duty from morning to evening and laxity does creep in. This could mean the existence of an unsuspected static vehicle camouflaged as an official vehicle standing by the roadside ready to target the convoy; all such vehicles are supposed to be removed. If civilian vehicles are stopped for the duration of the passage of a convoy through a particular spot or segment it may be difficult to remove them and get them away from the proximity of the road. There are hundreds of contingencies which could arise and much would depend on the quality of training of the troops providing road security or convoy security. That is where glitches in security arise.
In 2011, the state of traffic in Kashmir was such that when the large convoys moved in the morning to their destinations and in the evening when the incoming convoys arrived there was paralysis at two ends of Srinagar city making it inconvenient for office goers and those returning home, to reach their destinations. The Civil Administration requested the Army to coordinate the convoy movement such that space for movement of civilian traffic was available at the high traffic times when the convoys clashed with the civilian traffic on the roads causing the paralysis. The Army conducted trials and changed some of the timings of its convoys without altering the security arrangements.
The directions now given by the Ministry of Home Affairs to stop all civil traffic when convoys move is highly desirable from a security point of view, especially with the arrival of the old threat from IEDs and car bombs. However, for how long this will be implemented remains a question because sooner than later pressure by the state government will be put after petitions are received from citizens on the degree of difficulty and the harassment faced at the hands of the traffic police due to the frequency of convoys. As summer approaches the demand to put an end to this order will gather weight. That is how over a period of time it was diluted the last time.
(Originally published by swarajya.com and reproduced with permission)
Lt. Gen Syed Ata Hasnain