J&K : Hajan operation, Terrorist surrenders, ISIS presence and prospects for the winter

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain
Photographs of senior Army and Police officials addressing a joint media conference after the successful Hajan operation on 18 Nov is one of the symbolic messages of communication strategy I have been long looking for in the complex maze that is J&K.  It adequately conveyed the convergence of strategy of the security forces. The JK Police has long been the most effective partner of the Army in the 27 year old campaign and inter dependence of the two forces has been a norm but little was done earlier to bring home this message. Visibility is a great force multiplier and we should see more of this in the future. The CRPF is equally a most effective force and in the current run of operations its presence at the point of contact with terrorists is always most reassuring as it takes the brunt of the ire of the public attempting to give terrorists a reprieve to escape the dragnet. That is why the senior security leadership needs to be complimented because cooperation has always been a norm but conveying this strongly through visual messaging adds to that effectiveness.
It is because of effective cooperation and coordination, besides the averagely larger strength of terrorists (definitely higher than claimed), that we have seen some good gains in the last six months. The Hajan operation is a demonstration of the same. Elimination of a six member Lashkar e Toiba (LeT) terrorist group in hinterland operations has probably not been achieved for  fairly long. It was a norm in the nineties and early millennium to see terrorists in greater numbers and concentrations. Those were days when in South Kashmir alone six to seven simultaneous contacts with terror groups were monitored and managed by the HQ Victor Force, the Army’s counter terror force in South Kashmir. The large terrorist strength supported by an equally large over ground worker (OGW) network frequently moved from base to base and safe house to safe house. Interception by the Army in ambush mode was a rarity; ambushes helped in domination and preventing free movement at night, as much as they do today. Yet the real success always came from intelligence based, surgical operations or from search and destroy operations (SADO). The Hajan operation gives two deductions of importance. First, that terrorists appear to be moving and residing in safe houses in larger numbers than in the recent past when they remained in twos or threes. This could be because of dwindling OGW network due to financial constraints being faced by terrorist and separatist networks as a result of the NIA pressure. It’s likely that the number of safe houses have also reduced forcing this larger concentration of terrorists in groups. While it would be premature to take this deduction as a gospel the trend seems to be in that direction. Perhaps terrorists may quickly learn the lesson under advice from across the LoC and go back to the older norms but it won’t be easy. Second  deduction and lesson is that persistence in focusing on a terrorist group and especially one which has escaped dragnets in the past, is the key to success. Tactical level leaders sometimes prefer to play the numbers game by adding to their tally rather than focusing on the quality and history of notoriety of a group. Higher commanders therefore must remain committed towards eliminating the latter type of groups because the resultant effect on the terror networks is much greater.
Recent Surrenders
Social media has witnessed over the last week or so, many exchanges on the surrender of Majid Khan a handsome young Kashmiri footballer recruited by the LeT. The storyline has been that the mother of Majid appealed to the terrorists to release her son from their group as he was the only earning hand in the family. It led to Majid returning home to be united with his family and friends with even the LeT taking credit for showing concern and sensitivity for an impoverished family. Of course the truth lies in the fact that Majid actually initiated the case for his own return through Army sources. It was Victor Force and JKP which set up the management of public sentiment and the messaging besides overseeing the safe return of Majid. The LeT obviously seething had to project a face saver. A second case of a youth (identity correctly not revealed)  returning under somewhat similar circumstances in South Kashmir a day ago is giving rise to speculation that this could be a floodgate. It very well could be because such sentiments do sometimes go viral. However experience dictates otherwise. Queried publicly on television about this possibility I maintained that the history of surrender in the Valley is not a very happy one. There have been far too many undelivered promises based upon frail and unsupported surrender policies. Unfortunately even recent history of the proxy conflict is rarely read by practitioners or even commentators who speak in television debates. There are a couple of thousand surrendered terrorists who were promised much but they languish today bitter with the experience of broken promises and lack of credibility. They are readymade recruits for terrorists but have largely remained outside the ambit of violent activity. Thus to base our future planning on imagined sentiments arising out of a stray but extremely well managed case wouldn’t do justice to strategy. What  we need is a surrender policy in place;  a well thought through, comprehensive policy which must receive the Central Government’s total support. Without the latter, it remains unimplementable. While evolving such a policy the failure of the past must be kept in mind as much as attempts by the ISI to emplace sleeper agents through surrender. Risk is inherent in such a policy but that should not be deterrent when indicators on ground point towards a potential wave. The continuum of operational pressure and success must remain at a high, as will be explained in another paragraph later.
The ISIS Presence in Kashmir
It was good to see the Home Minister strongly and quite convincingly refute the idea that ISIS, the displaced terror group from Syria, Iraq and other Middle Eastern areas has entered Kashmir. Ever since 2014 when ISIS emerged into notorious limelight attempts have been made to project its presence in the Valley, apparently as an act in support of the Ummah. Much before this there were similar attempts to prove how serious Al Qaida was in attempting to show solidarity with Islamists in the Valley. Neither Al Qaida nor ISIS are a credible threat in the Valley because while attempts are made to seriously link the larger campaign of Political Islam with Kashmir the Kashmiris have showed no propensity towards such a linkage. The radicalisation which has gone on unabashedly right from the Nineties has succeeded to a large extent in penetrating the mosques and Ahle Hadees philosophy has taken some root. Yet the Kashmiri populace has displayed a general dismay against the methods of Al Qaida and ISIS. The flags of ISIS which emerge from time to time, as much as Pakistani flags are a means of distraction for the intelligence and security organisations. They are also an attempt to instigate and draw irrational response from the SF which can then be used for propaganda. Lastly, on this issue, the terror groups in the Valley zealously guard their own functional space and would not like the hijacking of the Pakistani and separatist agenda by a wayward group such as ISIS. The authorities, of course, have to remain on alert and continue to clutch the proverbial straws which will indicate anything contrary to the above assessment.
Towards a Winter of Content
The Central Government’s direction to the SF in J&K to continue maintaining the pressure through hard operations is a prudent one; even as it follows the path of interlocution. It’s been a good campaigning season in Kashmir with a high level of domination by the SF. The intelligence agencies and the local JKP intelligence have been very effective. The NIA has added much to the overall effectiveness through its sustained efforts against finance networks.eave chance for the terror groups t.
There is a wrong notion among some practitioners and Kashmir watchers that winter is a low activity and achievement period. It’s an incorrect assumption. My years in the Valley leave me to recall that winter can be as much a campaigning season security pressure to l. While the State Government delivers governance and does outreach with the Chief Minister leading, as demonstrated in recent months, the SF, intelligence agencies and NIA must continue the run of operations. With infiltration not easily possible, recruitment must be prevented through social media and direct contact with susceptible areas such as Tral, Shupiyan and Kulgam. The strategy of summer should continue with the same energy to reduce terrorist strength. Some fedayeen like attempts to push the SF on the defensive will be made by terrorists. As such domination of crucial vulnerable areas and points must be ensured.
The situation appears well under control but our adversaries will always have a surprise or two up their sleeves. My strong recommendation is that the Unified Command must remain activated for joint brain storming and planning. Come Summer 2018 we should have crossed over to a more sustainable position of strength.
(The author is former GOC of Srinagar based 15 Corps)
By arrangement with Swarajya.com