Handwara operations and misnomers that Arise

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain
Losing five brave soldiers and policemen in a counter terror operation is indeed regretful. All the more if just a month ago we lost five Special Forces men while neutralizing an infiltration.
It’s also a good time to set a lot of perceptions and ideas in order, from the disorder which prevails in the information domain dominated by social media. The kind of questions arising from an ill-informed public is downright damning and extremely demotivating for frontline soldiers.
This is the season for infiltration because Apr-May is the time when Pakistan attempts to get maximum terrorists across the LoC. The ice and snow covering the anti-infiltration obstacle system (AIOS) during winter is beginning to thaw and the fence beneath is in derelict state facilitating terrorists to walk across it. There are ambushes to prevent such movement but gaps can always be exploited. A Pakistani terrorist group probably managed to infiltrate, contact a reception party in Rajwar Forest and moved into the urban zone in adjoining Handwara to access potential safe houses. An intelligence alert on their presence sent the local 21 Rashtriya Rifles (21 RR) unit into response. What happened thereafter remains unclear. The terrorists reportedly attempted seeking shelter by hostage taking. The RR troops reached and undertook operations, succeeding in getting the hostages released. The CO and company commander leading a small team probably entered a house or a cluster of houses and then things went wrong resulting in loss of communication with them. What finally happened is best known to troops of 21 RR and their officers and there is no need to do a post mortem in public domain. In due course an inquiry will establish the chain of events as close to the actual as possible by piecing together the narrative. It needs to be known that this unit is one of the most experienced units of the Kashmir valley and has some of the highest achievements. It has battled hardcore foreign terrorists with aplomb but in military operations of any nature predictability is the last thing expected and an odd reverse takes place.
There are other connected issues that are being raised. After eight months of stability post 5 Aug 2019 there is an eruption of violence in the terrorist domain in Kashmir while the streets are silent. Since 01 Apr 2020 almost 30 plus terrorists have been neutralized near the LoC and the hinterland. The Army has lost nine soldiers plus two more from shelling in the Uri sector. While the achievements are good the losses are upsetting and the statistics do not appear professionally very comfortable. However, anyone who studies Kashmir would know that taking ratios in short brackets of time gives no deductions. Casualty ratios are always seen as averages over time. In early 2017 the ratio had come down to par with a soldier lost to every terrorist killed. 15 Corps restored these to approximately 1:5 (own : terrorists) in 2017 and 2018. Usually it is seen when strength of terrorists drops to a low the averages usually go more in their favour.
People are wondering why violence of this nature has occurred when all was under control for eight months. The answer is not difficult to seek. Any further absence of violence will contribute to the idea of normalcy which works in India’s favour. For Pakistan that is like placing more nails in its coffin after it found its options running out. A desperate attempt is on to enhance the strength of terrorists through infiltration into North. Much more is likely to follow as the season opens up even as attempts to balance South and North Kashmir are going on in terms of terrorist strength and violence. The system of ‘infiltration by attrition’ followed by Let Chief Hafiz Sayeed believes in sending hundreds of terrorists across the LoC in repeated attempts with many dying in the bargain but a handful succeeding in getting through. Life is of no consequence to these cadres and their leadership. That is where the major challenge for the Indian Army lies this summer; the prevention or minimization of infiltration. A decision to deny public funerals for all killed terrorists, foreign or local, has been taken by the administration which will assist in triggering sentiments towards local recruitment.
The other issue that is being spoken about by an increasingly vocal younger segment on social media is about the availability of technology to troops in Kashmir and the SOPs that are followed for such activities as hostage negotiations, house clearance and surveillance. No doubt the viewing of popular Israeli serials such as Fauda on Netflix has enhanced knowledge of people about such operations. It’s augurs well on the future of strategic culture but tends to be extremely cynical about our own operations. It needs to be known to people that Israel will not project its failed operations or those in which it suffered large scale reverses but rather only successful ones with some slick camera work. The Lebanese War of 2006 where Israel suffered reverses is never showcased. No doubt Israeli technology is legendary and there is no dispute on the need for more technology for operations in the Valley. However, I am aware that in the last ten years since my time things have improved many times over. Yet technology will always be less than required to be deployed unless funding and procedures are both eased. Post Covid 19 this is unlikely.
The standard operating procedures (SOPs) of units such as 21 RR are outstanding but they can be as good as the matching they have with the situations that arise. There is no tailor made SOP for each contingency because that is humanly impossible. Experience tells us how to adopt these SOPs to the situation. In spite of these an odd occasion will arise where no SOP exists and improvisation is resorted on the spot. That is what leadership is all about. Most times it will succeed but at odd time it will fail. There is no recipe for hundred percent success; the faster people understand it, the less will they focus unfair criticism against troops and their leadership.
There is much questioning about the forward presence of the CO for an operation involving 4-5 terrorists. This issue has come up many times in the past and the Indian Army has never believed in interference in the concept of unit command nor will it do so now. We have lost COs in the past and Late Colonel Ashutosh Sharma, SM** is the second CO of 21 RR to be killed in action; the first was Late Col Rajender Chauhan, SM, Aug 2000. In offensive operations in conventional war the CO may direct his forward companies from the firm base and move up only if there is an imminent failure staring a unit in the face. In defensive operations he may move to one of the sub units under attack and yet remain at the depth platoon to direct operations. However, Kashmir hinterland is all about irregular operations as part of hybrid war; there is no front and no rear here and terrorist contacts can take place at the HQ itself. The CO’s presence is therefore necessary at the point of contact or just in its vicinity. The vicinity can be converted into the point of contact in a matter of seconds due to rapidity of operations.
Company commanders launch operations based on the intelligence inputs they acquire and the success of that is ensured by the presence of the CO to back up and retrieve in case of contingencies. If located at his headquarters he will anyway have to move up should there be contingencies. It is old world thinking to imagine a CO sitting far away and directing. The Indian Army boasts of the leadership qualities of its officer cadre and the concern for safety of soldiers. The CO’s forward presence always ensures that. Nothing is going to stop this basic value system of the Indian Army.
We are at the beginning of a fresh campaign by Pakistan to up the ante in Kashmir. The Pakistan campaign cannot succeed in the light of many proactive measures taken by the Indian security system and will once again wear itself out. In the process there will be many successes gained by India’s security forces but an odd reverse too. This was one of them.
(Adapted by the author from his article first written for Rediff.com with permission of the latter)