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IDSA COMMENT

Security Situation in J&K: A Reality Check

June 28, 2013

On 24 June 2013, at approximately 1620 hours, a Rashtriya Rifles convoy was attacked on the main road passing through the area of Hyderpora, a township, almost midway between Badgam and Srinagar. The ambush site lies on National Highway (NH) 1A, which is considered the lifeline both for the maintenance of Kashmir valley and security forces deployed in the area. It looked like a pre-planned operation executed with precision resulting in the death of eight soldiers and injuries to many more.

The ambush is being seen as a symbolic act of terrorism on the eve of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), on 25-26 June 2013. However, an assessment of the incidents of the past three months reveals a trend in the nature of attacks that have taken place. On 13 March 2013, terrorists launched a fidayeen (suicide) attack on a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camp at Bemina. The attack resulted in the death of five security personnel and injuries to another ten. This was followed by an ambush at Hygam, Sopore on 26 April 2013, resulting in four fatal police casualties. On 24 May, four soldiers of the Rashtriya Rifles died in an encounter, at Buchoo village of the Pulwama district. The year 2012 had witnessed a total of 15 security forces fatalities. The first half of this year has already seen more casualties than the whole of last year. When this is contextualised with increasing attempts at cross border infiltration over the previous year, the heightened levels of violence can be seen in perspective.

The series of events, culminating in the ambush of 24 June, highlight certain unmistakable trends. It is important to take note of the underlying shifts that are taking place in J&K, below the deceptive calm often showcased in the context of large number of tourists visiting the state.

First, the identification of terrorists killed in the recent encounters clearly indicates the resurrection of Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) which was increasingly being seen as a spent force in the state as a result of neutralization of its senior leadership in series of successful operations by the security forces.

Second, analysis of the recent terrorist attacks suggests that these have been carried out after detailed planning and executed employing high tactical skills. This especially holds true for the ambush on 24 June. As any trained military mind would tell us, ambushes are a difficult offensive manoeuvre to execute in isolated jungles and mountains. It becomes even more complicated in urban areas like Hyderpora, where the ability to achieve surprise is a challenge. Despite a well oiled intelligence grid of security forces, which has matured over the years, the proficiency with which the terrorists sprung a successful ambush should therefore be seen as a substantial tactical gain. This reality is further strengthened by the ambush being a two sided attack, which requires coordination of a very high order. The subsequent escape from the site only reinforces the assessment of their improving skills.

Third, the selection of NH 1A for the attack, reinforces the vulnerability of existing lines of communication and especially the key arteries in the state. Even as dedication of the railway link to the nation on 26 June by the Prime Minister marks a major achievement for the state and its people, the attack two days earlier highlights vulnerabilities, which continue to exist along these routes.

Fourth, this vulnerability also needs to be seen in light of repeated and often acerbic exchange of views on the issue of withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from certain areas in the state, which incidentally includes Srinagar and other areas served by NH 1A. While the context of this comment is not to debate the known opposing positions on AFSPA, however, the incident has clearly highlighted certain fears expressed as a result of selectively revoking disturbed area notification from certain areas. The army has often made a case that the effectiveness of the intelligence grid will be impacted by partial lifting of disturbed area status in the state.

The incident indicates that despite a fully functional grid, such ambushes can successfully be sprung by terrorists. The ability to further build on this grid will undoubtedly receive a setback in case the oft recommended dilution of disturbed area status is put into effect, as it would curtail the ability of Rashtriya Rifles and its supporting intelligence agencies to operate in such areas. It would also hamper counter ambush procedures and resultant searches if incidents take place in areas bordering two districts under different disturbed area status. Therefore, there is need for a reality check, given the evolving security situation, marked more by pragmatism than rigidity. As a guideline, the fundamental principle for deploying security forces remains two fold: one, operational freedom within the rule of law and second, justifiable protection against false cases and motivated prosecution. If security forces have to operate in an area, these criteria must be met to enable maintenance of peace.

Fifth, any effort at negotiations with Pakistan, needs to factor in the continued attempts at disturbing peace in J&K. The continuation of unprovoked firing incidents on the Line of Control (LoC), attempts at infiltration of terrorists, pumping in counterfeit currency and drugs, support for known terrorist groups like the Laskar-e-Tayaba, clearly indicates that facilitation of cross border terrorism by Pakistan continues unabated. Therefore, even as attempts are made to pursue peace, preparedness for the ongoing proxy war cannot be allowed to slacken. National interest and maturity demands that an all party consensus must be evolved on issues like terrorism, without local politics being allowed to interfere in the pursuit of these goals.

Sixth, the ability of terrorists to carry out such strikes indicates continued support from certain sections of the population. This is a reality check, both for the administrative machinery of the state and security forces. Given the importance of the hearts and minds component of a counter insurgency struggle, there is obviously more that needs to be done to ensure that information about planning of such incidents can flow in time to defeat such attacks. In the same context, the resurgence of HM should be a cause for concern, as it indicates successful radicalisation of sections, which are able to sustain the armed movement.

Seventh, the security apparatus can not afford to slacken their vigil even in a period of relative peace. They have to remain alert so that the situation does not deteriorate suddenly. The selective attacks targeting the security forces are meant to provoke them to retaliate harshly which can create an environment of fear all over again.

The relative peace established in J&K is a result of the sustained collective efforts of the central and state administrative machinery and more importantly the people of J&K. The rising trend of violence must therefore be curtailed in a well coordinated and intelligence based operations to ensure that the ongoing efforts to bring peace to the people can successfully be achieved.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.