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Jammu And Kashmir: Ceasefire Halts Forces’ Forward March Against Terrorists

ON GUARD: Rashtriya Rifles Jawan in Shopian in south Kashmir
by Manu Pubby
SRINAGAR: Security forces were steadily gaining ground in Kashmir with a series of high profile terrorist takedowns over the past few months but Jammu & Kashmir seemed to be losing the larger narrative with stone pelting mobs becoming bolder, even resorting to fire bomb and acid attacks on armed personnel, possibly a flicker away from a major incident. In the days and weeks preceding the Ramzan concession, the biggest problem for security forces were not search and destroy operations in difficult and built-up areas but the very task of reaching an encounter spot. Under the new, albeit temporary, rules of engagement, security forces will now venture out of their camps less frequently, seeking to lower visibility but will have the flexibility to act if they get intelligence of an imminent attack.
UNDER THE CIVILIAN SHADOW
Security personnel on the ground whom ET met with described how convoys transporting troops and even heavily armed quick reactions teams (QRTs) recently come under heavy attack from mobs in their thousands. Mobs which they say are well organised to disrupt operations. In an operation two weeks ago in south Kashmir, an Army vehicle caught fire after being hit by a petrol bomb. A tragedy was averted after an alert soldier managed to douse the fire with his bare hands, sustaining injuries. The reason for such drastic action – the truck was carrying spare ammunition that if blown up could have caused major casualties.
Last Saturday, an armoured troop carrier was hit on the windshield by an improvised cocktail of tar and oil, blacking out the driver’s vision completely. That this cocktail hit the convoy at relatively low speed and did not catch fire saved lives.
“The aim of these attacks was not to dissuade us from operations but to get soldiers taking part in them. There is no doubt that the aim of a stone-pelting crowd is to kill,” says a seasoned officer, who has led several such operations this year.
The problem has been on the right tactics to deal with this unarmed but lethal crowd. As per established norms, police and CRPF have been engaged for crowd control and cordoning off an encounter site. This job has been becoming increasingly difficult due to a newfound boldness in the mob – fuelled by what they say is a fresh round of social media enlarged propaganda — that security forces believe can only be broken by harsh action. A recipe, perhaps, that could churn out a major incident that no one wants.
TAKEN BY SURPRISE
Senior Army officers ET spoke with conceded that Jihadi propaganda has been gaining ground. “If we are moving 10 steps, Jihadi propaganda is moving ahead 15 steps. Jihadi social media content has really gone up,” an officer said. Despite growing operational difficulties, the Ramzan ceasefire(the decision not to launch operations) is nothing short of a unilateral ceasefire. Even though the government is at pains to project it as a “non-initiation of combat operations (NICO)”, it has taken the armed forces and the defence ministry by surprise.
As late as Sunday, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman appeared to be batting for the Army, responding to questions on the possibility of a ceasefire by saying the “Army’s position is that it has to be firm on terrorism”. The Army has been clear in its inputs to the central government that a ceasefire will not have much utility but will give terror outfits time to regroup. In fact on Thursday, when the decision to cease operations was announced, it took several hours for the message to be passed down to formations across Kashmir as the Army was not expecting such orders to come about.
WHAT CHANGES ON THE GROUND
All eyes are now on the ways to implement the central government’s order. Prior to the ceasefire, the instructions were clear – operate on any and all intelligence to take down terrorists. The drill being foreign terrorists have to be eliminated in operations without mercy, as they are the more motivated and provocative section of these outfits.
Local terrorists are to be encouraged to give up arms even till the point of an encounter starting by roping in family members, calling them out of cordoned houses. “The moment we get intelligence that a local boy has taken up arms, we reach out to the family to bring him back. We remain in touch with the family every week for updates. There have been at least three cases in which such boys were bought back within six months of joining and no cases registered against them as a faith-building measure,” an officer says.
Constant operations – the Shopian based 12 Sector of the Rashtriya Rifles has neutralised 21 this year, including at least four top ++ rated terrorists – and modern technology has helped. Security forces now have 3D mapped each house in terror prone areas of Kashmir – a big help in planning intelligence-based specific operations. The cessation of operations will arrest this thrust.
The message from the political establishment in Kashmir is to give families time to bring back boys who have been radicalised to pick up arms. But the worst case scenario security forces fear is that this time can embolden the outfits further to plan attacks, scale up operations and engage in a show of strength.
PROVOCATIONS AHEAD
While specific instructions are being drafted for soldiers on the ground, the new ground rules are for a low visibility presence in Kashmir, a cessation of active operations to seek out terrorists and destroy bases and a reduction in area domination patrols. The locally hated cordon and search operations – surrounding a group of houses and evacuating civilians before a detailed search for suspected terrorists – will be put off but security forces will have the liberty to carry out strikes based on information of an imminent attack.
While this gives them a degree of flexibility, security forces will drastically reduce operations.
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