Declaration of Baramulla as first terrorist free district in Kashmir displays flawed understanding of proxy war

I have great respect for the Jammu and Kashmir Police and on many occasions, including a few on social media, I have extolled the virtues of the force which has sacrificed much and yet remained steadfastly stable and professional in its outlook and functioning. However, on a professional note, I may not agree with its recent celebratory announcement.

The context is a media report, after Wednesday's encounter which left three terrorists dead at Binner village near Baramulla town. The report said that the Jammu and Kashmir Police has declared the Baramulla district in North Kashmir 'terrorist-free'. Over 200 terrorists have been killed in counter terrorism operations in the district in the last two years. While there is always reason to celebrate the elimination of terrorists from a district, the issue needs a more comprehensive understanding from a larger national perspective.

Declaration of Baramulla as first terrorist free district in Kashmir displays flawed understanding of proxy war

Representational image. Image/Sameer Yasir

I would also differentiate between counter terrorism operations and counter proxy war operations because the latter has a larger and more comprehensive connotation. Besides that counter terrorism operations is just a subset of counter proxy war operations which also has within its ambit the whole gamut of separatism, alienation and ideology, all run under the umbrella of psychological operations by the adversary through complex networks. Add to it financial networks, gun running and narcotics and you have a heady mix far greater than just the terrorists who are an instrument in the entire game.

Symbolism in counter-terrorism operations is important but correct lessons from symbolic signals need to be read properly. Experience and expertise tells us much through adages. First, that absence of violence is never normalcy; extend that a bit and it also means that elimination of terrorists alone is not the intent behind counter proxy war operations; it’s the elimination of terrorism that is the aim. The Islamic State has been vanquished and evicted from Fallujah and Mosul in Iraq but it remains in networked state with full capability of revival. Victory against Islamic State hasn’t been declared because defragging the networks is the key to its final neutralisation and the end to terrorism related to it.

In a region suffering widely and intensely from the impact of cross border proxy war with terrorism as the main instrument for as long as 30 years, there are many factors at play than just the presence of terrorists. Declaration of any part of such a region as terrorist free after a long and hard fought counter proxy war campaign must always be welcomed. However, my cautionary here is based upon many years of experience fighting this proxy war.

First, counter proxy war does not end on a date or at the killing of a supposed "last" terrorist. It is work in progress to also ensure the dismantling of the infrastructure which produces and nurtures terrorists and terrorism. Second, terrorism has a much wider connotation. It is not just the terrorist who forms a part of it. There are over ground workers (OGWs), leaders, sleeper agents and ideologues in fair numbers who could take just a few days to ensure the induction or recruitment of more terrorists. Third, 'terrorist free zones' connote return of normalcy. That is a fallacy because the potential to return to terror is not completely weeded out. Fourth, by declaring an area as terrorist free it is a psychological message of victory. Again that is a mistake because in counter proxy war the definition of victory is quite different and relates to the comprehensive neutralization of potential.

By declaring Baramulla district terrorist free what is not taken into account is that while resident terrorists may have been marginalised the transient ones are always available. Uri tehsil forms a part of Baramulla district. It’s an area most prone to infiltration. Can anyone guarantee that the 50 km stretch from the LoC to Baramulla town is terrorist free?

A single successful infiltration by a large terrorist group can take the complexity to where it was, in a matter of days. It would be a serious mistake to ignore the potential of transient terrorism. Baramulla district offers a variety of terrain; high mountains, lakes, riverine areas, urban densely packed old town areas and forests. Separatist trends and radical ideology is still rife and sufficient networks exist. The potential for revival of terror is as live as that which existed in South Kashmir.

We have suffered from such premature assumption of notional victory once before, in South Kashmir from where we shifted our focus and redeployed resources for more effective counter infiltration in the north. The areas then vacated are now teeming with terrorists after the revival in 2014-16. Even recent history has lessons for those who care to study it. In 2011 elements in the state and central governments were hell bent on removing AFSPA from two districts of Kashmir declaring them as having attained normalcy. Much against pressure the Army stood its ground, clearly stating its inability to operate without legislative protection and authorization. Even without removal of AFSPA revival of sponsored local terrorists took place by 2016, a year which coincidentally had been predicted by the Army in 2011, as one by when the security situation could deteriorate due to the machinations of the sponsors of proxy war from Pakistan.

In 2011 demand for removal of AFSPA gained traction in non-military minds on similar assumption of absence of terrorist activity in Srinagar and Badgam districts. It was a questionable assumption then, as it is now and one can visualize the celebration in the ranks of the Deep State in Pakistan which sponsors, controls and runs the proxy war campaign that has kept India under the effects of the ‘thousand cuts’ strategy. One can also visualize the haste with which premature demands from diverse stakeholders will emerge to remove AFSPA from the ‘terrorist free’ Baramulla district.

In 2015 in an interview with the media I termed the situation in the Valley, 'The Last Mile'. I then went on to explain what exactly that meant. In the haste to eliminate the last terrorist the security forces will always go on overdrive ignoring the many other facets which go into making a dangerous proxy war situation. That bit of ignoring will always revive the last terrorist for another lease of life. It is a cycle which often emerges and continues until the state can comprehensively address the other facets of revival.

So let us compliment those who are involved in the thankless task of counter proxy war. They deserve our gratitude. Yet let us not make the same mistake again. It’s good to remember that elimination of the last terrorist is unimportant; it is the elimination of terrorism which will fetch us the elusive victory we seek against protagonists of proxy war against India.

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Updated Date: Jan 25, 2019 11:45:00 IST

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