When faced with a threat from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), car bombs and potentially individual suicide bombers, one of the ways of countering it is to reduce the targets and the time available to perpetrators to target them. That is both pragmatic and sensible. Thus, in the wake of the Pulwama car bomb attack that had a devastating effect on a bus carrying security personnel, the decision of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to move all CRPF troops by air to and from the Kashmir Valley must first of all be lauded.
Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has invariably displayed empathy and sensitivity towards the enormity of the task being performed by the security forces in Kashmir. However, this decision cannot be a standalone one and will need going into much greater detail — which one has no doubt he will ensure. Experience of years in handling the threats must thus be available to him as advice which he is usually extremely open to taking.
First, I doubt whether the media has got it right. Is this decision applicable to only the CRPF or does it extend to the army as well. Hasn't the decision been taken comprehensively in consultation with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to ensure that none of the forces move personnel by road from Jammu to Srinagar and back? If such a comprehensive decision has not been taken, then the approach to the problem at hand appears flawed and will once again expose the lack of coordination and synchronisation between the organs of the government. The principle of 'all of government approach' in sub-conventional operations flies in the face of individual decisions of core ministries, if this is true. One does expect clarifications on this in the very near future.
However, there are more pressing issues based on factual information that need deep consideration. Perhaps people are unaware that the issue is not about the Jammu-Srinagar road alone. As many as 10 convoys of the army run in Kashmir every day through the summer. The bulk of them service the army's troops and a few BSF units under army control at the Line of Control (LoC). The vulnerability of convoys is by no means limited to the Jammu-Srinagar highway. Large convoys service Ladakh through Kashmir once the Zojila Pass opens early in May each year. The army has the largest presence because not only does it man the LoC to maintain its sanctity, it also remains deployed in a counter-infiltration role.
A large number of units of the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) and reserve formations are committed to the counter-terror grid in the hinterland. It is worth recalling that the reduction in the number of terrorists from a high of 5,000 to 6,000 in earlier years to the current level of 350 where it has plateaued since 2010, was largely due to the efforts of the RR, no doubt with some great support by the Jammu and Kashmir Police (JKP). That footprint of deployment necessitates logistics which is as much a part of the operational functioning in a terrorist-filled region as actual operations targeting terrorists. The BSF and the CRPF too have logistics convoys servicing their outlying units but are smaller in size and number.
The decision to do away with personnel movement on the Jammu-Srinagar highway will obviously reduce vehicle movement on this important arterial road in south Kashmir and thereby reduce the scope of large-scale casualties in the event of terrorist attacks. Explaining this further, the road movement will therefore be restricted to the transportation of material, stores, rations and fuel in which the scope of casualties to personnel is greatly reduced. However, large numbers of units, of different forces are turned over every year. This rule if eventually applied to the army (as I expect it would) must remain applicable to movement of full units and not just transient movement involving leave parties and those proceeding on temporary duties. Expenditure may not be a consideration in this exercise, but the inclusion of the army in its scope will enhance it substantially.
The scope to limit the size and composition of other convoys that move internally every day within the Valley is extremely limited because fixed-wing air transportation facilities do not exist and movement by helicopter of such personnel in large numbers is impractical. Extraordinary situations demand extraordinary measures. Thus far, security of convoys is provided by two elements. First, the road is sanitised by road-opening parties through checks for planted IEDs or any telltale signs. Thereafter, there is a static element deployed all along the road and a few elements in depth from the road to create a secure corridor. The challenge here is from the hundreds of built-up areas along the highway through which the convoys pass. While the alert is high through the day, it should become higher when a convoy is supposed to pass a built-up area.
Drone security for generic surveillance or a lookout for any suspiciously-moving vehicles will always be a superimposed aspect although there are currently few resources to afford this on any continued basis. The second security measure is the dedicated security element within the convoy. Usually a sub unit is assigned this task for a specified period. This element is distributed through the convoy with segments of the convoy dedicated to the detachments that move in their own vehicles, always alert to any threat to unprotected vehicles. There are practices such as distribution of a few weapons among passengers for self defence in the event of contact with terrorists who may attempt to target the vehicles with small arms.
The answer to securing the convoys in north Kashmir therefore lies in the realm of the above two measures. Road-securing is not the easiest of operations and the lack of any incidents contributes to laxity in a task considered extremely challenging mentally and physically. There appears no other way than to redouble training and vigilance while frequently turning over troops from such responsibility. Through the 1990s and the early part of this millennium when IEDs were rife, many of them neutralised through the sheer dedication of road-securing elements. To neutralise the possibility of car bombs, no static vehicles on the roadside and no moving vehicles at the time of passage of a convoy past a point, can be permitted.
However, with 10 such convoys on the move every day the strict implementation of these rules would lead to a fair paralysis of traffic on the limited roads available in the Valley. The impact will be in the social sphere and eventually in the political one once an elected government is back in place in Jammu and Kashmir. Do recall how check points and bunkers were removed under political pressure some years ago, although many were restored. In a terror-based environment, time fatigue factor is what the terrorists exploit because rarely do systems and strictures set up by the state last beyond a few months. This is where the government will have to display its will.
It is learnt from one media report that there is a proposal to move the convoys early in the morning so as to avoid clashes with timings of high-density civilian traffic. This is exactly the step that the army had taken at the request of the state government in 2011 and it had proved to be fairly successful with minimum inconvenience to the public. The system and lessons from it could be revisited and decisions taken accordingly. It will entail the early move of road-securing elements, therefore more fatigue and consequently more resources to allow personnel sufficient rest.
While the security establishment examines the options before it due to the renewed threat pattern, it needs to be reminded that there is nothing as effective as redoubling of intelligence efforts. Perhaps revisiting the quantum of personnel and quality of technology deployed on the intelligence grid in Kashmir may give answers over and above changes in the running pattern of convoys.
The writer is a retired lieutenant-general of the Indian Army
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Updated Date: Feb 21, 2019 20:16:02 IST