Retired and ‘on leave’ Pakistan army officers are known to have given technical training since 2015 to elements of ISIS in the production and arming of explosives, as well as communications security.
New Delhi: While issuing sharp statements on a regular basis, India’s policymakers have thus far refrained from intervening militarily in the global war on ISIS. While the United States, Russia and Iran have deployed military assets against the terror group with visible success, thus far, not a single Indian air sortie or commando operation has taken place in any of the locations where large pools of ISIS fighters are known to have formed. The calculation within the Lutyens Zone establishment appears to have been that such self-imposed restraint would be sufficient to ensure that ISIS does not open a front against India. Fear of a new terror front has a surface logic, given that Wahhabi terror fuelled from Pakistan has been consuming a substantial amount of time, personnel and resources since emerging in Kashmir in 1989 after the USSR was defeated in Afghanistan. Terror operations in Jammu & Kashmir became full-blown throughout the 1990s. This terror strand was in addition to other ISI-backed operations such as the (ongoing) Khalistan project and externally supported armed separatist bands in the Northeast. A new front was, therefore, desirable to avoid, but was this possible?
A few non-Lutyens experts on ISIS have repeatedly warned that the organisation was simply awaiting the onset of favourable conditions before entering the fray in India, and that the relative immunity of the US, Russia and China to ISIS attacks indicated the fear of the “Caliphate of Terror” that these countries would exact a brutal punishment for any attacks directed against their home territories. In other words, strong action against ISIS would deter, rather than provoke misadventures. By such a reckoning, India’s very restraint would act as an incentive to ISIS to launch operations inside the country as soon as sufficient logistical and ideological preparations were completed, as has clearly taken place in some parts of Kashmir. Under the Lutyens Zone establishment, India is seen by most of the globe as a soft target that can be relied upon to give only a mild riposte to hostile actions, even an attempt at the very start of the 21st century to kill its Members of Parliament within the precincts of that very institution. The resulting “Operation Parakram” fooled few, as it was clear that the expensive exercise was designed to impress domestic opinion, rather than begin a retaliatory war with Pakistan. Of course, there have been several bursts of bombastic language, that get used by Lutyens Zone policymakers in such situations. The 2003 dilution of security protocols ordered by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was continued under the UPA, and further enhanced after the 2016 installation of the PDP-BJP government in J&K of what may be termed the “Mehbooba Mufti Rule” in the conduct of counter-terror operations in Kashmir, needs to be factored in. This is a construct based on Ms Mufti’s oft-repeated belief that Kashmiri youth would not sign up to participating in the actions of brutal terror groups. Instead, they would confine themselves to demonstrations and at most bouts of stone pelting. “Search and sanitise” security operations were scaled back during this “healing touch” policy of the PDP-Congress and later expanded by the PDP-BJP. Sterner protocols that had ensured a steady drop in the terror levels in the state got replaced with routine police procedures that relied on the belief that every Kashmiri had a distaste for actually participating in (rather than simply cheering on) the extreme violence favoured by terror groups. That the expulsion through fear tactics and selective killings of the Pandit community in the Valley was caused almost entirely by a fringe within, that was very much part of Kashmiri society, was forgotten, the way lessons from the past serially are in the Lutyens Zone.
MUFTI MODEL FOLLOWED
Experts on “de-radicalisation” started conducting experiments in reform on those with a history of participation in terror activities, rather than neutralising future capabilities. Emphasis was given to the “healing touch”. Such Vajpayee-Manmohan era procedures and protocols were not only continued after the 2016 alliance between the PDP and the BJP, they were added on to. It was such rules of engagement (or lack of it) that led to a 78-vehicle convoy being cleared for movement along a non-sanitised highway filled with unknown vehicles that themselves had not undergone any inspection. Such relaxed procedures were, of course, based on the “Mehbooba Mufti Rule” that security forces had little to fear from any element in the Kashmiri population. The reality is that from the 1980s, a Wahhabi crust has formed within that society, and which is the cause of its misery. The “Mehbooba Mufti Rule” seems to have been substantially if not wholly retained even after Governor’s Rule was promulgated in the state in 2018, a fact which explains the casual way in which the daytime movement of 2,500 uniformed personnel on land in a terror-ridden state was treated, clearly not for the first time. Of course, to hold one’s breath waiting for action to be taken against those responsible for such a lapse would be folly, as admitting a mistake is taboo in the Lutyens Zone. In any other major power battling terror on a daily basis, the explosive-laden SUV that came abreast of the massively long and exposed convoy of braves would have been blocked from such proximity. It is only after the perpetration of the worst mass terror incident involving uniformed personnel in the Kashmir saga that the “Mehbooba Mufti Rule” seems to be getting a relook after it got introduced during Vajpayee’s time, incidentally the same government that released Masood Azhar and had him escorted back to safety in Afghanistan. Not that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who wrung his hands and made largely cosmetic gestures after the 2008 Mumbai attack, was an improvement in the matter of making the ISI accountable for its open war on India.
PAK ARMY IS VULNERABLE
Although the policy establishment in the Lutyens Zone remains suffused with fear of deadly retaliation by the Pakistan army in the event of a military conflict with India, the reality is that the Pakistan armed forces are in a much more vulnerable position than fear-mongering officials, politicians, select NGOs and think-tanks indicate. Prime Minister Imran Khan has only a little over $6 billion in forex reserves, as against $400 billion in the case of India. The Pakistan economy would tank even in a limited conventional war with India. Thanks to the adventurist policy of its army, Pakistan is facing three live borders: with India, Afghanistan and also with Iran, especially after Shia-phobic elements in the Pakistan army just days ago assisted an armed group to kill more than a dozen Iranian Revolutionary Guards near the border of the two countries. As for India, only the Pakistan border is “live”. While the Pakistan military believes that China will enter the lists on its side should there be any conflict with India, those in authority in Beijing are aware that Chinese exports to India would be reduced to as close to zero as possible in the event of that happening, or even should there be a substantial flow during the duration of the war of Chinese weapon stocks to Pakistan to replenish materiel lost in battle. Production and research facilities in India of Chinese entities such as cell phone manufacturers would be shut down, and what is one of China’s biggest present and future markets would shrivel, with serious economic consequences for the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Given the importance that President Xi Jinping places on good commercial relations with India, it is almost certain that China will repeat what it did in the 1965 and 1999 India-Pakistan conflicts, which was to make protest noises, but refrain from any military action. Although the closest PRC ally (and therefore now linked to Pakistan), the Russian Federation would follow suit, and for the same reason: so as not to risk losing entirely and for a long time to come the Indian market. As for the United States, the Trump administration is unlikely to look with disfavour on kinetic action against a country that its own intelligence services regard as a state that has a substantial role in global terror operations. In fact, such a conflict would give Washington an opening to overcome the weapons lobby-fuelled hesitation within the Lutyens Zone towards a full-scope military alliance between the US and India, a partnership that both need. And given that (1) the use of nuclear weapons by Pakistan would entail a more than proportionate response from India, and that (2) India has no interest in any territorial claims on Pakistan besides retaking that part of J&K under the occupation of Islamabad, any conflict between India and Pakistan will remain conventional. A major factor in the behaviour of GHQ Rawalpindi towards India has been the belief that the larger country would not retaliate in force because of its phobia about the conflict going nuclear. A conventional military attack directed against carefully selected targets in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir would destroy that certainty and the reckless behaviour it engenders in GHQ Rawalpindi. A limited war involving the Line of Control (which would only get expanded to the International Border should Pakistan make a foray into this zone) would therefore end in the administration of a painful lesson to GHQ Rawalpindi not to test the patience of India any more, or to take for granted any more the Lutyens Zone establishment’s self-defeating history of military restraint, a policy of turning the other cheek that has only led to slap after hard slap being inflicted. Judging by their stance in the all-party meeting convened by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it is clear that all major political parties would back the Government of India in a limited conventional strike across the Line of Control in Kashmir.
THE ISIS LINK
Whether it be in the 1980s, when the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was leveraged by GHQ Rawalpindi to ensure that the US trotted obediently behind the Pakistan army, or during the Clinton administration, when Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphel made no secret of Washington’s tilt towards Islamabad, the Pakistan army gets hyper adventurous against India whenever it regards itself as having placed a leash on Uncle Sam. The Trump administration’s recent frantic overtures to the Pakistan army to enable the Pentagon to make a casualty-free retreat from Afghanistan has had the unintended effect of boosting confidence in the ISI in ramping up its non-conventional war on India. Retired and serving officers “on leave” of the Pakistan army have been known to have given technical training since 2015 to elements of ISIS in the production and arming of explosives as well as communications security. The Pulwama suicide bombing could not have taken place in the absence of a support network within the state, that included those having information on the movement of convoys. The ISI has now moved to the stage of conducting operations together with undeclared elements of the ISIS, as evidenced by the 14 February massacre of over three dozen CRPF jawans near Awantipora. ISIS elements have become expert in concealing their affiliation, infiltrating into “permitted” groups in order to gain access to weapons, training and time, before going back to their ultra-extremist units. Although the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) has acted on cue and claimed responsibility for the murder of 50-plus CRPF personnel, telltale signs involving the incident reveal the ISIS link. The JeM does not broadcast videos of its personnel for upload once the deed gets carried out. This is, however, an ISIS speciality. The video made by the Awantipora suicide bomber is identical to that made by other ISIS operatives before carrying out an “action”. The technique of suicide bombing, together with the improvised nature of the explosive substances used, is another telltale mark of ISIS involvement, as is the indoctrination of a youth to the level needed for such acts to be carried out. Unless there had been substantial long-term radicalisation and logistical and technical assistance, the suicide bomber would not have succeeded in the manner he did on his final run.
Since the PDP-BJP government took office three years ago, four areas within the state have become safe zones for terror groups, with police personnel keeping away from active interdiction in the name of “better community relations” and the use of the “healing touch”. In order not to cause a shrill reaction among those political elements that in the past were allies of the BJP, robust cordon and search operations have not been carried out in such locations, especially since 2016, with the result that they have become a sanctuary for trainers to indoctrinate Kashmiri youths in suicide and combat tactics. There have been reports that ISIS trainers who are citizens of some other countries have entered India on visa and moved temporarily to “safe zones” in Kashmir to indoctrinate and train local youths. Despite the historically syncretic nature of Kashmiri society, it is clear from the Pulwama ISIS-ISI suicide bomber that such trainers have had success. It is unknown how many more ISIS-trained suicide bombers are present in Kashmir, hiding in “safe zones” or elsewhere, nor where and when they will get deployed by their handlers. Interestingly, several of those active in terror groups are related to police and other government personnel in the state, with no effect on the careers of such individuals, nor it would appear, any extra investigation into their cyber, mobile and social history. Trust appears to remain the operative word for those recruits to the administration who have family links with separatists and even declared members of terror groups.
TALIBAN TERROR SANCTUARIES
Attacks together with the Afghan government need to get carried out later in Taliban-held areas as well, as strikes across the LoC are likely to have limited effect in taking out personnel involved in terror operations. Of course, such a move ought to serve as a dampener on the willingness of GHQ Rawalpindi to aggressively continue its non-conventional war on India. Out of worry that Prime Minister Modi may break the “restraint mould” that has been the case (with the solitary exception of the Bangladesh conflict in 1971) and use military power against PoK-based camps, the ISI has shifted much of its Kashmir-related training camps to areas in Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban, leaving behind fewer Kashmir-related terror camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Such a transfer of assets got accelerated after the PDP-BJP alliance took office in Srinagar, in preparation for a fresh period of violence in the state on the lines of 1989-1994 after the expected US withdrawal from Afghanistan clears the way for the return of the Taliban to Kabul. It was not accidental that the suicide bomber spoke of the “US defeat in Afghanistan” as part of his motivational kit. The Pulwama attack has shown what ought to have been obvious: that there is need for a strategy that takes account of the global (rather than merely the subcontinental) war on terror. That apart from strikes across the LoC and in Taliban hideouts in Afghanistan where ISI camps are located, India needs to join hands with other major players in assisting in the degradation of the capabilities of the ISIS. Restraint only breeds contempt on the terrorist side and not immunity from them on our side.
Kashmiris in general should not be the targets of suspicion, as overall the culture of the state is syncretic and tolerant, with only a fanatic fringe being the outliers. However, rather than pampered the way they have been, this fringe needs to be proceeded against with sufficient force of law and the instruments of security, even while all state-sponsored privileges enjoyed by them get withdrawn.
Lastly, the Pakistani people need freedom from the tentacles of an extremist military, and in such a context, diplomatic and moral backing needs to be given to those in Pakistan who are at great risk confronting the Pakistan army’s excesses. Until Pakistan escapes from the clutches of this terror auxiliary force that calls itself the military, unless the Pakistan army be transformed into a professional cadre under civilian control, India will continue to bleed from multiple trysts with terror.