Tangdhar attack: Indian Army needs to protect softer elements near the LoC
A change in concept of response in the Kashmir Valley is in order.
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What really is happening on the security front in Kashmir even as Jammu is quiet? The recent attack on the Army garrison at Tangdhar is not the first this year - probably the third - and the area has been the scene of many an infiltration attempt. Not too far behind the Shamshabari range which separates Tangdhar from the Valley, an operation is on for the last two weeks to eliminate a terrorist group which has infiltrated; it killed the brave CO of 41 RR and wounded an officer of a TA unit in chance encounters.
Down south in the Lidder Valley a contact has led to elimination of three terrorists in an area which has not seen any successful operations in the last seven years. Should the nation be worried about an impending revival of terrorism in Kashmir amid unfair accusations that the Army has never had the Valley under control?
The situation in the Valley is reflective of what may be called "Last Mile" operations in the parlance of counterterrorism. This needs some explanation. As the Army gained full control of the security situation, it witnessed a rising ratio of terrorists killed against own losses. In Last Mile operations the terrorist strength is low and the Army is continuing its operations with the same energy and quantum. This invariably leads to higher losses on own side with greater desperation in the terrorist ranks. With hardly a visible high-profile terrorist leadership, the Army's operations are less intelligence-driven and focused on specifics and more generic while seeking contact.
The outcome is inevitably lower ratios of terrorists killed against our losses. This does not call for any change of tack as it is a phenomenon which is a part of the dynamics of the counter-terrorist grid.
The casualties in the LoC sector of the Valley must not be seen in isolation. There are spurts of activity at the LoC and it is seasonal; the averages will not be alarming at the end of the season. Pakistan's Deep State attempts to push in maximum terrorists around this time when the snow has not yet arrived and troops have to be withdrawn from climatically-vulnerable posts; these are posts which come under heavy snow from which withdrawal becomes difficult once the weather deteriorates.
It does not take away anything from the fact that the Army has had a good anti-infiltration season after it pushed more troops to the counter-infiltration grid at the cost of the hinterland grid, throughout summer.
There are two things which are different this year. First, after last December's unfortunate losses in the relatively unprepared positions in the Jhelum Valley, the terrorists have been concentrating on targeting the Army's logistics and other vulnerable elements in the immediate depth of the LoC. This is because they find it difficult to infiltrate to the hinterland areas of Sopore, Baramulla and Srinagar without being eliminated en route. It is far easier to take chances with striking at the softer elements near the LoC. The Army concentrates all its efforts along the LoC fence and ahead, leaving its immediate rear a lot more vulnerable. This comes from its proactiveness and has resulted in far greater success in counter-infiltration. Yet, it also leads to some losses due to the vulnerability.
The Tangdhar Bowl is a classic example where the peculiar terrain configuration isolates the area from the main Valley and is tailor-made for infiltration and shallow strikes. The Army leadership will no doubt take stock of this. The core concern thus far has been on preventing infiltration across the main Shamshabari ridgeline; infiltration into Tangdhar Bowl, which is on the other side of the ridgeline, hardly made a difference because there is very little support for Pakistanis or any other anti-national elements in the area. The Army leadership should also be concentrating on the Jhelum Valley of the Uri sector, an area which has traditionally rejected separatism and terror. It has, just like Tangdhar, been used only for transient terror activities such as a few safe houses, guides and transport support. Now that these are becoming centres for terror strikes obviously means that there is a need for change in concept of response. We need to be concerned about possibility of IEDs on operational tracks in the vicinity of the LoC.
The second thing different from previous times is the revival of a local youth-based insurgency in South Kashmir which has been the subject of many analyses in the media. The Army is getting the better of this in purely military terms; more contacts and more eliminations, but that does not resolve the problem in the long term. The military operations must remain effective as they are, but this must be accompanied by a massive psychological operations effort through outreach to the youth, and their engagement. Radicalism is quite well embedded here and needs to be addressed by taking the clergy along and engaging with parents and elders.
If left unattended, the potential of youth-empowered terrorism awaits only a signature attempt, the success of which will draw much attraction from the fence sitters among the youth.
The casualties involving leaders at the level of Commanding Officers is not worrisome at all.
The Indian Army's ethos has all along been leadership from the front. The extremely difficult terrain at the base of the Shamshabari where terrorists sometimes succeed in reaching is a nightmare and operations there have always been extremely risky. Involvement of senior officers in frontline leadership is not foolhardiness as is being made out to be by ill-informed elements. It is something of which the Indian Army has always been proud and will continue to be.