An unconventional way of using winter routes may be in the offing. Something similar to the 2016 terror could be planned by Pakistan
by Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
The recent events around the town of Uri have become the subject of many discussions. On 18 September 2021, the fifth anniversary of the suicide terror attack on Uri garrison, an attempted infiltration along the same infamous Salamabad Nala route was foiled by alert Army troops at the LoC fence. Of the six terrorists attempting infiltration, four remained on the PoK side while two got stranded on our side. In a long operation to detect and neutralise the two terrorists, the Uri brigade launched day-and-night search operations. One of the two terrorists was killed and the other captured. The latter, a 19-year-old school dropout called Ali Babar, is a typical Lashkar-e-Taiyabba (LeT) or Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) recruit—from the lower end of society and impoverished. The capture of the terrorist and his canary singing is not of much significance since it has happened many times before. A haul of `25 crore worth of drugs in the Uri sector on 3 October 2021 has also been reported.
What is significant is that the Pakistani anti-India terror groups have been increasingly frustrated since 2019, when the renewed Indian kinetic efforts in sync with the political and constitutional decisions of 5 August 2019 drastically neutralised their capability to operate. Among the reasons for the success of the Indian establishment was the strategy to target flourishing networks in J&K that enabled terrorism and separatism to lie low for short intervals and revive with greater energy thereafter. This is true with regard to the media, financial, intellectual, academic, legal and political domains, all functioning under the umbrella term ‘over ground workers’ (OGWs). Surrendered terrorists too add to this. With our agencies having achieved fair but not full success yet, there is an effort by the anti-India elements to get around these efforts. The functioning of terror groups is hugely dependent on OGW networks. Even if a hundred more terrorists were to successfully infiltrate Kashmir, their survivability in the current environment with compromised networks would be questionable. Yet, there are opportunities that the other side is waiting for as it envisages Indian success as temporary.
Afghanistan under Taliban 2.0 is perceived to present one such opportunity. It is clear that Pakistan has no shortage of human resources willing to be recruited, not necessarily for the cause expounded by groups such as LeT and JeM, but more to feed hungry mouths at home. Such elements are gullible to any ideological mishmash that is fed to them. Making them India haters is never difficult. There are enough weapons and ammunition in circulation in Pakistan to secure the physical instruments of terror. Yet, with the situation in Afghanistan, two things have emerged in favour of Pakistan and the terror groups. First is the availability of modern military wherewithal in abundance. Even as Taliban 2.0 takes stock of this, many of these items would probably make their way into clandestine networks in Pakistan, which is a haven for arms trafficking and narcotics. Thus M4 and M16 assault rifles, night-vision devices and modern ammunition to pierce body armour could already be in the hands of Pakistani terrorists, qualitatively enhancing their capability. Second and much more important is the potential inspiration from the manner that the US withdrawal was executed, giving the perception that the Taliban had actually militarily defeated two superpowers and was destined to lead the Islamic nation to victory. Everything non-state till recently has suddenly become state-owned in Afghanistan, giving a certain creeping legitimacy to jihadists. It is this message that could be picked up by Islamist terror groups employing violent extremism. Ideologues across the Islamic world too would find this inspirational to their local cause. Pakistan’s deep state could probably exploit these sentiments to try and overturn India’s success in stabilising J&K.
We need to remember that Pakistan has invested much in the proxy war in J&K. It will attempt to recalibrate by inducting more ideologically motivated jihadists through infiltration. The intent is not to lose the traction gained over years that has recently reduced and prevent India from cementing its success in the near term. It is the internal security situation within Pakistan that is also of immediate concern. A humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan will lead to chaos along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border with millions of refugees attempting to enter the latter. Terrorist elements will find this a convenient way of entering Pakistan too. Pakistan is thus in a quandary but cannot afford to lose sight of its J&K investment. Calibration for keeping separatism and sentiments of the people alive with an ideological tinge and exploiting sentiments of the perceived Islamic success in Afghanistan could be a broad strategy that Pakistan could follow in relation to J&K. It is unlikely to do anything that will require a focused response to a situation. Thus big-ticket events may be passé for the moment but social media, mosques, ideologues and networked messaging all remain important to keep sentiments alive. The Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) will have its hands full.
In the light of the above analysis, what the Uri infiltration indicates has a two-fold explanation. First, sustaining sentiments about the capability of jihadist groups is necessary, lest they lose their significance among those who believe in separatism in J&K. Enhancing terrorist numbers adds to confidence and even low-key terror activity needs these numbers. More such attempts will be made right through winter as areas such as Uri remain open. Secondly, something similar to 2016 could be planned by Pakistan. In that year, it was becoming extremely difficult to strike in the hinterland due to the very dense presence of security forces. Therefore, striking targets in the vicinity (5-10 km) of the LoC became the norm. That is how we had a series of attempted terrorist attacks in Poonch, Tangdhar and other locations before Uri happened on 18 September 2016. In conclusion, it is likely that we may not witness anything big for the moment. A calculated surge in activity and attempt to increase numbers would, however, be on the cards. An unconventional way of using winter routes may be in the offing. The drug haul in Uri indicates serious efforts towards enhancing finances, so necessary for the networks to function. For India, continued effective neutralisation of networks within J&K is a must while also dwelling on countering the inevitable efforts to enhance the separatist and ideological sentiment. Most importantly we must work towards a holistic strategy that includes the kinetic, psychological, social and economic and governance-related issues.