Pakistan Ramps Up ‘War’ in J&K: What Should India’s Next Steps Be?

Pakistan is on a roll, killing their own in tribal areas, helping killers of Afghanistan & hitting for a six in J&K.

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The tragedy of Handwara, where five tough and experienced counter-terrorism officers and police were killed, has been quickly followed by another attack on a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) patrol party in the same district. Expect more, as Intel also warns of possible suicide attacks in the Valley. All of this marks the first definite spike in violence in the Valley since Article 370 was set aside.

Apart from the increased violence, there is a definite shift. It takes a very hardened group to take on a commanding officer and his team, not to mention a great deal of cunning. That’s not your standard Pakistan-issued terrorist. This is something else. This is back to the future of the 1980’s, but with a twist.

Pakistan’s Virulent Diplomatic Offensive & Increasing Role of Army in Its Govt

In the last few years, Pakistan was focussed on building up street insurgency and stone-pelting that owed its spread to poisonous rumour-mongering and social media , as well as a political system that was forced to stay ahead of the street. That paid off very well for Islamabad, since it actually required it to spend less on training terrorists, most of whom were in the 18-20 age group, and eager to pose dramatically with an AK-47 and a ten-day beard. These ‘terrorists’ – actually just boys – were killed off quickly, paying handsome dividends to their sponsors, since it set off a chain reaction of events which started with a funeral for the justly grieving families and the entire village, and then leading inevitably to street protests, counter-fire by security forces, and the whole heady mix of media attention and political drama, that fed this particular type of conflict.

With the effective end of Article 370 in August 2019, and the detention of not just political leaders, but all the gentry known as ‘overground workers’ – to the uninitiated, the people paid to help terrorists – the street model virtually collapsed.

The stone-pelting ceased entirely, and some 300 WhatsApp groups , each with some 200-plus members, found their little trouble-making empire ending overnight, as the internet was cut off.

After a period of shock, Pakistan began an unusually virulent diplomatic offensive, including charges of ‘fascism’ – with even the UN seeing the unusual spectacle of charges of fascism and worse, by a national leader. None of this paid much dividends, with the world largely uninterested in PM Imran Khan’s frantic posturing.

Immediately after, the presence of the Pakistan Army in government began to increase.

Who Is Running Pakistan Govt? Imran Khan or Army Chief?

In April 2019, Ijaz Shah, a former spy chief, was appointed as Interior Minister. In June, the army chief was included in the National Development Council, which oversees all economic activity in the country. In mid 2019, a slew of retired officers were appointed at Commissioner and DC level, as well as Punjab Chief Secretary’s post. In January 2020, Army Chief Bajwa’s term was extended by a pliant Parliament, followed in rapid succession by other actions designed for a quiet takeover.

In October 2019, an Ordinance set out a China Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority, headed by a Lt General-rank retired officer who works behind the scenes, while a minister ‘heads’ the department. Another was the National Disaster Management Authority headed by a serving Lt General. Just recently, Lt Gen (retd) Asim Saleem Bajwa was made the ‘Information Advisor’ to Prime Minister Imran Khan, even as a new minister was appointed for the ministry.

The pattern is to have a minister in front and an army man in the shadows. That applies now to the final seat of power itself. No one is under any illusion as to who is running the country – Imran Khan or his army chief.

Neither should India be under any illusion as to who is now running the Kashmir policy in its entirety. That includes the daily fulminations emerging from Pakistani leaders, including President Alvi, and the new information minister who marked his entry in office with a tweet lambasting India on Kashmir. The foreign office is on overtime on the same issue.

Has Pakistan Figured That Kashmir Is Now ‘Ripe for the Picking’?

At a time when the world is engaged in battling a terrifying virus, the Pakistan Army has its hand on the tiller. There is clearly a calculation that Kashmir is now ripe for the picking, with political leaders who had stood by India – though at a price – under lockdown or in prison, and no one particular apparently in charge.

The twist in strategy is not to use the standard jihadi groups – whose presence in Pakistan is now universally known – but like mainland policy, allow the shadow to operate behind the front.

In Kashmir, that means pushing groups like the TRF (The Resistance Front) in front, while deflecting attention from the far too well-known Lashkar-e-Tayyiba. Both Handwara attacks have been claimed by the TRF.

Other groups like the supposedly Al-Qaeda linked Ansar Ghazwat ul-Hind will also continue, despite being rapidly killed even as they emerge.

The problem for Pakistan is to find locals who are not just willing to risk their lives, but who also have that rare trait, of ‘coolness’ in combat.

That means a process of selection among a lot of young people. Unfortunately, an unimaginative and lacklustre Kashmir administration is providing just those recruits, usually intelligent and frustrated young boys, who are natural leaders.

This is ‘War’ Again

Kashmiris hoped for a virtual storm of governance, rather like waving a magic wand to recreate a lustrous Valley. What they got was the dead stillness of a desert. Meanwhile, the Pakistanis are on a roll, killing their own in the tribal areas, assisting the killers of Afghanistan, and now hitting for a six in Kashmir. This is war again, fought in the shadows of the forest and dark corners of the mind. For India, the challenge is to turn on the lights on both.

(Dr Tara Kartha was Director, National Security Council Secretariat. She is now a Distinguished Fellow at IPCS. She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)

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