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4 ways to deal with the Kashmir crisis

By Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain (retd)
April 24, 2017 07:49 IST
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'The strategy has to be restoring order in one part and countering the very effective propaganda through a very nimble monitoring and response system,' says Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain, who retired as the General Officer Commanding of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps.

Students clashed with security forces in several places in the Kashmir valley April 17, 2017 during protests against the alleged 'highhandedness' of security forces at a college in Pulwama in south Kashmir. Photograph: Umar Ganie

When national crises occur, those which can spell existential problems, only national consensus can overcome them.

The more divisive the nation remains, more the adversaries exploit.

In modern irregular conflicts which involve people as the virtual centre of gravity an adversary will always attempt to keep the nation divided.

Slickly put together propaganda with no iota of truth is far more effective than a couple of hundred AK-47s; such is the power of information.

However, information used loosely, without coordination and no plan, is doomed to destroy the initiator, not the target.

These are just a few well known facts about Information Warfare which any good professional warrior will tell you.

The recent controversy over amateur and other videos in Jammu and Kashmir is a fine example to initiate an analysis on strategic communication.

The setting must be well understood. Here is a situation in which a 27-year- old proxy sponsored and supported internal conflict has come to a head after many dynamic curves on the graph.

These have many times indicated potential resolution and potential 'tipping point' for disaster.

Today, Pakistan with its strategic confidence on a new high is sensing that ever since July 8, 2016, when Burhan Wani was killed, it finally has India by the throat.

It is only coincidental that the regional and international strategic environment also appears to have shifted in Pakistan's favor through this period. That notion is part reality and part perceptional.

Yet, it can hardly be denied that Pakistan's propaganda machinery has worked overtime to paint India black and garner for itself a more positive image.

Achieving this at a time when the image of Islamic countries within the international community is highly besmirched has been no mean feat.

However, even more effective has been its strategic communication in relation to its intent in J&K. Here the aim is to generate ideas in the Kashmiri populace relating to a couple of fields.

The first is that India and its security forces are occupiers and that the power of the people always overcomes oppressors and occupiers.

Second is the idea that Muslim Kashmiris have little to do with India and much to do with the larger Islamic Ummah and brotherhood.

Third is the notion that they have suffered for 27 years and now the goal of azaadi is very near; the same was effectively used in 1990 too with the slogan 'Kashmir banega Pakistan.'

To keep these and a plethora more of such crafted themes well embedded it is important for Pakistan to also ensure that the militancy remains alive with acts against the security forces, public servants and political leaders including paralysis of governance.

But the core strategy which is supported by all this is to involve the public in visible resistance to the presence of Indian xsecurity forces.

It is being done through clandestine networks by a diffused leadership with the front face of the comparatively discredited Hurriyat considered as incapable of delivering.

Financial support for this appears to be strong and there has been a bounce back after the setback suffered during the demonetisation.

In this situation attempting to instigate the security forces is a ploy so that they respond.

Each such response can be manipulated through videos without narratives and made to appear as human rights violations which can then be further exploited through media and other means to give a multiplication effect to the movement.

The army employed hard power through the early nineties when hordes of foreign terrorists roamed the countryside. It was necessary then, but conflict is dynamic and as the strength of the terrorists reduced over time so did the army adopt a softer approach.

The elections of 1996 were a landmark which brought change in a more marked way. It is not as if the coming of Sadbhavana in 1997 first saw the introduction of soft power.

The army's basic doctrine of counter insurgency always spelled the need for winning hearts and minds, even from the Nagaland and Mizoram days.

What riles the Pakistan establishment is when the army displays successful adoption of soft power which aims at taking on board the public of Kashmir.

Pakistan's ISPR (the Pakistan military's Inter-Services Public Relations) then follows any method to target the bond between the public and Indian security forces and other institutions such as social organisations and individuals who mean well for the public and for India.

Many people are drawing a parallel between the situation in Kashmir today and that which existed in 1990. There are others who like to believe that India has lost Kashmir.

Let me say clearly to the nay sayers that none of this is true.

In 1990 an active insurgency with a couple of thousand militants under arms existed and more were coming and going through the virtually open LoC as the army's presence was need based for peaceful times.

Armed police units were being rushed in response. They had little idea about dealing with street violence and even less about counter insurgency operations.

However, some ground facts are necessary for the public at large to know for reassurance and so as not to be misled or fall for the manipulation being done by Pakistan.

We then had a division size force with some independent formations performing dual tasks on the LoC and the nascent counter insurgency grid.

Today we have the Rashtriya Rifles (India's finest military experiment) in good strength in the rural expanse of the Kashmir valley.

Reinforcing this is the strong presence of the CRPF in urban areas. The JK police was then just a social police force; today it has an anti-terror force and intelligence arm as good as any.

The border or LoC is secure with a counter infiltration grid deployed in depth although admittedly zero infiltration is not a reality and will never be.

There is 27 years of institutional experience of dealing with diverse threats in the given situation.

Yet, for all the evident strengths the major weakness which persists is the inability to deny Pakistan the non-military aspects of the conflict in its favour. This involves propaganda and manipulation of information and events so as to keep the public of Kashmir alienated.

The running of financial conduits through different clandestine means despite the Indian dragnet keeps the movement fuelled.

What is really different today from 1990 is the persistent presence of 24x7 television and the ever empowering social media.

No piece of information can be away from the eyes of some form of the media or the other.

The availability of the mobile with 3G and 4G makes communication possible across the LoC and sensitise opinion around the world and nationally at the touch of a button.

Thus, the militancy is no longer about physical threats alone, but much more about the mind.

The entire Arab Spring saw the employment of social media most effectively when Whatsapp was not even a reality.

Today it is well known that the flash mobs at encounter sites are generated through messaging on Whatsapp; much of the directions come from across the LoC. The guidance in the conduct of events is provided through this medium.

Those involved in separatist activities fully realise that to convert antipathy to hatred there has to be a stream of messages and videos showing the Indian institutions, political leadership and military in negative light.

Thus no opportunity is ever lost. Latest news reports do indicate that Pakistan has hired cyber warriors on the lines of the US army; videos are shot by networked individuals in the valley which are forwarded to Pakistani masters and their value for exploitation is then judged.

Specific themes are outlined and the separatist network which exists down to the block level remains active forever seeking opportunities.

Till now no one knows who shot the video of the so-called 'human shield' atop the army vehicle and who uploaded it. A short clip with no narrative had an electrifying effect.

What is the answer to all the problems that one is stating; can't have an analysis sans answers? When you have just 200 to 250 terrorists the physical part of the counter insuirgency campaign has lesser significance.

The strategy has to be restoring order in one part and countering the very effective propaganda through a very nimble monitoring and response system.

Intelligence agencies, the army and police organisations just have to merge resources, jointly strategise and execute.

For this the institution of the Unified Command is the best provided it has adequate staffing and a joint think-tank which must be in existence every day.

The joint strategy in 2010 was evolved here. There are enough experienced people to understand its value and set all this in motion, possibly even through gaming models.

In addition, just four other short recommendations.

First, get completely serious on social media. None of the agencies in the valley have expertise on its use or counter.

A couple of high quality Indian academic institutions should be tasked to study this in the Kashmir context.

There are professional communication experts of great standing in India who along with psychologists and social scientists could relish the challenge of studying and testing.

Let it be fast tracked with both defensive and offensive concepts of social media in focus. The organisation to be created should not await the full study report.

It should commence being put into place with a pragmatic mix of civilians and uniformed services both in Delhi and in J&K; it can be refined once the recommendations are received and approved.

Don't look for perfect models since we have time against us and there is scope to learn and improve.

Second, our tremendous experiment with demonetisation would have thrown up enough lessons which can be selectively applied to a conflict zone where finances and their conduits play a major role in fuelling unrest.

Convert this into 'do-ables' to dry out funding.

Third, engagement and outreach is part of the strategic communication effort.

However, it is a nuts and bolts exercise to be undertaken on ground. It cannot be a one off activity on basis of personal capability or restricted to one service or agency.

It has to be a strategy and under the political authority who must have suitable advice.

Before anything else the two terms need a common definition; that is not being attempted here but without commonality of perception this is bound to fail.

Fourth and last, when a crisis situation involving conflict and sponsored activity by an adversary hits us it must be as the navy calls it, 'all hands on deck.'

All involved in the restoration of the situation need a common orientation; it is not the uniformed and security related services alone.

The role of the J&K bureaucracy, the jail service, the district authorities, and many more needs a focus.

Leadership is one facet which can provide this, but more importantly it is training and orientation which is the need.

This is another job for the Unified Command to undertake and conceptualise.

India is too big, too important and too resilient to allow its public to be emotionally distraught.

We have seen crisis before and this is not the last that we will see.

Ideas will make the difference provided political consensus exists and polarisation is curtailed.

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IMAGE: Students clashed with security forces in several places in the Kashmir valley April 17, 2017 during protests against the alleged ‘highhandedness’ of security forces at a college in Pulwama in south Kashmir. Photograph: Umar Ganie

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Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain (retd)