Blowback Mountain

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In the line of fire Jammu & Kashmir IG Abdul Gani Mir (left) and his colleagues carry the coffin of a police officer shot dead by militants on 7 January. Photo: Faisal khan

Can just 100-odd militants have a big impact on the security situation in the Kashmir Valley? Yes, they can. At least that is what 2013 tells us. And it could get worse once the US forces leave Afghanistan, which is likely to turn Kashmir into a destination for the militants thus relieved of their AfPak mission.

Last year, 63 militants, 61 security personnel and 15 civilians were killed in militancy-related incidents in Kashmir. For the first time in 25 years, the ratio of security forces and militants killed was 1:1. In fact, more securitymen were killed in 2013 than in the preceding two years — only 47 had been killed in 2011 and ’12.

What is more, the militancy affected all the districts of the Valley (except Kulgam), including the border areas in Jammu. Not that there has been militancy-related violence in all these districts, but police data shows arrests and recoveries from all of them. This is so even when the number of active militants in Jammu & Kashmir is believed to be less than 130.

The unsustainable ratio has brought the security agencies face-to-face with the changing nature of militancy whereby a smaller number of well-trained militants are able to inflict maximum damage.

“There is a drastic change in the tactics of the militants operating in the state,” says counter-terrorism expert Ajai Sahni, who is the executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi. “A lesser number of highly-trained and motivated militants, who are also difficult to detect, are able to launch high-profile strikes in places where these get the maximum attention. In the process, they create a perception of militancy that is disproportionate to their number.”

Last year, it was a blend of intermittent border attacks and some sensational strikes that brought J&K to the edge. Four of these attacks took place along the 14- km highway stretch from Pantha Chowk to Parimpora, which led to the killing of 18 securitymen. The stretch, which sees heavy security traffic, is also Srinagar’s most important artery. This has forced the authorities to install 18 bunkers along the way to pre-empt future attacks.

Though the state has witnessed some calm in the recent past, especially after the appointment of Raheel Sharif as the new army chief of Pakistan and the subsequent meeting of the DGMOs of the two countries, this hasn’t detracted from the grim prognosis for 2014. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan is expected to unleash potentially destabilising factors in the region, freeing up Pakistan-based militants from their Afghan pre-occupation to pursue their pet cause in Kashmir. This is a prospect that weighs heavily on the mind of the security agencies.

According to Inspector General Abdul Gani Mir, the police are prepared to deal with any security challenge. “We are cognisant of the Afghan situation and will take appropriate measures once confronted with the reality,” he says. His counterpart in the CRPF, Nalin Prabhat, agrees. “Whatever happens in Afghanistan has an impact in Kashmir,” says Prabhat.

But what shape this “impact” will take is something on which there are differing perceptions. Sardar Attique Khan, the former prime minister of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, who telephonically addressed a group discussion in Srinagar on 4 January, said any delay in resolving the Kashmir issue could turn the state into a Taliban battleground. “J&K can become the next battleground for the Taliban in case of inordinate delay in the resolution of this longstanding dispute,” said Khan.

According to Zafar Mehdi, a Kabul-based Kashmiri journalist, such a prospect may not necessarily play itself out. “First of all, not all international troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan after 2014,” says Mehdi who works for the Afghan magazine Zariza. “The back-channel negotiations over US-Afghan bilateral security agreements are on and at least 16,000 foreign troops will be staying back in Afghanistan after 2014 to train the 350,000-strong Afghan National Security Forces for counter-insurgency operations. That essentially means Taliban fighters will remain busy in Afghanistan even after 2014 to reclaim lost ground.”

However, Mehdi sees the possibility of the Pakistan Taliban shifting focus away from Afghanistan to Kashmir. “To be honest, the Afghan Taliban do not bother much about Kashmir,” says Mehdi. “However, I think the Pakistan Taliban will shift focus once the international forces, at least a majority of them, withdraw later this year.”

One pointer to this effect is that it is the foreign militants who have come to dominate the current militancy in the state. According to IG Mir, among the 100-130 militants who were active through 2013, a majority had infiltrated from across the LoC. “Around 90 militants infiltrated into the Valley last year; the rest were local militants, some of whom picked up guns following the Afzal Guru hanging or for some other reasons,” he says.

This has created a possibility that with a little more spike in infiltration, the graph of violence could sufficiently go up. “Even if the number of infiltrating militants goes up by a 100 or by only a few dozen, this will mean a huge spike in violence,” says counter-terror expert Sahni. “This will create a huge security challenge. The Kashmir issue could again draw a lot of international attention.”

India is planning to build a wall along the 179-km stretch of the border with Pakistan in the Jammu sector as a long-term move to deter infiltration. The proposed wall, which is being compared with the Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China, will be around 135 feet wide and 10 metres high and accommodate bunkers and border outposts. The army has already identified and acquired land in 29 villages along the LoC for the purpose. But the contemplated wall, which has attracted wide criticism in Kashmir, will take years to complete and make no difference to the challenges of infiltration this year.

In addition, other factors are at work, from the unfolding Afghan situation to the new Indo-Pak equation and the Assembly polls. Each factor is critical and this year, together or independently, these have the potential to impact the situation in the state, for better or for worse.

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