Since the late 1970s, the Indian Army has been paying a heavy price of losing good soldiers in asymmetric warfare waged by Pakistan, which involves having large bodies of regular troops committed on the ground for dealing with a 'handful' of the enemy.
The abrogation of Article 370 and 35 A (of the Indian Constitution) in Jammu and Kashmir made Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment livid and even more determined to continue the proxy war against India by exporting terrorists, despite the separatists /overground supporters in the Valley becoming scarce. The way the abrogation was coordinated was a blow to the separatists – both overt and covert - but the continuance of attacks by Pakistani terrorists and later targeting of Kashmiri Pandits who returned to the Valley and began working there only proved that the neutralisation/disabling of separatists was not complete.
Now it emerges that not only are there still enough separatists around to assist Pakistani terrorists, but more have joined their ranks in the Jammu division, as indicated by two terrorist attacks of April 20 at Bhatta Durian, Poonch and May 05, 2023 at Kandi forest, Rajouri and some earlier ones in 2022. However, it is the two terrorist attacks in the Poonch-Rajouri areas in Jammu division from April 20 till May 4, 2023, which claimed the lives of ten Indian Army soldiers and that too without any terrorists being killed or caught, which accentuate the urgent need to review intelligence gathering/counterintelligence and its operating procedures. Because it seems quite clear that though Pakistan and its army too may be in turmoil, its organisers of terrorism against India are still active.
The attack on April 20, 2023 was at Bhatta Durian, Poonch where a Rashtriya Rifles vehicle bringing eatables for that evening’s Iftar was ambushed, attacked with grenades, and fired at with steel-core bullets till it caught fire, killing five personnel and injuring another. While People’s Anti-Fascist Front (PAFF), a proxy wing of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, has claimed responsibility for the attack, there are also reports suggesting that it was done by the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT).
On the morning of May 05, 2023, a team of Army’s Special Forces commandos, Rashtriya Rifles soldiers, J&K Police and the CRPF entered Rajouri’s Kandi forest, acting on specific information that the perpetrators of the April 20 terrorist attack at Bhatta Durian had taken shelter in a network of caves covered by thick foliage. As they closed in, the terrorists triggered a hidden explosive before opening heavy small-arms fire killing five commandos.
Both these attacks were launched in rough terrain with thick foliage, and weather conditions including rain, resulting in five soldiers each of the Indian Army getting killed before any terrorists could be killed or caught are indications that these terrorists had been in that area for a long enough for them to observe their target unit/troops and plan their attacks and escape routes.
Since the late 1970s, the Indian Army has been paying a heavy price of losing good soldiers in asymmetric warfare waged by Pakistan, which involves having large bodies of regular troops committed on the ground for dealing with a 'handful' of the enemy. For each and every Indian officer/soldier killed, over thousands of local firefights, the Indian Army has been paying the price. For the Pakistan Army, which has been outsourcing anti-India operations to terrorists, this is a very cheap option without committing its troops on the ground.
In past years, Indian Army was making its Pakistani counterparts pay by way of bombarding its locations/defences along the Line of Control (LC). However, as per an agreement between India and Pakistan in February 2021, this practice was stopped for the sake of peace for the civil populace residing in the Line of Control belt. That apart, Indian Army does not use air power against terrorists, unlike Pakistan which does so on its own country’s terrorist groups, even though some groups are sponsored and supported by it for anti-India operations. Otherwise, the Pakistan Army was paying at least some price for every terrorist attack in the Kashmir Valley by terrorist groups that it supports.
These two attacks also indicate that terrorists have managed to create safe hideouts in the dense border forests to escape the security dragnet. Presently, there are reportedly three to four militant groups active in the districts of Rajouri and Poonch, and considering the modus of these attacks, it is most likely that the Pakistan Army’s involvement has extended to participation as done earlier by forming battle teams (BATs), which are a mix of terrorist and Pakistan Army soldiers/specialist troops.
Another development reported is that attempts are on to mislead Indian Army and security forces (SFs) by providing them with false/misleading inputs and then trapping and killing them. There have also been reports of Army units slipping up on basic counter-terror operations drills/operating procedures, particularly related to route cleansing/protection. The Bhatta-Durian incident suggests that the movement of the vehicle at a particular time daily for getting eatables for Iftar could have made attacking it easier.
It must be ensured that areas of Poonch, Rajouri, and others, covered with dense foliage, are observed/monitored by effective means backed by satellite imagery from NTRO (National Technical Research Organisation) and drones. In earlier years, during the tenure of former Army Chief General V. K. Singh, there used to be a Technical Support Division (TSD) of the Army which used to provide valuable counterintelligence for counter-terror operations in J&K. This was unfortunately disbanded following friction between Gen Singh and the politico-bureaucratic establishment which accused that the TSD was spying on the government.
Also, India's Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) must be made at least as effective, if not more, than Israel’s Mossad. It should have the capability to eliminate terrorist leaders and prevent/pre-empt attacks. In 2002, when this writer interviewed the then-Israeli Ambassador David Affec to mark ten years of India-Israel diplomatic relations, he stated that India has very good, powerful and professional armed forces that must be used to defend the country’s security and that the government must have the political will to walk the talk.
State of war
Former Indian Army chiefs, late Gen BC Joshi and Gen Shankar Roychowdhury, who this writer often accompanied on their visits to J&K, always kept reminding troops there that they were in a state of war and that they should take all precautions, keep following all relevant battle drills/procedures, and avoid unnecessary loss of life while causing maximum damage to the enemy/terrorists.
Apart from whatever has been mentioned in this article about precautions, some very important and urgent actions required to be taken or old ones to be reviewed are: (a) Improve HUMINT (human intelligence) to detect separatists/supporters in the Valley and districts of Jammu Division. (b) Improve/ensure wide and effective coverage of all areas by satellites, cameras and drones. (c) Under no circumstance should the Army’s numerical strength be reduced in the region and neither should Army’s presence be reduced. J&K is a sensitive and vulnerable border state, where Army’s presence should remain. (d) Surgical strikes and Balakot attack must be repeated to target terrorist leaders and concentrations.
Both these meticulously planned and executed strikes must not be merely done once to prove that India is capable. They must be repeated to denude and damage the jihadi setups till they are neutralised.
(The author, a strategic analyst, is a former spokesperson, Defence Ministry and Indian Army. Views are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)