This Article is From Sep 30, 2016

Crossing The LoC To Prevent Terror Strikes Creates A New Normal

Democracies tend to be fickle and moody. Yesterday, in the television debates and general discussion following news of the Indian Army's counter-terrorism operation across the Line of Control (LoC), political parties were unusually non-partisan and unwilling to attack each other. To its credit, the opposition applauded the army and stood by the government. To their credit too, BJP spokespersons didn't exult and didn't make digs at previous, Congress-led governments.

It was a good day in India's war against terror, a long and gruelling war that has gone on for close to three decades, since the Kashmir Valley was ignited by Pakistan in 1989-90 and since modern Islamist terrorism hit the India outside Kashmir in Mumbai in March 1993. Yet, there have been and will be bad days for India as well, days on which terrorists will inflict damage and win. It is to be hoped that political parties will be equally non-partisan and united on those days as well. It is a forlorn idea, admittedly, but an appealing one all the same.

Pursuit of terrorists across the LoC is not unheard of for the Indian armed forces. It has been done in the past, in the early 2000s under the first NDA government, and then under the UPA too, as army generals have revealed. Yet, it was kept under wraps. This is the first time the government has more or less admitted to crossing the LoC. This is also perhaps the first (or at least the rare) pre-emptive strike as opposed to a quest for escaping militants.

Government sources point to a spurt in infiltration attempts in recent weeks. This year alone, in the first nine months, there have been 35 infiltration attempts across the LoC. Twenty were intercepted; 15 proved successful in some manner or the other, an indication of the logistical difficulty if not impossibility of "sealing the LoC". Pakistani army commanders have insisted to their Indian counterparts that there is no infiltration and all the terrorists who present themselves on the other side to do damage mysteriously emerge from thin air.

Nevertheless, terrorists have crossed. There have been nine major incidents in the past eight weeks alone, including the killing of 19 soldiers in Uri on September 18 and before that, the gunning down of four terrorists on September 4. Following Burhan Wani's killing in an encounter in the Valley and the protests that occurred, Pakistani authorities began pushing up infiltration to take advantage of the volatile political mood in Jammu and Kashmir.

In this period, terrorists have tended to cross in units of four. This has led to some speculation as to the number of those killed in the September 29 raids. Since seven or eight launch pads (the last shelters before an actual infiltration attempt) were attacked and since, going by recent precedent, each pad probably had one party of four terrorists, and since there seemed to be a few auxiliaries and Pakistani army soldiers hanging around, a rough calculation of 30-40 casualties has been made. It must be said this is a back-of-the-envelope calculation, a combination of intelligent guessing and media mathematics. There are no confirmed figures yet.

What is known is that 36-48 hours before the operations, as terrorists began to move to launch pads, Indian intelligence picked up information that a big infiltration was on the cards. Joining the dots from interrogation of terrorists and terrorist guides arrested in recent days - some arrests have not been made public yet - the Indian government was convinced that the terror units were coming in to re-activate the Kashmir disturbances. 

The plans were to instigate violence and cause grenade attacks that would invite police reprisals against a crowd of ordinary protestors. Other terrorist units were likely seeking to use Kashmir to enter metropolitan cities. The execution of terror strikes was scheduled for after the United Nations General Assembly concluded its session.

The launch pads are at a distance of 500 metres to two or three kilometres from the LoC. As such, the incursions by Indian Special Forces were not deep. The government is keen to present this as a counter-terrorism measure and not an attempt to engage the Pakistani military in any form. 

However, given the diplomacy that preceded the strike - with the Permanent Members of the Security Council, with Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, with a range of Muslim countries from Turkey to Malaysia - and given the absence of any serious objection to what India did, it could be said that India's battle against terror has reached a new normal. 

The political willingness to cross the LoC for short distances to pre-empt attacks has now been demonstrated. The genie is out of the bottle; it will not go back. In fact, sooner or later, that genie will seek to travel even further.

(The author is distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation. He can be reached at malikashok@gmail.com)

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