Security challenges

Published : Oct 07, 2005 00:00 IST

At the scene of an encounter in Srinagar on September 8. - NISSAR AHMAD

At the scene of an encounter in Srinagar on September 8. - NISSAR AHMAD

The withdrawal of the Border Security Force from Srinagar may make counter-terrorism operations difficult given the Central Reserve Police Force's limitations and track record in the State.

"FOR help," reads a fading billboard put up by the Border Security Force's (BSF) 145 Battalion on the skeletal remains of a Srinagar building gutted in a gun battle with terrorists, "please contact 2430084". One of these days, someone is going to have to put up a new number.

A week to the day of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's meeting with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) leadership, the last of the BSF's 9,000-strong counter-terrorism force in Srinagar pulled out of the city. The decision was aimed at consolidating the ongoing dialogue process. The Central government had decided to hand over urban counter-terrorism operations to the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in 2003, on the basis of the recommendations of a Group of Ministers. Some BSF troops were subsequently withdrawn from the urban areas of Srinagar, north of the Jhelum river, but the pull-back got bogged down last year amidst concerns about security. At the New Delhi meeting, however, Hurriyat leaders called for the reduction of forces as a confidence-building measure - and the government had a gift packaged and in hand.

The government's decision to withdraw the BSF from counter-terrorism duties in Srinagar and replace it with the CRPF is of considerable symbolic significance. BSF troops were sent to Srinagar in 1990 after the State police force and the CRPF failed to contain growing violence. Although the force took time to adapt to its new task and attracted not a few complaints of its use of excessive force against civilians, it soon won a formidable reputation. Since 1990, the BSF has been responsible for the elimination of 2,653 terrorists, among them the architect of the 2001 attack on the Parliament House in New Delhi, Shahbaz Khan. It also succeeded in securing some 9,375 arrests, including the Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Maulana Masood Azhar, who was later released from prison as part of a prisoners-for-hostages swap that took place when an Indian Airlines jet was hijacked in 1999. About 697 BSF personnel died in the course of its 15-year battle against terrorism.

Despite this long battle, terrorism remains a brutal reality in Jammu and Kashmir. Security planners are now grappling with the challenge of having to free up a hand to grasp an olive branch, while holding on to their guns with their other.

While most Srinagar residents are likely to react to news of the BSF withdrawal with some happiness, seeing it as further evidence that the process of normalisation is gathering momentum, no great imagination is needed to see that the government's decision involves considerable risks.

For one, CRPF units posted to areas in the city north of the Jhelum a year ago have secured no great success. Bar the recoveries of some small amounts of weapons and ammunition, the CRPF has not succeeded in conducting a single independent offensive operation. Nor, on occasion, has its personnel displayed great competence: it was subjected to scathing criticism for its failure to defend Srinagar's Tourist Reception Centre against a fidayeen attack in April, on the eve of the departure of the first bus from Srinagar to Muzaffarabad. While the criticism might be unfair, for no counter-terrorism force in Jammu and Kashmir has had its share of dismal performance, it does point to the challenges ahead.

Principal among these is the recent recovery of well over 1,000 kg of chemicals used in manufacturing explosives from southern and central Kashmir (see chart). In the main these caches consisted of commercially available substances such as potassium permanganate and aluminium nitrate, rather than Research Department Explosive (RDX), the traditional explosive of choice for terrorist groups in Jammu and Kashmir. These have been used in several recent car bomb attacks - the terrorists have, notably, learned to evade anti-sabotage road patrols by driving along with military convoys and then parking bomb-laden vehicles a short distance ahead of them. The new caches suggest that the infrastructure exists for a major escalation of violence. Its materiel would suggest Pakistan's covert services have instructed jehadi groups to take measures to vest that country's denials of involvement in terrorist activity in Jammu and Kashmir with some credibility.

If a large-scale bombing campaign does get under way this winter or next spring, the CRPF will be relatively ill-prepared to launch an offensive against its perpetrators. Unlike the BSF's intelligence wing, the `G-Branch', the CRPF does not as yet have a large network of assets within terrorist groups. For reasons that will be obvious to intelligence professionals, the G-Branch's assets have been more than a little reluctant to work for new and inexperienced masters. Moreover, the CRPF's independent signals intelligence capabilities, compared with the equipment possessed by the `G-Branch', are rudimentary and its staff, unlike those of the BSF, have not acquired an intimate knowledge of the wireless operations of jehadi groups. Finally, the CRPF's medium weapons and explosives capabilities are frugal, as is appropriate for a police organisation. While such resources are rarely used in counter-terrorism work in Srinagar, they have on occasion been essential for success.

To all of these concerns there are, of course, credible counter-arguments. Much signals-intelligence work in Srinagar now relies not on the interception of traditional wireless traffic but of mobile phone communication, a task that is in the domain of India's domestic covert service, the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.). Given this fact - and the existence of the Indian Army's sophisticated signals intelligence apparatus - the loss of the G-Branch's technical assets, it could be argued, would not be of great significance. Secondly, the police, which will be the principal director of counter-terrorism operations, have demonstrated considerable competence in both offensive and counter-terrorism operations in the recent years. Its counter-terrorism officials have for long worked with the G-Branch and, in many cases, have jointly handled its assets. As such, the handover may be more smooth than might be expected in other circumstances.

THE government's willingness to experiment with its counter-terrorism formations has been in no small part enabled by the significant scale-back in the activities of the Hizbul Mujahideen, and can be read as an effort to test the seriousness of Pakistan's commitment to continuing the de-escalation of its not-so-covert war in Jammu and Kashmir.

The largest terrorist group in Jammu and Kashmir - and the one of most political significance, since its cadre for the most part hail from the State and have linkages with local political formations, both mainstream and secessionist - the Hizbul Mujahideen has carried out few strikes of significance since 2002. Its posture has led politicians to call for efforts to bring about a ceasefire with the group, although it has rejected such overtures. India had ordered its force not to initiate offensive combat operations in the wake of the Kargil War, after some elements in the Hizbul Mujahideen initiated a dialogue process with the government. That enterprise collapsed amidst an escalation of violence. Indian military commanders have made it clear that they have no wish to see the process repeated; some politicians believe it ought to be resuscitated.

Could something of the kind be brought about, at least in the mid-term? Since the May 2004 elimination of Abdul Rashid Pir, the Hizbul Mujahideen has not had an overall commander for operations in the State. Pir, a trusted confidant of the organisation's Muzaffarabad-based supreme commander, Mohammad Yusuf Shah, had been attempting to build a new support base for the organisation from mainstream political groups, such as the ruling People's Democratic Party, following its desertion by its long standing patron, the Jammu and Kashmir Jamaat-e-Islami. His loss was a considerable blow to the Hizbul Mujahideen, coming less than five months after the killing of his predecessor, Ghulam Rasool Dar, and just over a year after the elimination of the previous commander for operations, Ghulam Rasool Khan.

For reasons that are unclear, the Hizbul Mujahideen never despatched Amir Khan, the intended successor to Pir, to the State. The alias Ghazi Misbahuddin, which the organisation now uses to refer to its operational commander, is in fact used by a several separate functionaries. Indian intelligence analysts, for the most part, believe the Hizbul Mujahideen's failure to despatch a commander reflects organisational weakness. Another explanation is, however, possible, which is that the Hizbul Mujahideen has learned its lessons and sees no reason to have a single-point leader who can be targeted with ease. As things stand, the tasks of command have now been handed over to relatively low-profile second-rung leaders such as Ibrahim Dar, a long-standing military aide to Shah, who has returned to the State from Pakistan in recent months, and a person code-named Salim Hashmi, believed to be a resident of south Kashmir with over a decade of field experience with the Hizbul Mujahideen.

If this second explanation is correct - and it should be underlined that it is at best speculative - there is the possibility that the Hizbul Mujahideen's relative quiescence in recent months is not just the consequence of its mainly ethnic Kashmiri cadre's wait-and-watch attitude on the peace process.

PRIME MINISTER Manmohan Singh's September 11 pronouncement that he can "do business" with Pakistan's President General Pervez Musharraf points us in the direction of an important component of the detente process in South Asia. There is, however, another component: getting security issues right within Jammu and Kashmir itself.

If the somewhat quixotic conduct of Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's government on security issues is a guide, there is at least some reason for concern. Consider, for example, its use of the Public Safety Act (PSA), a piece of legislation that enables the preventive detention of terrorism suspects. In recent weeks, the Sayeed government used the PSA to detain Asiya Andrabi, the head of an ultra-right Islamist women's group known as the Dukhtaran-e-Millat. Andrabi's offence was that she carried on a raucous campaign against restaurants in which men and women committed the crime of sitting together, as well as the sale of liquor. While Andrabi's conduct during the protests was without dispute disgraceful, her activities posed no great threat to the State.

On the other hand, Sayeed has shown a conspicuous unwillingness to use the Act against those who do pose a demonstrable threat to both citizens and the state. In 2003, the police detained Nasir Ahmad Jan, a government-employed engineer, on charges of having aided terrorists who attacked a telephone exchange in Srinagar's Indira Nagar neighbourhood, killing an Army officer, two CRPF troopers and an employee of the telephone company in the process. Jan's arrest was based on the statements of Janzeb Kashmiri, a member of the two-person fidayeen squad, who is now in a jail in Jammu. Two years on, the government has refused to issue PSA warrants enabling Jan's arrest - as, indeed, it has done in hundreds of terrorism-related cases across Kashmir. Since Andrabi's arrest makes it clear that the government has no principled objection to the PSA, its conduct is mystifying.

Such conduct is symptomatic of a larger malaise. At a recent meeting of the Unified Headquarters in Srinagar, a senior Srinagar-based I.B. official was driven to take the unprecedented step of voicing his anger at the continued involvement of political figures with terrorist groups. Officials complain that covert funds sent by the Central government for use in counter-terror operations have not reached cutting-edge formations: intelligence operations conducted by both the BSF and the State police have suffered from the hoarding of these funds by State officials for the past 10 months. Service regulations within the police service have also been flouted, with a crippling impact on officer morale. Where vacancies existed for 37 officers to be promoted to the rank of Superintendent of Police, for example, 59 were granted the job - the last on the list, in order of seniority, being a member of the personal security staff of the Chief Minister.

All of this is, of course, part of business-as-usual in Jammu and Kashmir. Such State-level messing with the apparatus of counter-terrorism, however, makes it that much more likely that the worst-case possibilities opened up by the BSF withdrawal will be realised - something that ought to merit a discreet nudge from New Delhi.

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