With several books on military strategy and security to his credit, Maj. Gen. Afsir Karim (Retd) is a well-acknowledged expert on Kashmir.
A former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board, Gen. Karim is a veteran of several wars and also commanded an infantry brigade in Kashmir on the Line of Control. He spoke to Sanjib KR Baruah of the latest plethora of troubles and unrest in the Kashmir Valley. Excerpts from the interview:
The Kashmir Valley is witnessing an unprecedented churn. In the 1990s too, there was a lot of violent militant activity in the Valley as it is now. In what way are the two phases of activity different? Is there any remarkable ideological difference between the two strands?
Alienation of the common man was not the cause of turmoil in 1990; it was wholly orchestrated by Pakistan and mismanaged by a government, which understood very little about the problems that confronted it, it died a natural death in due course of time. This time the government has its roots in the Valley with an unwelcome addition of the BJP; the alienation of people this time is almost total, silent disgust, sullen mood, and resentment against the real and perceived injustice, the oppressive presence of security forces in civilian areas and powers they enjoy over people have provided a new incentive for rebellion against the state. Pakistan has been preparing people for this phase since 2013-14. It managed to raise and train a new corps of indigenous terrorists, who would enjoy full support and sympathy of a majority of people, so the problem is far more complex in this phase. Wahhabi ideology that knows no compromise is now widespread and people are no longer afraid to die. They are also no longer afraid of the Army, which they consider as an infidel occupation force. Although they are not fighting for establishing a Shariah-based Islamic state, yet they consider their mission a jihad.
Militancy seems to be covering new ground. South Kashmir, which has been relatively quiet in the past, is the new vortex of militant activity. How do you analyse this?
Pakistan chose this area deliberately far from border areas, which had very little Army presence and intelligence activity. The people were politically active, and anti-India. The districts of Anantnag, Kulgam and Pulwama, which received little attention of intelligence agencies, are surrounded by a terrain that is tailormade for training local insurgents. The people of these three districts could be indoctrinated away from the prying eyes of government agencies. Anti-India propaganda and religious bias was whipped up here through social media and activities of specially-designated Wahhabi mosques that went unnoticed till it was too late.
In the backdrop of appeals to Kashmiris not to join government services and to instead aid the armed movement, and with the killing of a local boy — young Army officer Lt. Ummer Fayaz Parray on Wednesday morning — what kind of message are the militants trying to send?
The killing of those who are symbols of government authority or those against the political-religious ideology of the rebels has been a common practice in many such situations around the world to spread fear and send a strong message to those who do not support insurgency, this is something new in Kashmir, which shows the success of Pakistani agents in indoctrinating and motivating ordinary people.
What is your take on the government response? Could Kashmir have been better handled or has the Valley entered an abyss of no return?
The overall response to this new kind of movement, which is supported by the majority of young people, has been inadequate as is obvious from the inability of the government to bring back normalcy. The approach of employing military and other armed security forces, as an instrument of state policy, has proved ineffective. A movement that is a mixture of terrorism, intifada and civil unrest requires a more innovative approach. So far no worthwhile political initiative is on the horizon. It seems our policymakers by and large still perceive the current Kashmir problem from the narrow prism of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism; they have gradually handed over the Kashmir problem to the security forces that did a good job according to their own insights and vision. They succeeded in cutting down infiltration and curbing terror attacks, but the problems multiplied when various security agencies gradually started setting political agendas. Their agendas and methodology created widespread resentment and alienation among the people. The political parties who should have been in the forefront of countering Pakistani-Wahhabi propaganda and influence took a laidback position while disaffection among people increased by leaps and bounds.
Militancy seems to have spread among the locals more than ever before, whereas the number of foreign militants has gone down. Do you read any significance here?
Pakistan has been under pressure to reduce the presence of its own terror groups in J&K as its cover has been blown and the international community is no longer ready to accept such activities. Gradually, conditions were created by Pakistani agents for starting the training of indigenous groups, mostly from the ranks of unemployed youth. The success of this Pakistani move showed the utter failure of our political parties and intelligence agencies.
Social media in Kashmir is becoming a major tool in propagating separatist ideas or even in arranging logistics to carry out an agitational programme and the government is seemingly running out of ideas. The latest ban on the Internet is also being circumvented by accessing advanced technology.
Social media cannot be stopped or checked permanently, and the cyberspace cannot be controlled. It can be only countered by our public and social media if an elaborate plan is made by the government to do so. At present, we have little presence in the Valley.
Talking about counter-insurgency operational tactics, the Army is planning changes in order to get more results, which includes getting more aggressive. With an active social media, do you think it is a wise idea?
In my view, Army visibility needs to be reduced in J&K except along the LoC and its immediate hinterland in the present environment, armed police forces trained by the Army can suffice to counter terrorism and carry on the cordon and search operations. Aggressive forays by terrorists across the international border from Pakistan point towards a more vigorous and lethal sub-conventional war by Pakistan in collaboration with newly-raised local terrorist groups. Pakistan has been gradually inducting Wahhabi preachers in the Valley, who, through their weekly sermons are telling people that taking up arms against the government was their religious duty. This campaign was the vanguard of a new phase of war being waged through the people of Kashmir.
The new phase started taking shape sometime in 2015; the process went on unchecked as no resolute counter-measures were taken by the Central and state governments to meet this threat, instead petty political games were being played in this dangerous situation.