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A former northern army commander has twice over recently observed that the military’s operational success in counter insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has not been taken advantage of politically. He was voicing the army’s longstanding position that talks need to proceed abreast with operations to culminate in a return of peace.

In the army’s doctrinal view, counter insurgency operations by themselves are never enough. The military by tamping down on violence can at best create the conditions for talks. The intention is to enable the state an advantage in negotiations from a position of strength.

The recently released year end statistics peg the militants killed in the ongoing Operation All Out at 237. Another statistic places this at a record high at 255. The end of campaigning season with the onset of winter is a juncture for the civilian masters of security forces to take advantage of operational success. As things stand, it appears that India is set to squander another opportunity.

The army chief had once admitted to a problem of a ‘cycle’ being set up, with deaths not deterring those signing up. The glamour of militancy and a martyr’s death has kept up numbers in militant ranks. Currently, it is pegged at over 300, operating largely in south Kashmir, with 200 signing up this year.

While the monthly attrition rate was highest in November, with 39 militants killed, there were only 4 fresh recruits into militant ranks, compared to 33 in October. Coupled with reports on a drawdown in the number of operations in which civilian bystanders have interfered and decline in stone throwing episodes, Operation All Out cannot have delivered any better.

Even so, Operation All Out is set to continue into the coming year with an aim to deliver violence free polls for the national and state legislatures sometime in summer. However, a return of an elected government to power in Srinagar does cannot substitute for a peace process.

The army chief had at the time of the ceasefire in June, said, “Talks must happen. The issue is that a lot of locals are joining militancy. We kill them and more would join. Infiltration can be controlled, but this cycle of recruitment of local youth can go on and on. So…let’s give peace a chance and see.” The words continue to be relevant.

The military advantage is that a winter-time initiation of talks enables enough duration for talks to pan out. It would prevent such incidents as occurred mid-month in Pulwama in which seven alleged stone throwers were killed.

The political advantage to the government is in its going into elections early summer claiming that its Kashmir policy is in line with the prime minister’s policy stated from the ramparts of Red Fort that Kashmir would be addressed with an embrace, not bullets.

A political initiative takes forward the possibilities opened in the political appointments made by the government, the representative of the Union government appointed in October last year and a political personage as governor. The governor had indicated an interest in peace politically arrived at, stating once that his aim is to end militancy, not merely eliminate militants.

The recent visit to the Valley of a former prime minister of Norway, Kjell Mangne Bondevik, on the invite of the founder of the Art of Living Foundation, Ravi Shankar, suggests that there is a peace lobby within the government.

Any potential espied by the Norwegian can be translated into action by the special interlocutor, Dineshwar Sharma. Besides his yearlong conflict analysis, he also has available to him the five reports of the Concerned Citizens Group.

There being no elected state government in place currently permits greater flexibility. The central government has the parliamentary political strength. An initiative can be expected to command a consensus and have the backing of the local parties. While politicking can be expected, the idea will not have a political cost.

These advantages may not be there for the next government. If an initiative is postponed to after elections, it would unlikely begin in summer since the two governments – at the central and province – would be settling in. The inevitable summer escalation in violence may upset a peace applecart.

The opening of passes come summer may tempt Pakistan to return to its old ways. It would be hard put to carry forward its largely hands-off posture seen this year into another year.

At the moment, Pakistan is giving out the right signals with its army repeatedly backing the peace feelers of a prime minister it helped place in power, albeit owing to pressure from the United States (US). US President Trump intends winding down, having appointed a heavyweight as special envoy for talks with the Taliban and asking his military to halve its numbers. These developments strengthen Pakistan’s hands.

Within the national security establishment thinking along lines of a peace initiative is not entirely absent. The army chief in an interaction with the media late last month had let on that indirect talks are on with stakeholders (read separatists) to get them to talk to Dineshwar Sharma.

However, his lament, “If separatists don’t want to approach the interlocutor, then I don’t know what further can be hoped,” reveals the flawed strategy behind Operation All Out. It is apparent that the killings of youth signing up to militancy are to force the separatists to the table.

For his part, Dineshwar Sharma appears to be awaiting the separatists and militants to throw in the towel, as revealed by the Army Chief in his inimitable blunt-talk style, “But to say that the head of the state will come and talk to these terrorists, I don’t think that is going to happen.”

The carrot-and-stick strategy has ended up ‘all stick and no carrot’, which begs the question on the government’s intent. As a Modi critic points out the intent is to bludgeon an Indian community. Not taking up a peace process at this juncture – despite its desirability and feasibility as explored here – only reinforces this suspicion.

Ali Ahmed has undertaken the UNITAR-IPI fellowship program in peacemaking, insights from which inform this article. A former UN official, he blogs at www.ali-writings.blogspot.in.

 

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