Pakistan’s unending proxy war

Sartaj Aziz, foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, said recently that terrorists who do not threaten Pakistan’s security should not be targeted. It is the clearest indication yet that Pakistan’s quarter century old ‘proxy war’ against India will continue.

In a carefully drawn up strategy to bleed India through a thousand cuts, Pakistan launched a proxy war against India in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in 1989. During these 25 years, the insurgency has waxed and waned, but has shown no signs of abating completely. Its remaining roots are now in Pakistan and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). On its part, the Indian government has been remiss in allowing the challenge in J&K to linger on and not treating it with the urgency and sensitivity that it merits.

The first militant outfit to be supported by the Pakistan army and the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) and given shelter in POK was the Hizbul Mujahideen that comprises Kashmiri youth and is closely affiliated with Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami. It is led by Syed Salahuddin, who had been defeated in the rigged election to the J&K Assembly in 1987. Since then, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), all Pakistani terrorist organisations, have acted as the ‘strategic assets’ and the sword arms of the ISI.
Pakistan has been inciting the disaffected youth of J&K to rise against the Indian state. Despite the ceasefire on the LoC since November 2003 and the efforts at rapprochement, the ISI continues to sponsor infiltration across the LoC and coordinate the launching of terrorist strikes. Pakistan’s official position has always been that it provides only diplomatic, political and moral support to Kashmiri ‘freedom fighters’. However, it is now internationally accepted that the ISI has been providing training, weapons, military equipment, ammunition and explosives and financial support to the terrorists, besides aiding infiltration attempts by engaging Indian army posts with artillery and small arms fire.

In the first few years of militancy in the Kashmir Valley, the militants had received local sympathy due to the people's perceived grievances against India. The Kashmiri people were soon disillusioned by the brutal and un-Islamic terror tactics of the so-called mujahideen. The leadership soon passed into the hands of international mercenary terrorists from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Turkey and even Bosnia. They had everything else but jihad on their minds. They exploited the power of the Kalashnikov to indulge in extortion, drinking orgies, forced weddings and even rape.

Ethnic cleansing

Systematic ethnic cleansing directed by the ISI resulted in the forced migration of the Hindu population out of the Valley. Activities of the mercenaries contrary to Kashmir’s Sufi culture caused immense resentment among the people and gradually the recruitment base began to dry up. Also, concerted counter-insurgency operations conducted by the Indian army and the other security forces, based on the increasing availability of real-time ‘actionable’ intelligence from the Kashmiri people, decimated the terrorists and brought the internal security situation under control by 1995-96.

Frustrated in their efforts to create a popular uprising in Kashmir, in 1996, the Pakistan army and the ISI evolved a plan to enlarge the area of operations to the Jammu region south of the Pir Panjal Range. By mid-1998, the security forces were again in complete control of the security situation in J&K and the state was rapidly returning to normal.

In a last ditch attempt to rekindle the almost dead embers of insurgency, the Pakistan army pushed in a large number of regular soldiers under the guise of Kashmiri militants across the LoC into the Kargil sector during the spring of 1999. This resulted in the Kargil conflict in which the Indian army fought relentlessly to push the intruders back across the LoC. Since then, Pakistan has kept the pot simmering and the infiltration machinery well-oiled so that it can raise the ante when required.

The continuing alienation of the Kashmiri people from the national mainstream is a cause for concern. While successive prime ministers have taken several laudable initiatives, including the appointment of task forces and holding of talks with the political leaders – leaders of the separatist Hurriyat Conference refused to participate – there has been marked slackness in following through. Loose talk about removing AFSPA and abrogating Article 370 of the Indian Constitution continues unfettered. Except for a very small minority that has been deeply influenced by radical extremism, the Kashmiri people do not wish to either join Pakistan or opt for independence from India.

After very hard and acrimonious bargaining, the Kashmiri people will ultimately settle for autonomy. They will accept that the Central government continues to deal with defence, foreign affairs, currency and communications while the J&K Assembly is left free to legislate on everything else. This should not be viewed as an out of the way concession as federalism forms the basis of the Indian Constitution.

Throughout a quarter century of proxy war, India has shown tremendous restraint in the face of grave provocation. It is inconceivable that any other nation would have refrained from launching trans-LoC operations to eliminate terrorist training camps and interdict known routes of infiltration. The Indian political leadership took risks to hold out an olive branch to the military and civilian rulers of Pakistan. Unless the Pakistan army and ISI back a negotiated political solution to the Kashmir dispute, India and Pakistan will remain at loggerheads for many years to come. And, blood will continue to mingle with the waters of the Jhelum and other Kashmiri rivers.