Kashmir: Time to Review Operational Strategy to Prevent Civilian Casualties
On 15 December, there were 11 fatalities in South Kashmir in a Cordon and Search Operation (CASO) which included seven civilians, three Hizbul Mujahideen terrorists and an army soldier. Twenty civilians were injured in the firing by security forces to prevent them from closing in and disrupting the ongoing encounter.
Of the casualties, there is justified concern over the death of the seven civilians which included young lives.
“Pained by the unnecessary and avoidable loss of civilian lives in the (Pulwama) operation, the governor appealed to the people to keep a distance from areas where anti-militancy operations are in progress. He appealed to them not to go near such areas during or immediately after such operations”, a statement from the office of the Governor stated.
“Governor also directed divisional commissioner, Kashmir to inquire into the incident that happened in Pulwama today and suggest precautions to minimise civilian casualties in anti-militancy operations,” the statement read.
The Governor issued an instruction to the security forces that they should, “give time to people to evacuate from an area during an anti-militancy operation as per the laid down SOP”.
However, in recent incidents in the Valley, rather than evacuating, civilians are known to close in on the encounter site to disrupt the encounters. Thus the directions are not implementable.
Local population attempts to, “rescue,” militants in many cases seen as homegrown boys who have adopted the path of violence from a sense of martyrdom for the cause of Kashmir, howsoever mistaken their political ideology may seem to the outsider. In most insurgencies, local youth who take up the gun are eulogised rather than vilified for embracing terrorism by the people.
In Kashmir, the mood of the people in South Kashmir in particular post the Burhan Wani killing in July 2016 has been decidedly in favour of intervening when security forces have cornered the local boys.
Thus the incident of civilians closing in at the Pulwama encounter site on 15 December is not a one-off event. There have been 50 civilian deaths during protests at encounter sites this year (until November 26). With the addition of Pulwama, this will go up to 57.
More such disruptions by civilians are expected, and while these can be dismissed as people attempting to intervene in a legitimate security operation, the human side cannot be ignored.
It is a well-worn maxim of counterinsurgency operations that a civilian killed in operations creates not just sympathy for the militant cause but also increases the flow of terrorists joining militancy.
There is a reverse dividend from a CASO operation which involves civilian deaths, even if some militants are killed.
A rough count of youth post death of Burhan Wani in 2016 would indicate that approximately 600 to 900 may have taken to the gun.
While the motivation of these may be different the factor of civilian casualties remains one of the strongest and also firms up support by the masses for the insurgent cause.
What then can be done?
Security forces in Jammu and Kashmir have evolved a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) of CASO that has reportedly reduced the number of civilian casualties.
Operations are generally carried out at night with surveillance of the site during the day when information has been revealed of the presence of terrorists is ensured.
An outer and middle cordon is deployed by the J & K police and Central Reserve Police Forces detachments aimed at preventing civilians from closing in on the inner cordon that is established around the locations where the Army has cornered militants
CASO teams also adopt Fast In- Fast Out approach to enter the encounter site quickly and deinduct immediate thus denying locals scope for disrupting encounters. Better coordination between the troops laying the cordons is also evident thus ensuring that there are no gaps in time and space.
These measures have reduced the number of civilian fatalities, yet cannot obviate incidents like that at Pulwama on 15 December which will continue to set the clock back in Kashmir despite significant success by security forces in eliminating terrorists during the year.
Police are also organising public contact programmes to tell the people that they are here to protect them and not harass. The last factor assumes importance, and public outreach is necessary given that political representatives are no longer on the ground after the dissolution of the J & K State assembly.
Finally much as security forces may dislike given that this may be against their professional ethos – abandoning an encounter where there is likely to be excessive civilian casualties could also be one way out of the dilemma.
There is a concern that a pullback would encourage civilians to continue disruptions in the future, this is unfounded as even otherwise these events are ongoing.
A holistic review of the operational strategy is necessary so that the focus of countering terrorists is not lost and non-combatant casualties which contribute to “terrorism,” are avoided.