How does the situation in Kashmir look like in 2019? Grim for India. Bright for Pakistan

The recent killing of four Jaish militants in Pulwama district should be the start point of the prognosis. Consider the details: of the four killed, three were locals; the three killed were part of at least 180 young men who picked up the gun this year; 16 civilians were also injured in the gun-battle between militants and security forces; and this was the second encounter in Pulwama in 24 hours. Statistics show that 2018 saw the highest killings of civilians and security (including army) personnel, highest numbers of local youth swelling militant ranks, and highest infiltration attempts.

Yet, the army insists that its muscular strategy in Kashmir is showing positive results. The reality, unfortunately, is ominous. The people who were fence-sitters (over-ground workers) are openly defiant. This has compelled the army to be on the back-foot. The army today needs to cocoon itself within fences. There were reports of soldiers crossing over to the other side. In the 30 years old insurgency, which has safe sanctuaries across the military line, the army is witnessing rapid diminishing results. The army, however, refuses to accept that it is losing both the insurgency war for the future of Kashmir and the local battles where collateral damage in the form of civilian deaths is making its task harder.

The army’s present compulsion is its own leadership. Since the army chief, General Bipin Rawat was deep-selected for his expertise in Counter-Insurgency operations (CI ops), he must prove his mettle. It is another matter that both the situation in Kashmir and national security in general has witnessed a downward spiral under his watch. Gen. Rawat’s strategy of upgrading CI ops to hybrid warfare (with focus on counter-terror and psychological aspects) has resulted in the present deterioration in Kashmir.

Moreover, the so-called September 2016 surgical strikes, again under his captaincy as the vice-army chief resulted in three undesirable outcomes: One, it demonstrated to Pakistan that the Indian leadership and the army were unprepared for an escalation. Two, it showed that the army lacked counter-offensive (warfighting) capabilities to end Pakistan’s proxy war. And three, it convinced that local Kashmiri youth that the Indian Army soldiers were not ten feet tall. The present situation in Kashmir is a consequence of the phony surgical strikes and hybrid war which followed the killing of Burhan Wani.

This is not all. The June-August 2017 Doklam crisis with China also happened under Gen. Rawat’s stewardship. As the head of the army, Gen. Rawat mistook the Doklam battle for a bigger war. The army chief’s failure to anticipate the escalation in the shape of Chinese military build-up in Tibet against India in the winter of 2017-2018 forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi to seek peace at the April 2018 Wuhan summit. China won without firing a shot. The Chinese terms for peace which the Modi government is unwilling to accept are that India (a) should consider the Belt and Road Initiative positively (b) it should make peace with Pakistan, and (c) the Kashmir issue should be resolved mutually by negotiations.

Considering that the Modi government would neither review its Kashmir and Pakistan policies, nor agree to Chinese stipulations, both military lines would witness an upward spiral in infiltration and cross-border firings (on the Line of Control) and border transgressions (on the Line of Actual Control) in 2019. However, Pakistan and China would not up the ante too much since they have a bigger game-plan in mind. Both want peace with India for the success of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and to accomplish the last-mile success in Afghanistan — all three of which would have a profound impact on Kashmir.

Let’s start with Afghanistan where the end-game appears on the horizon. With the Trump administration rearing to exit Afghanistan, Islamabad has intensified efforts to bring China, Russia and Iran (the three neighbouring countries that matter most), and the Taliban on the same page. Pakistan has also sought India’s positive role in Afghanistan, which India has spurned. With the US out of Afghanistan, the regional balance of power would tilt sharply in favour of the Pakistan-China-Russia-Iran Quadrilateral (Quad) configuration. Interesting, this Quad has signed up for both the BRI and the CPEC. This would lead to China’s firmer foothold in South Asia with implications for India’s neighbourhood. On the one hand, the smaller nations would seek to balance ties with India and China for their own prosperity. On the other hand, they would know which side to tilt should making a choice become essential. China, after all, would be able to give them more largesse and better technology.

But all does not seem well with the BRI and CPEC. Despite the five-year old BRI having got brickbats from partner nations and even prominent Chinese scholars for its economic intimidation and alleged hegemonic proclivity, it is certain that President Xi Jinping’s ambitious project would not be rejected and consigned to dustbin. It could get scaled down, or get a course correction. The BRI, after all, was originally intended for Eurasia and not the entire world.

For Kashmiri people, the BRI and CPEC provide the beacon of hope. Most Kashmiris assess that prosperity in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, and growing Chinese presence would give them political options that they have been seeking. Revulsed by the highhandedness of the Indian Army, and unhappy with lack of political initiatives, many people no longer see the Kashmir issue as a bilateral one. The words of the Chinese ambassador in India, Luo Zhaohui spoken after the Wuhan summit in May 2018 could be coming true. According to him, there should be a trilateral summit between India, China and Pakistan in future.
(The writer in editor, FORCE newsmagazine)