Urban counter-terrorism in Kashmir has just been blunted.
In 1990, it finally dawned on the Indian central government that what Pakistan had actually launched a full-fledged proxy-war in Jammu & Kashmir state: the Pakistani military establishment had directed arms, tactics, funds and personnel from the anti-Soviet jihad to further its ambition to grab Kashmir. Troops from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) who had been sent in to reinforced the overwhelmed state policemen were unable to contain the jihad. In the face of a fast deteriorating security situation, the Indian government tasked the Border Security Force (BSF) with the additional responsibility of handling counter-terrorism operations in Kashmir’s urban areas. Over the next fifteen years, the BSF arrested almost ten thousand terrorists and killed over 2600 of them. Among those it arrested alive was Masood Azhar, the Pakistani founder of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, who was released in return for the IC-814 hostages. The BSF took almost 700 fatal casualties of its own.
Although the official position denies it, BSF is now being ‘de-inducted‘ from its urban counter-terrorism duties in Kashmir as a sop to the Hurriyat. As Praveen Swami writes, this move goes beyond mere symbolism. Over the last 15 years, the BSF has acquired the experience, expertise and assets that have allowed it to be an effective tool against the terrorists. Replacing the BSF with the CRPF — essentially a civilian police outfit — will almost certainly blunt India’s counter-terrorism edge in Srinagar and the Kashmir valley. Between nine and ten thousand BSF troops will be withdrawn from Kashmir this year, and with more to follow in 2006. In the absence of a public condemnation of terrorism by the Hurriyat and the resurgence of terrorist training camps in Pakistan, the Manmohan Singh government is taking some serious risks. A similar initiative to reduce the number of army troops in Kashmir had to be scaled down after it appeared that there was no corresponding attempt — either by Pakistan or by the Hurriyat — to reduce infiltration or violence. Triumph of hope over experience all over again.
While the decision to withdraw the BSF is fraught with operational risks, it is a risk well worth taking from a political perspective — with three caveats. First, India should come down hard on Pakistan and the Hurriyat should the jihadis use this opportunity to step up terrorist attacks. Second, the level of vigilance at the Line of Control should be enhanced to prevent cross-border infiltration. Third, the Army and the BSF (which will continue to be deployed along the border areas) have gained a strong momentum in flushing out terrorists in Jammu & Kashmir. They should not be restrained from finishing their jobs. It should be a test of central reserve, not of central resolve.