The Economist is wrong about troop withdrawals in Kashmir

You don’t make decisions on troop levels based on mere opinion

Time to go, declares The Economist, arguing that “India’s huge military presence in Kashmir does far more harm than good”. It offers three ‘good’ reasons for this: first, that so many troops ‘are not needed’; second, that troop withdrawals will be popular in Kashmir; and third, that it’ll help the India-Pakistan peace process by “smoothing out that dent in Pakistan’s pride”.

Now, The Acorn has long accepted that deploying security forces on counter-terrorism/counter-insurgency duties in populated areas does harm. It’s like chemotherapy. Chemotherapy hurts. Yet, it is sometimes the only treatment available for cancer. Cancer kills. The objective question then is whether the situation in Kashmir has turned around so much that presence of the security forces is causing more harm than the terrorists that they are employed to fight. It is also a question that has operational and strategic aspects, both of which The Economist fails to consider.

Throwing around a number of troops—600,000—in this case, without examining what roles they perform in Jammu & Kashmir state, and arguing that there “too many” of them, is lazy journalism. Jammu & Kashmir is a frontier state, where India shares disputed borders with China and Pakistan: a large number of troops stationed in the state have a reason to be there regardless of any insurgency. And vastly outnumbering insurgents is a necessary condition for winning a counter-insurgency war. Yes, infiltration and violence levels have fallen to their lowest levels in years. But look across the frontier: not only do the jihadi organisations still exist but much of the Pakistani territory in the vicinity of Jammu & Kashmir is effectively in Taliban hands. We all know that these ‘tribesmen’ have a thing for crossing over into Kashmir. Gen Musharraf may have turned off the tap. But the jihadi capacity has only grown stronger in his dictatorship. Besides we know how fast Musharraf can change his mind. And surely we can’t ignore the current turmoil in Pakistan: the establishment might change its Musharraf.

Troop withdrawals, no doubt, will be popular with Kashmiris. But it would be highly irresponsible to even announce them unless there is a strong guarantee that the jihadis would not take advantage of the vacuum. There are some signs that the Hurriyat is moving towards abandoning violence. That’s still not strong enough to justify a policy of troop withdrawals.

Finally, The Economist‘s fondness to provide a face-saving exit for Pakistan appears to have clouded its judgment on the India-Pakistan peace process. Perhaps it is India’s unholy rush to drop its claim to the part of the state that Pakistan controls that has resulted in an expectation that India somehow owes Pakistan a concession. It doesn’t. [See why the peace process is working against India]. Such a move would perhaps have some merit if Musharraf had—as promised—managed to wind down the jihadi establishment and to sever the ISI’s links with it. Calling for troop withdrawals where a rejuvenated Taliban and al Qaeda are only a couple of hundred kilometres away just as a goodwill measure to Pakistan is irresponsible.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh handled the political demand for demilitarisation by throwing it to a committee. That is a good move—not merely because it is politically astute, but because it allows competent authorities to make an objective assessment about facts on the ground. Summer needs a lot of swallows.

5 thoughts on “The Economist is wrong about troop withdrawals in Kashmir”

  1. Agree Nitin. While the Economist may have a good bead on the issues in the rest of India. their take on Kashmir is pink-tinted as best, and dangerous at worst. They are disappointing appeasers on this one. With roots in the US and UK – and the lessons of WW2 – they should know that appeasing a fascist regime is to take the finger out of the dike. Hopefully, we don’t use their recipes.

  2. I would be the last one to stand up for what the Economist says, especially when it is about India. However, I do think that the debate on demilitarisation has to be received with a more welcoming spirit by discerning commentators like yourself.

    Whether of not the situation in Kashmir has turned is NOT the objective question. As long as Iraq and Afghanistan is still in turmoil, Kashmir will be relatively calm regardless of Indian military presence in Kashmir. The main reason I would support demilitarisation is to promote a healthier political process within Kashmir.

    Like you said, the Hurriyat is moving towards renouncing violence, which is a good sign. But demilitarisation will provide a boost to this process, and across-the-board political development in the state. To use your analogy – while the cancer is dormant (and we know it will be for a while till the jihadis are engaged elsewhere), its time to think about switching off the chemo and let the body recover its strength.

  3. Etlamatey,

    I do not agree with you about demilitarisation, but I appreciate your argument. Here’s an extract from another post (about Assam):

    Let there be no mistake — counter-insurgency is a politico-military game and a military victory must be followed by a political consolidation. The trick lies in correctly estimating when the security situation has turned sufficiently in the state’s favour to attempt a political endgame. Do it too early, and the terrorists will return. Do it too late and popular disaffection worsens. [The Acorn]

    I think it’s too early to make a purely political call. Heck, the snows have not even melted properly yet, and just today, Indian troops intercepted some infiltrators. The last thing you’d want is an Assam-like situation (which in the context of Kashmir is much more dangerous because of the border with Pakistan).

    Btw, the connection with Afghanistan and Iraq are overstated. Do see my post on interconnectedness

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