Srinagar: Foreign militants have accounted for less than 20% of insurgents killed every year in Kashmir since 2018, down from nearly 60% over each of the previous 13 years, the dip reflecting a possible policy rethink in Pakistan, driven, experts said, due to economic hardship, global pressures and a preoccupation with a possible endgame in Afghanistan.
But the Indian government does not appear to have benefitted from the easing of pressure from Pakistan in Kashmir because official data also indicate a surge in local Kashmiri youth taking to arms and dying, a reflection of India’s harsher approach to the former state.
From 30 Kashmiri insurgents killed in the Valley in 2016, the number has risen more than six times to 192 in 2020, a manifestation of rising alienation and radicalisation among local Kashmiri youth over the last couple of years.
Seen in the context of Pakistan’s recent unilateral peace overtures, the dwindling number of fighters who crossed the border and were killed by security forces in a region beset by a decades-long conflict suggests diminishing State support for Pakistan-based jihadi groups.
The August 2019 abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which gave Jammu & Kashmir a degree of autonomy, was expected to spark heightened homegrown and cross-border militant action, but data reveal that the number of foreign militants has continued to decline since. But since 2015-16 when militant commander Burhan Wani won popular support among young Kashmiris until he was killed in a firefight, unrest among local youth has risen.
On 17 March 2021, Prime Minister Imran Khan suggested that the entire region would benefit if “India makes a move, if the Kashmir issue is resolved”. A day later, his army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa called for a “conducive environment” in Kashmir for resumption of peace talks, without referring as Pakistan normally does to 1948 United Nations Security Council resolutions (here and here) which, respectively, set up a UN commission for India and Pakistan, and urged the two countries to hold an “impartial” plebiscite on whether Jammu & Kashmir should accede to India.
Bajwa also said it was time to “bury the past” in the interest of a lasting rapprochement.
Turn Of Events Coincides With Imran Khan’s Term
According to police estimates shared with Article 14, of 225 militants killed in 2020 only around 15% were foreigners. Similarly in 2019, only around 19% of 157 slain militants were non-locals. In 2021, none among the 24 militants killed up to 20 March belonged to Pakistan.
In contrast, security forces killed 257 militants in Kashmir in 2018, the most for any year in the preceding decade, and 45% of them were foreigners.
This turn of events has coincided with the election of Imran Khan as Pakistan Prime Minister in July 2018, and did not change even after the erasure of Jammu & Kashmir’s autonomy in August 2019.
According to security experts, this demographic shift in the annual casualty figures of militants is unusual in the annals of insurgency in Kashmir.
From 2005 to 2015, the number of foreign militants was higher than the local militants. The ratio changed in favour of the indigenous militants with the advent of Burhan Wani who inspired more local youth to take up arm.
In 2015, the year Wani took to social media to mobilise support for insurgency, 88 out of 142 active militants in the Valley were locals. The equation held in 2016 too. Out of 145 militants active in the Valley, 91 were locals.
By the time the five-month unrest that followed Wani's killing wound down in November 2016, the number of active militants in the Valley was more than 300, and around 215 of them were local youth.
According to figures disclosed by then chief minister Mehbooba Mufti in the Jammu & Kashmir Assembly, 150 militants, including 119 foreign and 31 local militants, were killed in 2016. In 2017, 213 militants were killed, including 127 foreign and 86 local.
According to General Officer Commanding of Army's 15 Corps in Srinagar Lt General BS Raju, there are still 215 militants operating in Kashmir, including 90 foreigners, but these numbers are not reflected in the casualties of militants, as has invariably been the case earlier.
In February, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs G Kishan Reddy told Parliament that 99 infiltration attempts from across the border took place in 2020—the lowest in the last decade.
Kashmir’s Insurgency And Pakistan’s Image Makeover
Experts proffer several explanations for this shift, ranging from enhanced security measures along the Line of Control by India to a policy shift on Kashmir militancy in Pakistan brought on by geo-political considerations.
Most experts trace the perceptible dip in hostility to Pakistan's economic woes, pressure from the FATF and the country's preoccupation with the ongoing endgame in the war in Afghanistan. A favourable scenario for Pakistan on these counts could give Islamabad more manoeuvring space with regard to Kashmir, experts believe. On the India front, Islamabad has failed to build any diplomatic pressure while the former has grown in importance as a bulwark for the West against China.
But a dominant opinion traces the marked decline in the killings of foreign militants to a possible policy rethink in Pakistan, more tactical than strategic in nature.
“If you see the record over the decades, you will find that Pakistan's intentions decide the course of the (Kashmir) insurgency, not only in terms of the the foreign versus indigenous militants but also which group is to be given prominence,” said Ajai Sahni, executive director at the Institute for Conflict Management and South Asia Terrorism Portal.
Sahni said there appeared to be a “clear decision” on the part of Pakistan that at this juncture more emphasis is to be laid on indigenous insurgents. “Part of the reason can also be that they (Pakistan) are trying to project a certain image to the world,” said Sahni. “They are also under a lot of pressure. FATF is there.”
Sahni was referring to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global watchdog against money-laundering and terror-financing, established in 1989 at the Paris G-7 summit.
Since 2001, when the FATF was tasked with developing global standards to combat terror financing, the inter-governmental body has issued a series of recommendations to empower governments with tools to act against financial crime.
In 2020, the FATF announced that Pakistan would remain on its ‘grey list’ until February 2021 for failing to act on key requirements. While not blacklisted as a non-cooperative country, Pakistan’s location on the FATF’s grey list is on account of the continued risks it poses to the global war on terror-financing.
Historian and former vice-chancellor of the Islamic University of Kashmir Siddiq Wahid partially echoed Sahni's opinion. “The trend and evidence for it (decline in the killings of foreign militants) that you cite, and with which I would agree, suggests that Pakistan has officially eschewed support for armed insurrection,” Wahid told Article 14. “We can only speculate as to why it has adopted this position.”
One reason for this, Wahid said, is Pakistan's attempt at “a self-image makeover” over the last couple of years. “It wishes to be seen as a responsible state without abandoning its position of being a party to the dispute over Kashmir,” he said.
Signals to this effect have emerged from Islamabad too. Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has been making statements that his country is moving away from “geo-politics to geo-economics”.
Meanwhile, Indian Army chief General MM Naravane recently said there was no “overt collusion” between China and Pakistan during the ongoing Ladakh stand-off. The Army chief's statement came after India and Pakistan re-affirming a 2003 ceasefire agreement along the Line of Control.
US-based Pakistani journalist and academic Raza Rumi agrees that “a policy shift” on Kashmir may have evolved in Pakistan. “I think this policy of supporting militants has outlived its utility. It has created more problems than solved anything. Now Modi has annexed Kashmir,” said Rumi. He added, however, that the official Pakistani position is that it doesn't support militancy. “In recent years Pakistan has acted against militant groups including the ones focussed on India.”
Over two years to 2021 under what is believed to be pressure from the FATF, which seeks, as we said, urgent action by Pakistan against terror-funding infrastructure and entities involved, Islamabad has cracked down on the leaders of Kashmir-centric militant groups, such as the Lashkar and the Jaish-e-Mohammad. Lashkar leaders including Hafiz Saeed and Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi have been jailed.
Similarly, Jaish chief Masood Azhar and Hizbul Mujahideen supremo Syed Salahuddin have been conspicuously absent, issuing almost no statement over the past 18 months, the period during which Kashmir lost its autonomy and was under a months-long security and information blockade.
Why This Is Not The Endgame For Insurgency
Doubts remain about Pakistani curbs on support to cross-border terror operations, after decades of using militancy as a foreign-policy tool.
Gul Wani, professor and head of department of political science at Kashmir University, argues that Pakistan has felt no need to reinforce insurgency in Kashmir following revocation of Article 370. China's incursions along the Line of Actual Control have "effectively compensated" for the leverage gained as a result of militancy in the Valley, he said.
“Over the last year, India has faced a two-front war-like situation along the LAC and LoC,” said Wani. “One could say this was one of the factors that persuaded New Delhi to seek to mend fences with Pakistan.”
Several different outcomes are possible from the new reality evolving. According to Sahni, the Afghan endgame may or may not be favourable for Pakistan.
“If Taliban does seize power in Afghanistan, then one of the outcomes will be that Pakistan will be enormously encouraged to divert greater force, greater attention and resource to the Kashmir conflict,” Sahni said, adding that the Taliban may, however, not necessarily be “a proxy of Pakistan”. The Taliban may not do Pakistan’s bidding, or may not return to power, in which case the US and NATO forces could defer their exit. In each circumstance, the portents for Kashmir are different.
“The future,” said Sahni, “is uncertain.”
(Riyaz Wani is an independent journalist based in Srinagar.)