The Questions Raised by the Prolonged Encounter at Anantnag

Has the military leadership been instructed by its political master to hold back for longer?

As the encounter at Gadol near Anantnag in Kashmir drags on past its 100th hour, it begs the question why two militants remain holed up in a thicket for so long after inflicting four casualties, and possibly a fifth, on India’s premier counter insurgency force, the formidable Rashtriya Rifles (RR).

Clearly, at the outset of the operation, the RR was in its element. The colonel commanding the RR battalion and the major commanding an RR company were off tracking the militants down, along with the conveyer of the intelligence, a deputy superintendent (DSP) of the Kashmir police.

Both the Army officers were recent respective recipients of the Sena Medal (Gallantry). In line with Army tactical leadership ethos inspired by the adage ‘the role of the infantry is to close with the enemy, capture or destroy him,’ they vied for the lead. In the event, they were felled, along with the DSP, by the initial volley from the militants.

Since the militants are advantaged by the forested redoubt, a methodical operation is currently on to eliminate them. The RR is leveraging firepower, as it closes the loop of the cordon in a glacial manoeuvre designed to deny the militants any further terrain advantage. Yet, it is curious the RR is taking this long.

It’s possible the RR was lured into an ambush by planted intelligence. That the initial volley of shots accounted for a police officer shows that a red-hot lead was being followed up, post-haste.

This possibility is lent credence in the claim of The Resistance Front – which is but a morphed Lashkar-e-Tayyaba outfit – that the ambush was to avenge the recent assassination of a militant leader across the Line of Control (LC).

Apparently, Indian intelligence operations have drawn blood, accounting for some of the four militant leaders killed though in midst of their sanctuary across. Close as the ambush was on the heels of the latest assassination, the timing lends their claim plausibility.

On the other hand, the incident may well have been an opportunity ambush. Sometimes things do go awry in operations, not necessarily due to complacence but – as the doyen of strategists, Clausewitz, has put it – the play of Chance. As all who’ve been in a firefight well know, the hobby of the capricious God of War is to play dice with lives.

While there is no second-guessing the tactical-level leaders on the ground, the operation does appear unduly prolonged. It flies in the face of the adage, ‘there is no obstacle for the infantry.’ The RR is but infantry.

It is inconceivable that the troops are not straining at the bit and operational-level commanders are so risk averse as to continue reining them in for so long, unless acting on instructions.

Has the military leadership been instructed by its political master to hold back for longer?

The incident, purveyed on television, seized national attention. It had the potential to put a question mark on the Narendra Modi government’s Kashmir policy.

Did the regime unfurl the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner too soon?

Clearly, the problem in Kashmir and of Kashmir has not gone away, even if Article 370 has long been laid to rest. The encounter busts the myth that tourist footfalls are a measure of the success of counter-insurgency.

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Mindful of this and ever-ready to use military achievements to its advantage, has the Narendra Modi regime, as is its wont, turned a seeming setback into an opportunity? Hitherto it has lost no opportunity to snatch electoral dividend even from a reverse, be it Pulwama and Balakot or Doklam and Ladakh.

Nationalism has been deftly stirred up, with the cremations – and a burial – of the brave-hearts reframing the operation on social media. Another operation, accounting for three militants on the LC elsewhere, has timely evened the score. With elections nigh, nationalism is a potion to stir into the communal pot.

A prolonged operation was also necessary to wipe away the aftertaste of the images of Narendra Modi being feted at the ruling party headquarters for his stewardship of the G20 summit.

The moment was reminiscent of Modi persisting with the shooting of a television episode at the Jim Corbett National Park – which many allege he continued with even after having been informed of the tragedy at Pulwama.

While saffron petals were showered on him at the Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters, the nation’s defenders received a shower of a different kind.

Modi’s national security minders know well that tactical operations can have strategic effects. Cognisant, they can be credited with manipulating the news cycle, denying the opposition a handle, while preserving Modi’s strongman image.

The unthinkable underside is if the military has lent itself as instrument to this end.

Ali Ahmed is a strategic analyst.