We Won’t Need To Fight A War If We Can Win The Peace
By Amit Varma
A month has gone by since the Pulwama attacks, and the initial anxieties have passed. India responded, Pakistan responded back, and we are at a stable equilibrium again, where a war is unlikely. That is a good thing, though the larger problem of how to tackle Pakistan remains. My column today is not about that—though if that interests you, do check out this episode on the India-Pakistan conflict on my podcast, The Seen and the Unseen, with SrinathRaghavan. He gave me a master class on the geopolitics and game theory involved.
This column is not about Pakistan, but about Kashmir. There are two dimensions to the Pulwama attack: the cross-border terrorism sponsored by Pakistan; and the ferment in Kashmir that is fertile ground for our neighbours. If we could solve Kashmir, Pakistan would cease to be such a huge problem. It is my contention that in the last few years, we have mishandled the problem and made it far worse.
I won’t get into debates here around Kashmir’s history or questions of political philosophy. Did we handle Kashmir correctly in 1947? Is there a philosophical case to be made for Kashmiri independence? These are complex and contentious questions, and any discussion on them gets into ‘agree-to-disagree’ territory. Instead, I will put forth a premise I think most readers will agree with: the violent insurgency in Kashmir needs to be brought to an end as efficiently as possible.
Our approach to it is the opposite of what it should be. We are making things worse.
The Fly And The Lion
To explain why this is so, I’m going to write about two important books. The first is Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice by David Galula. The book was written in the early 1960s, and is today considered the bible of how to fight insurgencies. For decades, though, it was ignored, especially in the United States, which blundered through Vietnam and Iraq making all the mistakes Galula warned against – and which we ignore today in Kashmir.
Galula was an officer in the French army who fought insurgencies in China, Greece, Indochina, and Algeria, and was once imprisoned by Mao’s guerrillas in the 1940s. One of his first realisations was that fighting an insurgency was not remotely like fighting the conventional battles that armies had been trained to fight. The nature of the enemy was different, as was the nature of the battle. “In a fight between a fly and a lion,” he wrote, “the fly cannot deliver a knockout blow and the lion cannot fly.” Using conventional methods “have at best no more effect than a fly swatter. Some guerrillas are bound to be caught, but new recruits will replace them as fast as they are lost.”
That last sentence is the whole problem: you kill one terrorist and create three more. There are two reasons why that happens, and both involve the local population. One is a lesson Galula learnt in China from watching Mao’s guerrillas in action. Fred Kaplan, in his book The Insurgents, summed it up: “A Maoist insurgency sought above all to win the support of the people by living among them and gradually supplanting the functions of the government.”
In the language of public choice economics, they aimed to become a stationary bandit instead of a roving bandit. I wrote about this at length in my last column, in the context of India’s Maoist insurgencies. Thus, they gained the sympathies of the people they lived among, and any brutality towards them alienated them, and could drive some of them to terrorism.
Two, even if the insurgents didn’t win the sympathy of the locals, the state could still treat the local population brutally, and turn them to terrorism in their anger and frustration. As I’ll elaborate on later in this piece, that’s exactly what happened in Kashmir.
In both cases, fighting terrorism with a heavy hand just creates more terrorists. What a counterinsurgency force needs to do, therefore, is win the local population to its side. It is not enough for military action to be successful. As one of Mao’s generals said, such warfare is “20 percent military action and 80 percent political.”
20 Percent Military, 80 Percent Political
Kaplan described Galula’s ‘step-by-step process’ of fighting a successful counterinsurgency thus: “First, concentrate enough armed forces to push the insurgents out of the area. Second, keep enough troops there to repel a comeback, eventually turning it over to well-trained local soldiers or police. Third, establish contact with the people, earn their trust or control their movements, and cut off their ties to the insurgents. Fourth, destroy the insurgents’ local political organisation and create new ones. Finally, mop up or win over the insurgency’s remnants.”
This is now known in the literature as “Clear-Hold-Build.” The first element of the three requires military action, the second a combination of military and political, and the third is mainly politics. Kaplan described such warfare as requiring “military, political and judicial operations—and all three were essential. The outcome was a matter not of adding the three elements but of multiplying them: if one of the three elements was zero, the product of all three would be zero.”
TE Lawrence, in his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom, wrote: “War upon rebellion was messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.” That’s a striking image that indicates how difficult it is, and how impotent military action can be, perpetuating terrorism instead of ending it. The American general David Petraeus, who was inspired by Galula and Lawrence, and horrified by how the United States bungled the invasion of Iraq, once said that the key question to ask before a military operation was, “Will this operation take more bad guys off the street than it creates by the way it’s conducted?”
How We Messed Up Kashmir
We know what the answer to that question is in Kashmir. That brings me to the second book I want to focus on in this piece: The Generation of Rage in Kashmir by David Devadas. This is an important book, and one that every Indian should read. It challenges assumptions that all of us who are not in Kashmir make about Kashmir today.
The biggest one of them is that militancy in the valley has been constant from the time it kicked in around 1988. Devadas, a journalist and editor who has lived in and reported from Kashmir since the last millennium, writes in his book that the militancy was effectively over by 2007, which he describes as “a year of endings and beginnings.” A key reason for this was demographic: a new generation had come of age.
“[M]any boys and even more girls of this generation,” Devadas writes, “had become deeply cynical, even contemptuous, of their elders who had taken up arms. They saw militancy as futile and secessionist leaders as self-serving hypocrites.” This was an aspirational generation. They did not speak of azaadi and militancy, and “it had already become clear that a very large number of Kashmiris did not want Kashmir to merge with Pakistan.” Many of them “dreamed of careers in modelling, acting, or singing in Mumbai, or in software engineering in Bangalore.”
The coming-of-age of this generation coincided with India-Pakistan peace talks, starting with AtalBihari Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf beginning talks in 2003 that also increased chances of peace in the valley. It looked like a perfect storm of circumstances that would bring peace to Kashmir. There was just one problem: even though militancy was effectively over, the apparatus of counterinsurgency remained in place.
To understand this, let’s turn to economics and consider the incentives involved. Certain arms of the state had been given enormous power to fight the militancy of the 1990s. Power corrupts, as the old truism goes, and those who had this power were not about to give it up. Consider some of the different incentives in play.
One, there were direct incentives of ‘kills’ and ‘captures’. In the 1990s, the number of terrorists killed became a metric for the advancement, monetarily and otherwise, of the forces fighting them. “Officers and units sometimes competed to notch up higher numbers,” which led to a “bump-him-off” culture. Suspects were routinely killed in ‘encounters’ and, as Devadas illustrates in his book, innocent people were taken from one area to another, killed, and passed off as terrorists to get rewards. Abduction and murder, in other words, by the state.
Two, the state used its power for extortion. There is a telling story in Devadas’s book:
“Waheed Para experienced this in 2005, when he was in his late teens. A BSF officer accused him of being a militant, dramatically holding a pistol to his head, and then tortured him mentally until he broke down. He was released after a minister in the state government intervened, but the swaggering officer threatened, while letting him go, that he would ‘discover’ weapons from the car and then blow up that car with the boy in it. The boy was studying in Class 11 when he became a victim of such torture and threats. The reason was greed; that officer wanted the boy’s new black Indigo car.”
Three, the state got many more opportunities for corruption. “Vast amounts of cash were available from the sea of corruption that had filled Kashmir,” Devadas writes, “particularly over the three decades since 1987.” He elaborates:
“The army and other forces brought more money into the economy, through supply, construction and equipment contracts, apart from the money that soldiers spent from their salaries. From the mid-1990s, the Indian government stepped up aid to the state, for development and reconstruction —for example, of the very large number of schools that had been destroyed by militants. Many Kashmiris suspected that a vast proportion of that money was siphoned off through corruption.”
Four, this ‘conflict economy’, as Devadas calls it, led to an increase in rent-seeking. He quotes a local leader: “The mindset that has developed in the last 20 years is that we go to the market to buy vegetables, we go to a government department to buy the service we need. People don’t know their rights.” The locals were dependent on the state for everything—and the state extracted a price.
A classic illustration of this is the ‘Non-Involvement Certificate’ that Kashmiris needed from the government. This was a document given by the state that certified that an individual had no past of militancy. Without it, one could not get a job or a passport and so on. The going rate for it was apparently Rs 2,000. A militant could get the certificate by paying the cash. And a non-militant could not get it if he was too poor or too principled to pay.
Corruption and rent-seeking are common in other parts of India as well, but it was worse in Kashmir because there was even less accountability. The local people were treated as subjects, not citizens. The state could get away with anything. And when it had such power, with the incentives outlined above, why on earth would it give it up? It had every incentive to keep classifying the state as a conflict zone.
The state continued its brutal behaviour, as Devadas describes:
“Most men had, at some point, been abused, slapped, or kicked on their way, after a soldier had looked at their [ID] card. Or they had watched a father or an uncle being slapped, or ordered to do squats while holding his ears, or made to stand on his hands with his feet propped against a wall on a public road, while neighbours and relatives passed by. Humiliation was one of the keys to control.”
Also, as Devadas astutely points out, the generation of cops who had entered the force at a time of repression was now in senior positions in the state. Repression was all they knew. In the context of the bump-him-off culture, Devadas writes: “When the forces got used to catch-and-kill executions—and that giddily exciting power, the power over life and death— some among them clung to it even when judicial and prosecutorial systems were back in place.”
There were protests in Kashmir in 2008 and 2010, but these had nothing to do with militancy or azaadi. But for a state that had a vested interest in retaining its power, it was logical to portray all civilian protests as linked to terrorism. “The business of accusing someone of terrorism, militancy, stone-pelting, or anti-national activities,” writes Devadas, “could be used to suppress all kinds of protests, including those that had nothing to do with ‘separatist’ sentiments—such as protests against corruption.”
The clampdown on these protests was brutal. Young men who had nothing to do with militancy were rounded up in hundreds and tortured in prison. Devadas writes in his book of how the police would then use these prisoners to extort money from their parents, demanding they pay to get them released. And when there were protests, pellet guns were used instead of the water cannons used in other parts of India, blinding many people. By the early years of this decade, “rage and repression had become a vicious cycle, with each firing incident provoking fresh ire.”
And that’s when Pakistan re-entered the fray. By 2016, Pakistan-supported cross-border terrorism was on the rise, and many young people in Kashmir no longer wanted jobs and opportunities, but revenge and freedom. It was back to 1990, but even worse, enabled by new narratives of Jihad that found a willing audience, and by the new technology of the 21st century.
As Devadas writes, it was a “Catch 22: insistence on the continued operation of the apparatus of counterinsurgency, even after the 1990s’ militancy had declined, was a major cause for the support the new militancy received in the second decade of the century—which then required increased deployment of the counterinsurgency situation.”
This vicious cycle can still be broken, though. The insurgency in Kashmir can be, and must be, defeated: but it must be defeated in a way that ensures that getting rid of one terrorist does not create three more. The lessons of counterinsurgency that Galula wrote about in his book need to be internalised by the Indian state. We have to realise that just as we must not lose Kashmir, we also must not lose Kashmiris. And that good governance and democratic politics are as important a part of the puzzle as police or military action are.
(Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He has been a journalist for a decade-and-a-half, and has won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism twice. He edits the online magazine Pragati, writes the blog India Uncut and hosts the podcast The Seen and the Unseen.)