On 18th September 2016, four militants stormed a military base at Uri in Jammu and Kashmir. Security analysts began pointing fingers atLashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), given its track record of targeting security personnel and infrastructure in Kashmir. However, the attacks are merely an episode in a series of attacks carried out by the LeT under the aegis of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). When considered in the larger strategic threat perception that India faces from Pakistan, LeT’s attacks are acts of sabotage directed at disrupting peace in Kashmir and Indo-Pak diplomatic overtures.

 

In realising its strategic objective, the LeT was created in the early 1990swhen the ISI wanted to gain control in the Kashmir theatre at a time when its previous proxies were either turning hostile or impotent to withstand the Indian Military offenses. ISI, at this juncture, had to create an elite commando squad with special skills of sabotage and fidayeen tactics. In doing so, one can draw parallels between the LeT and the German Brandenburgers who acted as Hitler’s saboteurs in World War II. Being part of the Abwehr,foreign intelligence agency, under the Wermacht, German Army, the Brandenburgers were to conduct sabotage operations that would facilitate an easy occupation of the German forces. Similarly, the LeT cadres are ISI’s saboteurs operating in Kashmir to serve a larger strategic purpose.

 

Modus Operandi

 

Deception is the key. The Brandenburgers’ modus operandi relied on stealthy infiltration into enemy territory by posing as locals, in most cases dressed in enemy uniforms, and destruction of key facilities to disrupt the enemy’s defence mechanism. The LeT operated similarly as saboteurs targeting security infrastructure in Kashmir. However, an overt Pakistani military follow-up action could not be guaranteed. One reason for this is that the Pakistan Army tried and tested this tactic in 1965 and 1999 but failed due to India’s superior military prowess.The tactic was tried during Operation Gibraltar in 1965 and all gains made were reversed by Indian military retribution. Another attempt was made in 1999, when infiltrators gained control over Kargil Heights, only to be driven out later. Therefore, the LeT’s acts of sabotage on Indian military installations are ISI-guided solitary acts culminating in a long war of attrition.

 

It must be remembered here that the LeT were not the first of ISI’s saboteurs in Kashmir. Harkat-ul-Ansar (HuA) and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) had functioned as ISI’s agents in Kashmir. Nevertheless, with the LeT being the latest edition of ISI’s saboteurs, mistakes made with previous proxies were rectified and training and tasking, also intensified. Under the auspices of the ISI, LeT gained its organisation, funding, combat training, campaign guidance, intelligence on targets, diplomatic support, safe havens in Pakistan and most important of all: launch pads and cover fire for cadres infiltrating into Indian territory.

 

Superseding the Brandenburgers, an innovative element to LeT’s operational tactic was the birth of the fidayeen tactic. The fidayeen tactic involved armed men storming the security installations or military camps to kill soldiers, damage property and inflict fear among others, while the cost of such ventures could mean death. In many cases the LeT fidayeens survived the operations only to return and die on another mission.The daredevilry and sophistication in LeT’s operational conduct deserves recognition of the fact that its cadres include both fighters from Afghan liberation as well as serving and retired ISI and Pak military personnel.

 

Strategic Significance of the LeT

 

Unlike Hitler who envisioned the Brandenburgers’sabotage operations to facilitate an outright decisive victory in the battlefield, the LeT saboteurs have a strategic role to endure Pakistan’s covert war of attrition against India, disrupt Indo-Pak peace process and subvert Kashmiri public opinion in favour of accession to Pakistan.

 

Since1996, LeT cadres have carried out attacks on security forces and their camps in Kashmir. In the absence of militaristic opportunities to confront India, Pakistan’s safest bet was to employ trained commandos who could challenge the Indian military might in Kashmir. Lashkar filled this gap. Indian military personnel have also acknowledged LeT’s martial ability and military acumen. Then onwards, LeT’s sabotage missions have emerged to serve a larger purpose as a war of attrition aimed at damaging the morale of the Indian security forces and subsequently, forcing India out of Kashmir. 

 

A systematic study of LeT’s attacks in India helps one understand how they have managed to hijack peace initiatives between India and Pakistan. Two obvious examples to cite here are the attacks on Red Fort and Srinagar Airport in 2000 and the infamous 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. Both the attacks came amidst peace talks between India and Pakistan. Through the attacks it seeks to send out a message to India as well as the international community that the Indian security forces must move out of Kashmir.

 

A Kashmir-centric organisation, LeT’s mission was also to keep pro-Pakistan sentiments alive among the Kashmiris. The offensive operations conducted by the Indian security forces during the 1990s forced many of the militants of groups like HuA, HM and others to either die fighting or turn double agents called ‘renegades’. In addition, pro-independence stance of indigenous militants caused irritation in the ISI. To eliminate the twin problems the LeT was raised and it comprised foreign fighters, committed to the Kashmir’s cause and their training and battlefield experience in Afghanistan made them a formidable enemy.

 

Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Counterintelligence

 

The ISI is the principal intelligence provider to the LeT on targets and campaign guidance. However, the LeT relies on its own system of counterintelligence to frustrate Indian efforts in integrating Kashmir into India. LeT’s counterintelligence is a product of a combination of offensive action and psychological warfare.

 

The rigged elections of 1987 created an impression among the Kashmiri populace of an Indian domination. With public support and ISI’s buttress, militancy brewed in Kashmir. However, quick action by the Indian Army brought down militancy and dominated the public opinion that Indian military superiority could not be challenged. During this time, the battle-hardened LeT began to turn the tide against the Indian security forces. They dared to target security forces and their infrastructure, which made them welcome in Kashmir.

 

However, paramilitary action alone would not suffice. Like the Brandenburgers, the LeT had to blend with the local population and win their trust. But unlike the Brandenburgers, the LeT’s composition was of foreign fighters. This was the first point of divergence between the LeT and the locals. Despite admiration for their combat abilities, the local Kashmiri was always wary of the LeT’s intention. Suspicion strengthened when it began propagating pro-Pakistan ideas, far away from independence. Under such circumstances, LeT devised an elaborate psychological campaign in Kashmir.

 

LeT’s psychological campaign of winning the hearts and minds of the Kashmiris was both brutal and benign. The first part of LeT’s psychological campaign entailed a massive ethnic cleansing campaign of non-Muslim population. Once the theatre of operation became predominantly Muslim, LeT used a combination of fear and friendship to generate favourable public opinion. LeT learnt from its predecessors’ mistakesand made sure not to indulge in acts of hooliganism, robbery and rape. Locals were paid for their hospitality and women were respected, though not in all cases. LeT also stepped in to settle local disputes at several instances. These steps hurt Indian intelligence gathering noticeably. In some instances when amiability with locals weakened, LeT retorted to violence. Informers and dissenters were maimed and displayed publicly to instil fear in others.

 

Fighting ISI’s Brandenburgers

 

Countering the Lashkar menace needs offensive action both within the Kashmir theatre and beyond. Just as the Brandenburgers were forced out of operation to merge with the German Infantry, LeT also needs to be expelled from Kashmir using force. Offensive action must act as a catalyst for political solution. Offensive operations have two dimensions: intelligence and military. First, India must develop a strong counterintelligence mechanism to frustrate ISI’s as well as LeT’s operational ease. Aggressive counterintelligence must also facilitate greater border security to deny infiltration routes to LeT.

 

The military aspect is to carry out offensives in the Kashmir theatre as well as target launch pads across the Line of Control. Combining aggressive counterintelligence with offensive action fractures the link between the ISI and its LeT modules in Kashmir. As a complimentary action, the government can begin propaganda initiatives to generate favourable public opinion. However, in a strategic sense these measures need to be applied not only to LeT but all groups operating in Kashmir.

 

Currently, LeT still remains a source of worry to Indian security forces, but the HM has resurfaced in a much more integrated fashion. With the locals acting as a shield, HM’s stone pelting tactics, pioneered by the LeT, and paramilitary action have been challenging the primacy of LeT’s fidayeen tactics. Moreover, LeT has failed to sustain itself as ISI’s Brandenburgers by flaunting its global ambitions. Should this trend continue,it will become a target of global coalition against terror. For now, it enjoys significant political clout within Pakistan, respect among global Jihadi organisationsand tolerance among Kashmiri Muslims. In such a case, another reliable and bold solution would be to carry out targeted killing of LeT leaders like Hafiz Saeed, Zaki ur-Rahman Lakhvi and surgical strikes on LeT safe havens inside Pakistan. Does India have such capabilities is another topic for debate!

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.