Lessons from Pulwama, Balakot: Time to focus on blocking terror funding routes

In the weeks since the February 14 suicide attack on CRPF forces in Pulwama, much has happened in the region. The “non-military” strikes conducted by the Indian Air Force (IAF) on terror camps in Balakot, Pakistan, appear to be another watershed moment in Indo-Pak relations and in India’s style of response to the re-emerging terror threat in the Kashmir Valley.

As the dust settles following the capture and handover of IAF pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, whose MiG 21 crashed in Pakistan while fending off Pakistani aerial incursion into India, it is important to review India’s recent attempts at fighting the war waged by non-state actors. While India and Pakistan continue to make headlines over the alleged intrusions by the each other’s drone planes and skirmishes on the border, it is important that we do not miss the forest for the trees.

India cannot rely on kinetic responses to resolve the resurgence of terrorism and militancy in the Valley is a given. In this light, it is imperative to reflect on other policies to resolve the issue.

New wave of terrorism and militancy

Since 2015, the Kashmir Valley has seen a steady rise in militancy, comprising of both home-grown militants as well as terrorists crossing over from the Pakistani side. Heightened tensions in Kashmir and ‘encounters’ between the Indian armed forces and militants have been in the news since the death of Burhan Wani, a local Hizbul Mujahideen leader, in July 2016 and the subsequent shutdown in the Valley for months.

After a decade-long relative lull in Kashmir, the traction for militancy and terrorism has again surfaced. Official sources show that over the past five years there has been a steady rise in the number of local youths becoming militants and joining terror groups in Kashmir, with numbers shooting up in the last two years: from a mere 31 in 2013 to 66 in 2015, according to police data, to more than 120 and 150, in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

The failed attempt that was ‘demonetisation’

The push and pull factors that fuel the continued reign of terrorism and militancy in J&K need to have long-term solutions as opposed to knee-jerk reactions and superficial overtures. The catalysts in this conflict-rife region are numerous, such as political dissonance, identity-based conflict, widespread distrust in the Indian government after rigged elections in the 1980s, the house arrests of local political leaders, continued army presence as well as external factors (Pakistan being just one of the foreign players).

One such effort that appears to have borne no fruit was the Modi government’s demonetisation policy, which was introduced to tackle black money, fake currency, and terror financing.

Days after the controversial policy was introduced, then defence minister Manohar Parrikar declared that post demonetisation, J&K had seen a steady decline in violent activities. While both the government and Parrikar claimed that demonetisation would suck the wells of black money and the sources of terrorist funding dry, just a few days after the scheme was rolled out militants in Kashmir were caught with the new Rs 2000 notes.

The fact that numerous terror attacks and encounters with militants have followed since demonetisation came into effect shows that it did nothing but prove a temporary setback for terror groups, failing India’s long-term goals. In the two years following demonetisation, 163 major incidents have taken place country-wide, 103 of which occurred in J&K alone. During the same period, 808 persons—including civilians, security forces and terrorists/militants—were killed in the state.

The rather expensive policy of demonetisation seems to have been a toothless tiger when it comes to tackling terrorism in India for two reasons. First, a number of the groups active in India and in Kashmir in particular, be it Jaish-e-Mohammed, Hizbul or the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), receive adequate support—financial, logistical and military training—from Pakistan. After demonetisation, they only lost out on the liquid assets they held, but the source of perennial funding remained. Thus, they have been unfettered in carrying out minor attacks as well ‘terror spectaculars’ on Indian soil. The Pulwama attack (2019), the Sunjuwan attack (2018) and the Baramullah attack (2016) were carried out after demonetisation.

Youth angst

Additionally, the Valley has seen a continued trend of young, untrained males picking up arms against the Indian State. These militants have not received much training and operate low-grade weapons; the dearth of funds has not deterred them. The continued sense of injustice coupled with lack of normalcy in the state is just one of the reasons why many of the Valley’s youth have joined militant groups, and the lack of funds will not lessen their angst or their desire to act. While not as well-trained as their foreign counterparts, local militants are equally important as they are becoming the face of the new wave of violence in the Valley. Today, Burhan Wani and Faizan Ahmad Bhat have become common names in the Valley, and are seen as martyrs.

The way forward

Although demonetisation fared poorly in its attempt to curb terror financing, it was an attempt nonetheless. The developments following the Balakot strikes suggest that India will have to shoulder the burden of targeting terror finances while Pakistan turns to superficial measures to de-escalate the ongoing situation without addressing the root of the problem. The recent arrest of 44 militants by Pakistan has no bearing on the continued operations of terror camps along the India-Pakistan border nor does it help shut down charities run by the groups that are used to funnel money for terror activities. Let us not forget that Jamaat-ud-Dawaah chief and LeT founder Hafiz Saeed has been put under house arrest time and again, yet his groups’ terror activities continue.

The battle against terror must be fought on multiple fronts, and requires operational, tactical and strategic maneuvers on social, economic, political and military levels. Dealing with external benefactors needs to go hand in hand with setting up internal deterrence measures.

Responding to the push factors behind young disenchanted youths cannot be ignored while formulating a comprehensive, long-term strategy. It is reported that nearly 40% of those within the 15-30 year age bracket in J&K are unemployed. However, it not enough to simply provide employment opportunities to pacify the segment of the population that is most likely to turn to violence. It is also important for the state to win their trust; these “children of war” were born in times of conflict and have never experienced normalcy viz. a viz. the Indian state. 

Similarly, squeezing sources of terror financing cannot be left to a single policy measure. Instead it requires targeting both the illegal and legal routes through which money is brought in to buy arms, pay salaries to militants and terrorists, and fund attacks. The crackdown against terror funding requires global cooperation and setting aside of vested interests.

Akanksha Narain is an associate consultant with a political and security risks consultancy, and is a visiting fellow with Centre for Anti-Terrorism Studies at National Security Guard, Manesar.