Infiltration worries

Published : Jun 22, 2002 00:00 IST

Infiltration is the big issue. The motivation behind, and the mechanics of, the cross-border game.

BY mobilising its military might India may have made Pakistan blink in this round of "coercive diplomacy" and averted a war by extracting assurances from Islamabad of "permanently" stemming the flow of armed insurgents into Jammu and Kashmir state. But tension between the two nuclear rivals, like the infiltration, is far from over.

Until mid-June security officials in Srinagar said militant infiltration was continuing across the Line of Control (LoC) despite statements from Delhi and Islamabad that it had ebbed. So was Pakistani artillery fire that provided the insurgents cover to cross into India to fuel Kashmir's raging 13-year-old civil war that has claimed over 35,000 lives.

A senior security official in Srinagar said four militant groups crossed over from Kupwara in northern Kashmir within days of Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf promising to stem cross-border traffic, while "rapid infiltration" continued in adjoining Rajouri and Poonch districts in the Jammu region. Poonch town and airport and numerous other spots along the over 1,000 km-long Kashmir border are regularly targeted by the Pakistani artillery, which aids infiltrators.

Some 150 people on both sides have died in the increased cross-border firing since the May 14 strike by militants at Kalu Chak in which 31 people, mostly soldiers' family members, were slaughtered. Thousands of terrified border residents remain refugees, unable to return to their devastated homes.

Police sources in Srinagar said infiltration continued despite the United States' assurances to India that Musharraf had made it clear to Washington that he would "permanently and visibly" stop it. Earlier, Musharraf and other Pakistani leaders had steadfastly denied supporting the Kashmiri insurgency, claiming that Islamabad merely provided it moral, diplomatic and political support.

According to official figures, 696 militants infiltrated into Kashmir between January and end-May 2001. Of them, 466 were foreigners and the rest were local militants. After the "clampdown" announced by Musharraf in January and reiterated in May, 611 militants crossed the border. Military and security agencies estimate that around 3,000 armed men from various tanzeems (militant groups) are massed across Kashmir today with their lines of communication active and their logistics secure.

A European diplomat said: "The U.S. has a stake in Musharraf's survival, to prosecute its war against the Taliban and the Al Qaeda, and consequently has managed to persuade India to step back from the brink of war to give the Pakistan President a chance for manoeuvre. In exchange, India has profited by Pakistan's promise to end cross-border terrorism in Kashmir." But it remains to be seen how steadfast Washington remains and how much influence it is able to exercise over Islamabad with regard to border crossings, he added.

There was ambiguity in the messages conveyed to India by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage on the one hand and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, on the other. While Powell and Armitage categorically assured India of Musharraf's intentions to dismantle "permanently and visibly" the Kashmiri terrorist network by closing down training camps and border launching pads and freezing militant bank accounts, Rumsfeld seemed calculatedly vague about Pakistani intentions. But a leading Delhi newspaper obligingly attributed this to "crossed-wires" between the U.S. State and Defence departments, glossing over conveniently the detail that Armitage had briefed Rumsfeld in Estonia after talks with Musharraf and before his day-long visit to India on June 12.

"The sobering reality is that little progress can be said to have been made in the direction of peace and, after extended sabre-rattling, India and Pakistan are back to the old nonsense of 'dialogue' and 'negotiations' and the pursuit of a false peace," said Ajay Sahni of the Institute of Conflict Management in Delhi. The current Western argument is that without continued support to Musharraf, Pakistan would immediately and inevitably spiral into anarchy, and that such a collapse is not in the interest of the international community, he said. "Yet, it is precisely this support that is encouraging further militarisation and transfer of international resources to the paraphernalia of Pakistani terrorism."

Underwritten by the U.S. and under pressure from it, Musharraf's guarantee of ending cross-border infiltration has led to India pulling back its naval battle group in the Arabian Sea poised to strike at Pakistan's oil lifeline on its southern coastline, restoring overflights for Pakistani commercial aircraft and designating a new High Commissioner to Islamabad. Further political and diplomatic sanctions - imposed after the December 13 suicide attack by five gunmen on Parliament building - such as restoring road and rail links and previous personnel levels of the two diplomatic missions are expected to follow soon.

Military officers said tension with Pakistan would escalate if militants fighting Indian rule in Kashmir struck once again even though India has assured the U.S. that its response will be "circumspect" and "calibrated" in the event, which it perceives to be a near certainty. "India will have to be careful in identifying future militant strikes as the handiwork of freelance jehadis or those carried out with official Pakistani backing," an officer said. If these appear to have been sponsored by Islamabad, as many of them indeed are, then tension between the two sides would again spiral, he added. But he doubted whether India could once again mobilise its military machine without becoming a global laughing stock.

The 14-party Unified Jihad Council based in Muzaffarabad (the capital of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir), meanwhile, has openly expressed its anger over Musharraf withdrawing his support to the Kashmir cause and reiterated its determination to continue fighting. "The Council might even be assisted by rogue elements within the Pakistani Army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)," a security official said. India has long accused both of sponsoring Kashmir's insurgency by implementing their policy of "death by a thousand cuts", which they effectively employed against the Soviet occupation through the Afghan Mujahideen.

On June 11, Islamic militants thronged Muzaffarabad vowing to continue armed attacks on India in open defiance of Musharraf. To chants of "India will be destroyed" thousands marched through the Kashmiri border town in the first sign of a backlash against Musharraf's pledge to seal off the LoC. "We will continue to cross the LoC as the struggle for Kashmir's freedom continues. We will not allow a weak ruler to sell out on Kashmir," Qazi Hussein Ahmed told over 10,000 supporters from his Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), Pakistan's largest religious party.

Qazi Ahmed's fiery rhetoric coincided with a statement in Muzaffara-bad from dozens of hardline clerics, retired generals and outlawed Islamic groups, which was faxed to Musharraf, demanding an end to Islamabad's support to the U.S.-led war on terrorism, and a pledge that militants would continue to be dispatched to Indian-administered Kashmir. "Jehad in Kashmir will continue," former Pakistani Army chief Gen Aslam Beg said. No force on earth can stop the freedom movement, he added.

Pakistani analysts, however, point out that these fundamentalist groups exercise limited power and influence having rarely ever won an electoral victory. But they concede that the JeI possessed "street power" which it utilised effectively, albeit to negative ends. "Over the past two decades Pakistan has fallen prey to the temptation of nurturing militancy in the name of Islam, thinking this to be an option to promote its strategic goals in the region, particularly in Kashmir," said Dr. Satish Kumar, former Professor of Diplomacy at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. The intention is to motivate the Pakistani Army in the name of Islam to wage jehad, he added.

On June 11 itself British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told the House of Commons that "clear links" existed between the ISI and several outlawed Pakistan-based terrorist organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), which are leading the Kashmiri insurgency. "India has long charged that such terrorism has had the covert support of successive Pakistani governments, and in particular the ISI Directorate. Her Majesty's government accepts that there is a clear link between the ISI Directorate and these groups," Straw added.

INDIA calculates the level of militant infiltration into Kashmir by means of radio intercepts and interrogation reports, through informers and 'double agents' and, to a lesser degree, with the aid of technical intelligence. Using U.S. and Japanese radio transmitters equipped with encryption chips, communications between militant groups and the Pakistani Army, the ISI and Border Rangers are monitored jointly by Military Intelligence, the Border Security Force (BSF), the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) and the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). These intercepts provide invaluable information about militant crossings that are, at times, corroborated by militants' interrogation reports.

Militant guides in the pay of Indian security agencies also provide accurate information and officials admit that generous advances have often led to successful ambushes near the LoC. But security officers said that owing to the precarious nature of the job, the "turnover" of such informants was "high".

Local Gujjar and Bakarwal nomadic tribesmen who live in the upper reaches of the mountains along the LoC and function as porters, helping militants ferry arms, ammunition and explosives to "safe havens", are also a credible source of information on trans-border crossings. They are patronised mostly by the Army, which not only provides them food, medicines and fuel through the winter, but also rewards them handsomely for "actionable" intelligence.

Technical intelligence on crossings is, however, the weakest link in the monitoring chain. The Army has been using Israeli Searcher and Hunter unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) it acquired in 1997 to monitor the border, but they are vulnerable - one was shot down near Lahore on June 8 - and have not gathered much useful information. A pilot project is being initiated later this year with the Los Angeles-based Cooperative Monitoring Centre of Sandia Laboratories to put in place satellite-linked ground sensors and electronic fencing along the LoC, while negotiations for Israeli surveillance balloons are continuing. To monitor the difficult border effectively a clutch of powerful, low-orbit satellites that pass over the region frequently is also required.

During his Delhi visit Rumsfeld discussed various means to monitor the LoC and renewed the U.S. offer to provide advanced ground infra-red, thermal, acoustic, seismic and magnetic sensor and radar devices to India and Pakistan. Though Rumsfeld's visit finalised nothing, it was broadly agreed that these devices will be operated by local forces. A proposal by British Defence Secretary Geoffrey Hoon for a joint heli-borne U.S.-U.K. military force to monitor the LoC has been abandoned.

Even as the debate rages for "wiring up" the Kashmir frontier, it seems to ignore two fundamental factors: One, the U.S., the principal supplier of all monitoring equipment, has itself been unsuccessful in stemming Mexican, central and south American "wetbacks" from crossing the Rio Grande into the U.S. for employment. And though criss-crossed by gullies, as in the Chambal ravines, it is a peaceful, "non-active" border with no hostile armies backed by awesome firepower.

Second, and more important, the installation of electronic gizmos cannot be done in isolation. It necessitates closer contact and greater levels of credibility between the Indian forces and the Pakistani Army and Border Rangers to render the gadgetry effective. At present such a symbiosis seems unlikely. Besides, it is not yet proven that the monitoring equipment, though highly sophisticated, will actually be able to operate in what is the world's most inhospitable terrain, where temperatures average -20C, dropping even to -40C, and where there could be a wind chill factor of even greater intensity during winter. Experimental Israeli censors, built to local specifications, installed in the Sambha sector near Jammu last year, failed to be effective: they were unable to distinguish between human and animal movement.

KASHMIR'S frontier includes the 776-km-long LoC, 75 km along the Siachen glacier and 180 km of the international border that Pakistan refers to as the "working boundary" ever since Kashmir's troubles erupted in 1989. Army officers concede that it is impossible to seal the entire frontier, given the topography, running across rivers, high mountain ranges, glacial valleys and forests. "Even if all the 1.6 million Indian and Pakistani soldiers stood arm-in-arm along the LoC, infiltration cannot be prevented," a senior Army officer said. The border is so porous that an Indian Army assessment declares that a brigade strength of militants, or around 3,000 men, can sneak into Kashmir even when the two sides are at war with each other.

Therefore it not surprising that night after night groups of militants, shivering in the icy winds sweeping down the snow-capped Himalayas, wait anxiously along the frontier to infiltrate into Kashmir. Trained in dozens of camps, many attached to Pakistani cantonments, they await a signal from their guide before moving towards the Pakistan Army's forward defence locality posts close to their "launching pads" at Lipa, Kel, Kahuta, Lam, Keri, Samani and Dudhniyal.

The tanzimi or administrator, normally a retired Army man or former militant attached to each of the training camps, hands over a promissory note to the guide to be signed by his counterpart across the frontier to indicate that the crossing has been safely executed. The tanzimi is responsible not only for short-listing the militants, their guide and charting their route into India but also determining when the crossing will be effected.

As the firing begins - following a wireless transmission by militants from Indian territory - the militants led by their sure-footed scout, dash across the border and within seconds are slithering through thick grass, forest cover or rock-strewn gullies that offer excellent cover, preventing any meaningful pursuit by the Indian Army.

Their cross-border guide then hands the militants over to another scout familiar with the minefields, Army patrols and ambush parties to escort them to their particular group's area of operation. He then returns, receiving around Rs.10,000 for his efforts. The guide escorting the newly infiltrated militants provides them accommodation in continually shifting "transit camps" in their trek across high mountain ranges before reaching their goal. He is paid around Rs.20,000.

In the less arduous Jammu region, where the militants do not have to travel long distances from the border, they are adopting 'cross-hit-return' tactics. The gunmen who attacked the Kalu Chak garrison and earlier the Raghunath temple crossed the international/working boundary shortly before executing their suicide mission.

"Foreign" militants are paid around Rs.400,000 for a two-year contract, with half the money advanced to their families and the remainder dispensed at the end of the period. Special incentives are thrown in for "hits" that attracted international media attention and "bonuses" paid for killing Indian officers and soldiers. The foreigners, however, treat local Kashmiri militants little better than hathos or porters, a situation which at times has led to mutiny and firefights. And while a militant's family received an "insurance" payment of Rs.200,000 to Rs.300,000 from the ISI if the militant died, relatives of Kashmiri militants got either a pittance or nothing.

Indian security officials said the militants were trained in two stages, for around three months each, in around 70 camps located near the frontier in and around the Lipa Valley in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, whose closure India is demanding and Musharraf has promised. Batches of 50 to 100 militants undergo Islamic indoctrination and basic weapons handling training in the "foundation course", while in the "advanced" phase they are divided into groups. Depending on individual talents, they are imparted rigorous commando and advanced guerilla training.

India's counter-insurgency grid in Kashmir, on the other hand, comprises around 40,000 soldiers from the Rashtriya Rifles (R.R.) based at Rajouri and Ramban near Jammu and Anantnag near Srinagar. Raised in the early 1990s, this is the Army's "dedicated" counter-insurgency force created to leave regular units free from internal security functions. However, owing to the heightened deployment on the border this security grid has thinned out as many R.R. personnel have been required to return to their parent arms from where they are drawn for a two-year period. If necessary, as is often the case, the R.R. forces are reinforced by troops from the three corps stationed in Kashmir. This includes the Udhampur-based 16 Corps, near Jammu, possibly the world's largest with around 175,000 soldiers. In addition, there are around 90,000 paramilitary personnel from the Border Security Force and the Central Reserve Police Force, besides the 50,000-strong local police operating under the Army's Unified Command.

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