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Not all quiet on the border

Print edition : Jan 02, 2004

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Despite the apparent thaw in India-Pakistan relations and the high-tech anti-infiltration means that are being put in place, the Indian troops at the Line of Control are in for a tough winter.

HOPE, goes the old maxim, springs eternal.

In November, Poonch-based Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Council member Ikhlaq Khan decided to attend a relative's wedding across the Line of Control (LoC). Armed with a visa issued by the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi, Khan drove south, to the Wagah border in Punjab. There, he produced his visa and asked that he be allowed across - along with his official vehicle, its driver, servants, and an armed escort provided by the Jammu and Kashmir Police. Bemused border guards conceded that there was, indeed, an India-Pakistan thaw, but pointed out it had not gone quite so far as to allow this kind of movement. Khan, somewhat poorer and certainly wiser about the vagaries of international relations, then chose to take the more mundane bus ride across the border, this time unaccompanied.

It is hard to be hard-headed in the face of what is without dispute the least violent winter in Jammu and Kashmir in over a decade. But even as images of cross-border goodwill proliferate on television screens and newspaper front-pages, Indian military planners are digging in and preparing for the worst. Troops across the LoC are being committed to an unprecedented winter deployment pattern that will see men, for the first time, holding snowbound high-altitude positions in near-suicidal weather conditions. In Poonch alone, an estimated 12,000 men of the 39 Infantry Division are being pushed forward from counter-infiltration duties to form something of a human wall along the LoC, in an effort to ensure cross-border terrorism is reduced to a minimum. Rolls of concertina wire, spikes and electronic sensors are being strung across the length of the LoC at unprecedented speed, and officials say the entire fence should be complete in under a year - a process aided by the ceasefire, which has meant an end to Pakistani firing on construction work.

Top military officials in New Delhi say the ambitious forward deployment is part of a new tactical emphasis that accords primacy to blocking access across the LoC, rather than focussing on eliminating terrorists who make it in from Pakistan. For years, many experts believed that the severe mountain terrain, which makes up much of the LoC, rendered such a fencing project impossible. Past plans focussed only on the southern stretches of the India-Pakistan frontier in Jammu and Kashmir, described in New Delhi as an international border and by Islamabad as a `working boundary'. Chief of the Army Staff Nirmal Vij, however, is believed to have energetically pushed ahead the pan-LoC fencing plans and a welter of high-technology acquisitions to back it, like hand-held thermal imagers, pressure sensors and equipment to detect any breach of the wire.

Credible assessment of just how effective these new technologies and tactics have been in containing infiltration is hard to come by. Intelligence estimates on just how much infiltration has been taking place across the LoC in recent months vary. Some officials believe there has been a fall in infiltration; others insist nothing of the kind has happened. Data obtained by Frontline for the district of Poonch, a major axis for cross-border terrorists, do show that the killings of terrorists near the LoC itself have declined this year. After following the levels of 2002 for most of the year, killings of terrorists registered a relatively sharp decline in October and November. In contrast, in only one month, November, the killings of terrorists in the depth areas of the district exceeded the levels registered in 2002, notwithstanding officially sponsored hype about offensive operations in the region earlier this year.

Assuming that killings at the LoC reflect the actual levels of cross-border infiltration, at least two lessons can be drawn from the data. First, the recent relative decline in the killings of terrorists on the LoC would suggest that Pakistan has chosen to cut back infiltration levels in recent weeks, a fact affirmed by a sharp reduction in State-wide terrorist violence since October. Second, the decline in the killings of terrorists in the depth areas could again be read to show that there are smaller numbers of terrorists present to be hunted down and killed by Indian forces.

The premise of these conclusions is, however, problematic. Some in the military establishment believe that the reduced killings on the LoC are actually a sign that border crossing has become more difficult in fenced areas, not that Pakistan is actually scaling back the movement of terrorists. New technologies and additional counter-infiltration troops, they suggest, have actually deterred large-scale infiltration and led to the improved interdiction of those who come across the LoC.

IF the data are ambiguous, so is the efficacy of the new equipment being tested on the LoC. Hand-held thermal imagers, which detect heat emanating from the human body, are limited by the radiation from rocks (which absorb heat during the day and emit it at night) and livestock. On the night of November 20, troops of the 15 Maratha Light Infantry detected a group of up to 10 terrorists crossing through the Saujian sector. The subsequent encounter, however, only led to the elimination of one terrorist. The thermal imaging equipment was rendered ineffective by large herds of livestock roaming the area. Data obtained by Frontline for sectors controlled by the 25 Punjab Regiment and the 6 Mahar Regiment show that of the seven confirmed crossings of the new fence by terrorists, two led to interdiction, one failed, and four succeeded. While this is less than spectacular, interdiction rates are expected to improve once the fence's electronic components become operational in October 2004.

Nonetheless, since terrorists now have to cut the fence to get past the LoC, tracing and interdicting them has become easier than it used to be. Intelligence officials will also, on the basis of incidents of fence-cutting, be able to assess more correctly the scale of infiltration than has hitherto been possible. Pakistan's recent protests about the fencing work, which it claims to be a violation of the terms of the 1971 Simla Agreement, is believed by military planners to be a consequence of this fact. Infiltration has also become difficult since Pakistani troops are no longer firing to cover the movement of terrorists from across the LoC. Since the ceasefire began, there has only been one fire contact actually on the LoC, in the Lipa Valley area. Pakistani troops did not respond. Indian soldiers subsequently found blood-trails leading back to the Pakistani side of the LoC.

FUTURE events depend, as Northern Army Commander Lieutenant-General Hari Prasad pointed out in an exclusive interview to Frontline, on Pakistan's military intentions in Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan's recent proscription of terrorist groups - many of which were earlier banned in the wake of the December 2000 terrorist attack on Parliament House in New Delhi - has not given strategists much reason for optimism. The bank accounts of several terrorist groups were frozen only two weeks after they were proscribed, giving them ample time to move liquid assets out of harm's way. Orders prohibiting the activities of these organisations in Pakistan-held Kashmir were promulgated even later. Most important, the infrastructure of terrorism - weapons, explosives and training camps - have not been touched at all. "As long as these capabilities exist," points out a senior military official in New Delhi, "Pakistan will always be able to turn on the tap again".

The ongoing LoC deployment pattern suggests that Indian military planners expect this to happen sooner rather than later. Pakistan, many believe, expects the soon-to-commence dialogue between the centrist faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) and the Union government to head nowhere. This expectation may well prove justified. It is unclear just how the APHC centrists will react to the simple, no-commitments invitation the government will issue, and could hold out for a letter explicitly acknowledging their status as legitimate arbiters of the future status of Jammu and Kashmir. Even if this initial obstacle is overcome, the APHC centrists seem to have no clear plan for a final settlement short of near-independence for Jammu and Kashmir, something the Union government simply will not concede. And even if some kind of agreement is arrived at, the APHC centrists simply do not have the influence with terrorist groups to make it stick on the ground.

If some such scenario does play itself out, Pakistan's military establishment is well poised to escalate its state-run jehad in Jammu and Kashmir. Areas like Sillan Dhoke in Poonch and the Thana Mandi-Azmatabad axis in adjoining Rajouri, intelligence experts have noted, are actually seeing substantially increased terrorist activity. Both regions offer easy access into the Kashmir Valley and eastward into Doda. Recruitment of cadre, particularly of the very young, is continuing apace in the Kashmir Valley, as is the flow of funds to terrorist groups operating there. One area of particular concern to the intelligence community is the declining volume of Indian signals intercepts on the short-term military intentions of terrorist groups, a sign of the growing use of encrypted satellite-phone based communications rather than wireless sets. Miracles, it is often pointed out, do happen: but Indian troops on the LoC, at least, are not banking on one occurring any time soon.

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