Hot on the heels of a series of massacres of civilians in Poonch and Doda and the storming of the bsf residential complex in Bandipora over the last month, militants have begun to openly target army camps and engage troops in fierce gun battles in the Valley. This cranking up of activity seems to be a follow-up to the Kargil conflict.
The attack on a Rashtriya Rifles (RR) army post in Chak Natnusa using rocket-propelled grenades, the gunning down of Col Balbir Singh, a commanding officer of 4 RR and three other army personnel, and the strike at a brigade headquarters in Trehgam,all on three successive days last week,has introduced a new element of daring. Soon after, a bsf camp in Rajouri was attacked on Wednesday where three were gunned down.
There has been a change of tactics from clandestine terrorist assaults to confrontation with security forces, says Sanjay Singh, a bsf commanding officer in Kupwara. The definite gameplan suggests a streak of fanaticism among the combatants, willing to stand and fight. Reports of intelligence agencies, the bsf's G Branch (intelligence wing), Special Operations Group of the state police and the RR suggests:
Undoubtedly, their presence has made an appreciable impact in the ongoing proxy war. This unusual fearless streak supplemented with a spirit of fidayee (fight till the finish) is characteristic, say security forces, of militants trained in Afghanistan. In ambush situations, the presence of foreigners has generally meant that attacks are made closer and with greater ferocity, says Maj Gen R.K. Kaushal, goc of the RR's Victor Force, headquartered at Anantnag.
Last week's attack on the army post in Kupwara and the ambush on Col Singh is especially worrying considering the meticulousness of the offensive. The militants managed to set up base in houses just 70 yards away from the company commander's post without attracting even a whiff of suspicion. They also did not face any difficulty in stockpiling rocket launchers, umgs and other heavy equipment, which went undetected. The ambush on Col Singh is even more alarming.
Officials point out that the road-opening party had just finished sanitising the road through which the commanding officer's vehicle was to pass through in Keegam. Five militants, dressed in army fatigues and positioned slightly ahead of the dirt track, suddenly turned around and fired a volley of bullets on the vehicle and its occupants.
The changing profile of the militant and his tactics in attacking military targets has caught the security establishment unawares. Earlier, the ratio of militants taking on troops in combat used to be 2:1. But now, one militant is standing up to fight against three security personnel, says an RR colonel.
The thinning of security force levels during Operation Vijay in Kupwara, the gateway to militancy, is one major factor contributing to the spiralling violence. The counter-insurgency (CI) grid was considerably weakened when we shifted 50-odd battalions of the army for deployment in Kargil, says H.S. Verma, the bsf assistant director in Kupwara. The vacuum created gave the foreign combatants a golden opportunity to infiltrate in huge numbers. Even now, the CI grid has not been replenished and 23 battalions of the RR is inadequate to contain the militants, maintains an intelligence official. This has left the militants occupying ridges on the Shamshabari range, stretching from Kalapahar in Nowgam through the international border up to Bandipora. A large number have also found temporary shelters in Doda and Kishtwar. Though officials argue that the battalions deployed for CI is adequate, it has taken the RR battalions time to adjust to their new arena of operations.
Security officials point out that the entry of these tenure-based militants are facilitated by the Gujjars and the Bakerwals who earn about Rs 30,000 for each group brought in. They're the only locals who know the kutchha routes and remain on top of the hills with their herds in the summer months, says inspector general (operations) P.S. Gill. Once in, the militants, who move in groups of 20-30, stay in dhoks and behaks (makeshift structures made of pine) for a while before they scatter for the missions they set off for.
They have stopped relying on locals for support and that is why these groups carry their own porters who bring rations to last for at least four months, says Singh. And even if a local help is enlisted, the militants ensure that he does not stray from the group, as he could well be an informer. Over the years, these groups, say intelligence officials, have managed to build up pockets of influence in strategic regions of the Valley which still remain intact in areas such as Uri, Sopore, Macchal and Tandar. How else can they operate with such ruthless efficiency? asks an intelligence official.
Other factors also hamper the security forces in giving a fitting reply to the mercenaries. The turf war amongst the various security agencies in the Unified Command and their refusal to see eye-to-eye on CI operations probably explains why the ratio of militants killed for each security personnel has been dipping steadily since '97. From 5.8 then, it has now come down two. The lack of sophisticated wireless sets, secrecy devices and detection equipment preclude effective counter-attacks. These groups carry with them Yasu, Kenwood and ICom sets which are streets ahead when compared to ours, says a senior police officer.
It is clear then that the foreign combatants bring with them experience, tactical skills and far more aggression that the average Kashmiri militant, whose combat calibre is less stern. From the hit-and-run militant, what has now emerged in the militant lexicon of the Valley is the hit and engage militant.