December 14, 2019
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The Forgotten War

The concentration on Kargil leaves other fronts vulnerable

The Forgotten War
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The high-altitude war in Kargil will have a costly spinoff elsewhere in the state. This is already evident at the ground level, as infiltration bids have risen considerably. Violence has increased manifold since April at the front posts in Rajouri, Poonch, Kupwara and Gurez, along the LoC. And this time, the militants are more heavily armed. For the last two weeks, artillery exchanges in the Gurez Road, Kanzalwan, Kupwara, Rajouri and Uri areas-at the edges of the Valley-have intensified. This exercise by the Pakistan-backed mercenaries is aimed at giving the aggressors in Kargil sector more breathing space.

"They plan to expand the area of engagement and send in intruder reserves to establish new positions with artillery support," says an intelligence official. Even the official figures are telling. Till this May, the number of infiltrators stands at a huge 1,119, against 918 for all of '98. "They have managed to sneak in and are engaging us in longer combats," says a Special Operations Group official. The attacking forces are bigger than what the authorities are letting on. "They may be well over 2,000 men," says an intelligence official.

Kargil demonstrates the vulnerability of the porous border. When it was discovered that the intruders took some of the 'features' (army parlance for posts), the security forces promptly declared it would take no time to flush them out. "But as time has proved, it wasn't two or three features that had been occupied. There was a whole vista before us," says a major in Kupwara. The pillboxes and fortified bunkers did not come up overnight. They were part of a grand and meticulous design to pump in infiltrators, he adds.

Officials say there are some 350 to 400 routes available along the LoC for infiltration. "How many can you plug? They come through nullahs as well," says an intelligence official. The authorities refuse to hazard a guess on how many militants have slipped in. "You can't have a human wall along the 520 km LoC," agrees a Rashtriya Rifles officer. "The passes are open till November and they'll look for new ways to send the infiltrators across."

There's also a notable change in the nature of militancy. "There are very few locals who help these battle-hardened lot to come in. This, because they are not trusted," says Shahid-ul-Islam, an ex-Hezbollah commander, now turned politician. In the 10 years that he was underground, till '97, he fought in Afghanistan, apart from killing over 50 security officials in the Valley. "I went through two weeks of training in PoK. Today, militants from Lashkar-e-Toiba and Hizbul are put through rigorous, specialised training for over a year. A mature, resolute militancy has surfaced."

In the absence of local support, it takes that much longer to identify militants who have sneaked in. Proof of this was seen in the arrest of a US-trained pilot from Barzulla, Srinagar, early this year. "He was helping out the Lashkar for over a year," said an officer.

Once in the Valley, they're difficult to sift from the populace. "They merge well with the background," says state police chief Gurbachan Jagat. Just last month, the forces picked up a militant hailing from Lahore at the Kupwara border, acting as a guide for the Hizbul. He'd been a guide for a good period of time.

Also, there are enough signs of a near-zero dependency on locals. "Signals had gone across the border from local militants for a slow-down because of the tourist season, which had picked up. But they've disregarded that," says an intelligence official.

The counter-insurgency grid in Kupwara, the gateway to militants, has been imbalanced by the shift of two brigades (8,000 men) to Kargil. "That's their gameplan," admits Kashmir governor Girish Saxena. "Extend the army and open up further routes."

"The other day, troops were called into Dangergali and Chankhah of the Machil sector in Kupwara after reports of heavy infiltration," says a police officer. The militants, it seems, knew Road Opening Parties (rops) would be moved to Kargil to detect landmines in the upper reaches. The second rung of rops were not alert enough on the vital Srinagar-Jammu highway. "They were quick to plant a powerful ied between Banihal and Nowgam; it killed two army officers and their kids on May 29," says a bsf official.

All this has allowed the militants to keep the pot boiling. "Kargil has whipped up a frenzy and their spirits are soaring," says Shahid-ul-Islam. But opinion on the streets is divided. After 10 years of militancy, many locals feel the present conflict will be a decisive one. "We have suffered all these years, we lost our children and relatives," says Abdul Qayum, a vegetable vendor. "Now it's a fight between two countries."

Yet, there's a huge groundswell against the heightened tensions, especially among those in the tourist trade. April and May had seen an unbelievable influx of visitors after many years. Houseboats were full and restaurants reporting brisk business. "Once Kargil happened, the tourists started fleeing," says Ghulam Bhat, a Dal Lake houseboat owner. That matters little to some across the border.

 

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