January 17, 2020
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The 'Mast Gul' Factor

Militancy is on the wane, but mercenaries remain, says the army

The 'Mast Gul' Factor

MILITANCY, everyone is agreed, is on the ebb in the Kashmir Valley. According to Brig. A.K. Chopra,Brigadier General Staff of the 15 Corps, local militant groups based in the Valley have been marginalised. "In all, there are 650 militants. Another 700-odd infiltrate." Tossing up statistics, he adds that since January, 150 militants have been killed by the army and paramilitary forces.

Among the Kashmir-based groups, only three—Hizbul Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Toiba and Harkat-ul-Ansar—are to be reckoned with. But a split in the Hizbul Mujahideen and the subsequent sidelining of one of its leaders, Salauddin, by the ISI has further weakened the outfit.

Now, the army has to tackle the mercenaries—the Mast Guls of the trade. These hired gunmen often hail from Sudan, Afghanistan, some even from Bosnia. Funded by the ISI, these toughs are taken on one and two-year contracts, brought to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) from where they sneak into the Valley through mountain passes.

With Jehad (holy war) on their mind, the mercenaries are usually armed with AK rifles, machine guns, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, grenade launchers, mines and flame throwers. The militants, according to army officers, now prefer to use stand-off weapons—those which can be fired from a distance—and prefer to hit soft targets rather than have a direct confrontation with the army.

But not all the mercenaries are holed up in the mountains. Some come down to the villages and put up with families, often at gunpoint. According to the army, many prefer to live in villages and often do not carry out all the tasks assigned to them. Says an officer: "All of them are desperate youth who have no family and have come for the money or because they believe that a better life awaits them if they die in the Jehad. But once they come here, some of them prefer a family life to the war."

The mercenaries operate through local contacts. Much of the army's success has come from intercepting wireless messages to local operatives. In some cases, villagers report the movement of the gunmen. According to army officers, the feedback and cooperation from the people has been improving although they admit that without local support it would be impossible for the mercenaries to operate in Kashmir.

With strict instructions not to stray out of the jungles, these gunmen bring books on life after death and audio cassettes of inspirational songs to see them through a holy war. In the Kupwara sector, the army has recovered quite a few videos of action films in which a small group of people take on the might of a huge force. The foreign militant, according to army officers, is brainwashed and is ruthless. Now, the army says it is hopeful of stopping the influx in two years—that is if the people of the Valley lend their support.

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