WASHINGTON DC, Sept 27, 2005 | ISSN: 1684-2057 | www.satribune.com

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Kashmiri women demanding release of an activist Aasiya. Below Sardar Qayyum

Kashmir: Peace Round the Corner But Jihad Also Escalating

By Praveen Swami

NEW DELHI, September 27: Finding the truth about Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) is an exceptionally easy business: facts to substantiate just about any prediction one might wish to make litter its landscape.

Is peace, as optimists claim, around the corner? Easily proved. Violence has been in steady decline since 2002; tourist traffic to Srinagar is at record levels; marriages are once again being held, as tradition mandates, late at night; power supplies and the road network have improved; some in Kashmir's tiny Pandit minority, which was forced out of the State when the jihad gathered momentum in 1990, are considering returning to their long-abandoned homes.

But evidence that the jihad in J&K could be on the verge of reinventing itself, rather than dying a slow, unlamented death, is every bit as easy to come by. In just the past eight weeks, Indian soldiers have recovered 3,000 kilograms of explosive material in the Kashmir Valley, a record haul that exceeds the entire quantity discovered between January and end-September 2004.

Terrorist groups have also demonstrated considerable inventiveness in bypassing Indian counter-measures, rendering at least some well-established defensive postures redundant. New tactics for penetrating the fence along the Line of Control (LoC) have also been adopted. All of these are signs that the severely-degraded leadership of terrorist groups, notably the Hizb ul-Mujahideen (HM), is starting to get its house in order once again.

Most of the new explosives recoveries have consisted of freely-available chemicals like potassium permanganate and aluminum powder. While these chemicals have a wide variety of legitimate applications, notably in the construction and mining industries, skilled bomb-makers can use them to fabricate improvised explosive devices.

Although devices made with these substances are, kilogram for kilogram, less effective than conventional military explosives, their effectiveness has been demonstrated around the world - presently and notably in Iraq, where they have been used with considerable effect. Interdicting the movement of such chemicals into J&K, given India's notoriously poor controls on the production and sale of hazardous materials, is near-impossible. Officials worry that that the shift away from military explosives like RDX is designed to lend credibility to Pakistan's claims that it is not giving military support to terrorists in J&K.

Indian officials also have reason to be worried by the creativity displayed in the use of improvised explosive devices. For the past several years, all movement along major roads in J&K has been preceded by what are called Road-Opening Parties (ROPs), which check routes for mines and improvised explosive devices.

Typically, such checks are carried out early in the morning. While anti-sabotage checks carried out by ROPs have by no means always been effective, they did for the most part help protect Indian military movements. Now, however, terrorist groups have found a way to evade the checks. In two recent bombings of military convoys, terrorists drove cars fitted with explosives along with regular traffic once the ROP had completed its work.

They then overtook the targeted military convoy, and parked the vehicle some distance ahead. The explosives-rigged car was detonated as the convoy passed. No real solution has been found for this tactic, since stopping civilian traffic when roads are put to military use is not a workable option.

India's defence establishment is also discovering that the new fence along the LoC is not quite the infiltration-proof barrier it was advertised to be. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently noted, cross-border infiltration has declined in recent weeks. However, this was preceded by unusually high levels of infiltration this spring when terrorists took advantage of weather damage to the LoC fence. Yet, the problem goes deeper.

In a remarkably candid interview to Frontline magazine, the XV Corps commander, Lieutenant-General SS Dhillon, noted that infiltrating terrorist cadre were now equipped with barrier-penetration tools, and had received training on mock versions of the fence in camps in Pakistan. One common expedient, for example, was to clip a bypass on to the electric trip-wires laid through the fence's concertina rolls, and then cut a way through. As a consequence of the high early-summer infiltration, violence has risen this summer - relative, that is, to the quiet of spring - a fact Prime Minister Singh also expressed concern over.

To some in the security establishment, the message is clear: J&K's largest terrorist group, the HM, is slowly recovering from the decimation of its field leadership in 2003 and 2004 . Ibrahim Dar, who handles the HM's current Srinagar-area operations, and who recently returned to J&K from Pakistan, is believed to be working to insulate his organization from Indian communications intelligence penetration, notably by using couriers to send messages rather than rely on wireless or cell phone traffic. Sohail Faisal, an HM operative with over a decade of field experience, who was recently appointed its south Kashmir 'divisional commander', has made similar efforts to revive the HM's shattered organizational apparatus.

How serious, though, is the threat? Indian intelligence and defence analysts are divided, along predictable lines. Some believe that the intense western pressure on Pakistan, coupled with its internal ethnic, political and economic crises, make it unlikely that it will allow a significant escalation of the jihad to take place.

Others, however, believe that Pakistan wishes to continue to use the jihad as a source of leverage within J&K, and is in the process of finding means through which its secret war against India can be made self-sustaining.

History, certainly, suggests that the second proposition is not as strange as it might at first seem. Contrary to popular perception, the jihad in J&K did not begin in 1990; only one phase did. Pakistan-backed covert groups operated with some success in the State through the 1950s, with minimal external support.

So, from mid-1960 to 1972, did the Master Cell and Al-Fatah, which had considerable political impact, despite the limited scale of their military operations. It is worth noting that many of those who became senior leaders in the ongoing jihad, cut their political teeth - and learned their operational skills - in these earlier ventures.

It is, of course, entirely possible that what we are witnessing in J&K might just be the death throes of a war that history has already passed by. It costs nothing, however, to at least consider the possibility that the lull now being experienced is just the eye of the storm.

The writer is Chief of Bureau in New Delhi and Deputy Editor of Frontline Magazine. This article was first published by SAIR at http://www.satp.org

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