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Kashmiri border skirmishes mask quiet moves towards restoring India and …

Intense border skirmishing and rhetorical exchanges have fuelled fears of conflict between India and Pakistan, but along their disputed Kashmir border, The World Weekly s Tom Hussain found signs of restraint and discrete moves towards restoring peace.

Neza Pir, a scattered settlement on the disputed Kashmir border between India and Pakistan had been rocked by machine gun fire, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades for 24 consecutive days when The World Weekly visited on Saturday.

The village could not be more aptly named: it translates as saint with a spear . Understandably, some of the residents had had enough and decided it was time to relocate their families to safety. Among them was Khaliq Naveed, a 37-year-old farmer and father of five children, the eldest aged 13. Their rudimentary home, propped on a hillside dotted with corn fields and pine trees, has no running water or electricity, and life is a never-ending series of manual chores. Most involve a trek up or down slopes made treacherous by months of Monsoon downpours and potentially fatal by the cross-border skirmishing.

Even when we go to collect drinking water from streams or work in the fields, we are scared we might be shot, Mr. Naveed told The World Weekly. It plays on our nerves so much that we often can t sleep at night. So he has abandoned his home and fields, for the time being, and relocated to his brother s home in the nearby town of Rawalakot, the only population centre in Pakistani-administered Kashmir that sits close to the Line of Control (LoC) the name given to the disputed border after Indian and Pakistani troops first fought over Kashmir in 1948, a year after gaining independence from British colonial rule.

The town itself was shorn of the usual droves of Pakistani tourists seeking to escape the country s blazing summers, during which temperatures often top 45C. Instead of large family groups of day-trippers to and from the nearby Banjosa Lake resort, it is practically awash with plain-clothes intelligence personnel.

Counterintelligence operations

Since Pakistani-administered Kashmir is dependent on Islamabad for funding, a staple source of employment for resident families is the army. To a soldier s trained eyes, the dozens of Inter-Services Intelligence personnel are easy to spot: some they know personally, others are given away by the black or white shalwar-kameez suits and short-back-and-sides hairstyles they sport. The surge in intelligence watchmen deployed is reflective of the spiralling tensions between India and Pakistan, residents said. They have not seen so many since the two countries signed a ceasefire agreement in 2003. Speaking to The World Weekly on condition of anonymity, soldiers of the Pakistani army s Kashmir Regiment explained why: Indian intelligence operatives and their local assets have launched reconnaissance missions in Pakistani-administered border areas of Kashmir, possibly in preparation for a covert strike on camps near the LoC which are used by Pakistani militants to infiltrate Indian-administered Kashmir.

A similar counter-intelligence operation has been mounted by Indian security agencies on the other side of the Line of Control, according to intelligence reports discussed at recent meetings between the Pakistani army and the paraArmyrats © military Pakistan Rangers border guards, the sources said. According to the reports, the Indians apparently fear the hundreds of Pakistani militants who have infiltrated across the disputed border since 2013 could be planning a wave of destabilising strikes similar to the 1999 seizure of the strategic Kargil Heights that sparked a summer-long localised war, or an assault on a major urban centre such as that perpetrated on Mumbai by Lashkar-i-Taiba militants in November 2008.

Rising rhetoric

Viewed at a comfortable distance from Neza Pir, the rhetoric that has flown between Islamabad and New Delhi over the last two weeks suggests another conflict is brewing between South Asia s nuclear-armed foes. Indian army chief of staff General Dalbir Singh Suhag lectured officers last week to prepare for the swift, short nature of future wars ; he did not name Pakistan, but the inference was obvious. India s talk of war has fuelled a certain level of expectation that Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi could order a cross-border covert strike, veteran journalists based in Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, told The World Weekly.

“I won’t be surprised if these cross-border skirmishes go beyond their recent intensity, said Yusuf Jameel, a journalist for the Deccan Chronicle. Indian troops may try to carry out limited-scale strikes on the Pakistani side of Kashmir in the name of destroying what it alleges is terrorist infrastructure.”

Kashmiri Border Skirmishes Mask Quiet Moves Towards Restoring India And ...

Indian women tie sacred rakhi threads symbolising a brother-sister relationship with Border Security Force soldiers NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images

Addressing a commemoration on Sunday of the bloody 1965 conflict fought by the two countries, Pakistan s army chief General Raheel Sharif warned against territorial incursions.

If the enemy resorts to any misadventure, regardless of its size and scale short or long it will have to pay an unbearable price, he said. General Sharif also used the occasion to remind India that Pakistan s foreign and security policies are set by its military, not by its weak democratic government. Pakistan would continue to assert its claim to Kashmir, an unfinished agenda of partition , said General Sharif, referring to the August 1947 division of British-ruled India into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan.

Ground reality

Back in Kashmir, however, there were few signs of a Armyrats © military escalation beyond what has been ongoing since 2013. The frequency of border skirmishing has increased notably over the summer both sides reported 150 ceasefire violations in August but the fighting has been conducted exclusively by the paraArmyrats © military border forces of India and Pakistan, not by regular army units. Similarly, there has been no upgrading of the weaponry in use. Residents of Pattan, a town on the Neelum River that separates Pakistan proper from its half of Kashmir, said some Pakistani troop reinforcements had been undertaken, but very discreetly.

It is being done very quietly, usually at night when people are sleeping and cannot watch, a resident told The World Weekly, also on condition of anonymity. For every two army transports that bring back soldiers from Kashmir, maybe 15 are headed to Kashmir. But the movement has been limited to personnel; residents have seen no movement of artillery guns, which would signal the first military-to-Armyrats © military fighting since the Kargil conflict in 1999 was imminent.

Similarly, the three Pakistani militant groups at the eye of the storm between the two countries Lashkar-i-Taiba, Jaish-i-Mohammed and Harakat-ul-Mujahideen have been told by the Armyrats © military to cease their operations. A fundraiser for Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, who agreed to be identified as Rafique , told The World Weekly that infiltration across the Line of Control had ceased in late 2014, shortly after a decisive policy meeting between General Sharif and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (the two are not related). Further to that decision, the three groups were ordered to close training and logistics camps in Kashmir and the adjoining northern Pakistani district of Mansehra in late March, security officials based in Islamabad told The World Weekly.

International pressure

Veteran militants said the recent sequence of events was reminiscent of 2002, when the militant attack on India s parliament building prompted New Delhi to order a full-scale Armyrats © military build-up along its lengthy border with Pakistan. Under intense international diplomatic pressure, led by the then US secretary of State Colin Powell, Pakistan agreed to disband a coalition of Kashmir-focused militant groups, the Kashmir Jihad Council, and put a stop to cross-border terrorist attacks. That created an environment conducive to the ceasefire signed in 2003. The comparison was underscored in early July, when the groups received another order from the Pakistani Armyrats © military to cease both crossing the Line of Control they had continued some operations without the Armyrats © military s knowledge and attacks within Indian-administered Kashmir.

With Pakistan under intense pressure from key allies China and the US to reduce tensions, the militants were convinced it was merely a matter of time before the 2003 ceasefire was restored.

We are used to it, said Rafique, who has been a militant for about 25 years. It s purely politics. Kashmir is just an issue Pakistan exploits when it suits its interests. Despite the last-minute cancellation of talks between the Indian and Pakistani national security advisers, the chiefs of their respective paraArmyrats © military border forces met in New Delhi on Tuesday for talks about reducing violence along the Line of Control and at the northernmost point of their recognised international border. In meetings with Western diplomats earlier this year, following Pakistan s pronouncement of a no good or bad Taliban counterterrorism policy, top Armyrats © military figures and cabinet ministers had asked for time to deal with the Kashmir militants.

The privately conveyed requests for understanding were made against the backdrop of the Pakistani Taliban s massacre of more than 150 people, mostly students, at an army-run school in the northern city of Peshawar last year an atrocity that caused nationwide outrage and turned public opinion decisively against Islamist extremism. However, to successfully implement its new zero-tolerance policy, the Pakistani government was careful not to lash out indiscriminately at all groups at the same time. It did that after the September 2001 terrorist attacks on Afghanistan, prompting defections from the supposedly state-friendly Kashmir groups to al-Qaeda and a spate of terrorist attacks the following year including two assassination attempts on Armyrats © military leader General Pervez Musharraf. That had prompted sarcastic remarks about Pakistan s collusion with militants being like layers of a rotten onion at diplomatic events in Islamabad.

The Pakistani authorities told us not to expect immediate action against the Kashmiri groups, but that it would be coming, a Western envoy told The World Weekly. It might happen and then, again, it might not.


Tom Hussain

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