Insurgents push into Kashmir

As talk of peace fades, militants scurry to cross into Indian areas before this winter's snows.

In this tiny rice-growing village, where gossip spares no one, and where every birth, graduation, and death is duly noted, it is surprising that nobody noticed just when a pair of strangers came to town, armed with Kalashnikovs, grenades, and explosives.

Nobody remembers when they entered Jana Begum's brick house while family members were out harvesting. Nobody can say, either, when the Indian Army came and shot the house down brick by brick to kill them.

What people now know is that the two militants are dead, Jana Begum's family is homeless, and the 14-year insurgency in Kashmir that has cost more than 40,000 lives is nowhere close to ending.

After a five-month hiatus, during which Pakistan and India made a failed attempt to talk peace, militants have been making up for lost time. They are slipping across the mountainous cease-fire line that will soon become impassable with snow, setting up this volatile Himalayan valley for a winter of renewed violence and cold relations between the nuclear rivals.

For the people like Ms. Begum, whose destroyed house once stood on the front lines of this conflict, the violence has an even more immediate effect.

"I am a widow, my family are just laborers," says Begum. "I don't know where I will stay tonight. I have no land, no money.... What can I do?"

The issue of infiltration was a major point of contention at last month's United Nations General Assembly. Notably, both sides stuck to positions they have held for the past decade. India said that infiltration, or "cross-border terrorism," must stop before peace talks can progress. Pakistan, meanwhile, pointed to a longstanding UN resolution calling for a plebiscite, and reiterated that it has officially cut all ties to Kashmiri militant groups, but supports the "indigenous freedom struggle" by moral and diplomatic means.

But the Pakistani line on Kashmir cuts less ice in Washington these days. In talks with Indian President Atal Behari Vajpayee, President Bush said he thought that Pakistan should do more to fulfill its promise to stop allowing its soil to be used to launch attacks. Pakistan's president protested that if India's built-up forces cannot stop militants, then neither can Pakistani guards.

With diplomacy going nowhere, infiltrations are on the rise. In a weeklong operation wrapped up Friday, Army troops surrounded and killed at least 19 militants sighted 10 days earlier near the border town of Gurez in northern Kashmir. In the first nine months of this year, the Indian Army has stopped 35 groups from crossing into Kashmir from Pakistan, compared to 27 deterred in the same period last year. Army troops have killed 104 militants in the border region this year, up from 72 last year.

Lt. Col. Mukhtiar Singh, the Indian Army spokesman in Srinagar, says the number of militants killed has increased because more are attempting to cross, and the Army has stepped up its vigilance and technical savvy. As if on cue, Colonel Singh's telephone rings. "Accha, wonderful," he says finally. "There have been three more militants killed, and three Kalashnikovs recovered near Pattan. In the past 12 hours, eight militants have been killed. And that is just the Army I'm talking about, not the police or the other security forces."

But such numbers hide a different truth: The number of militants operating inside Kashmir has not decreased, but remains at 3,000, according to Indian Army officials. For every militant killed, another volunteer replaces him. These fighters manage to tie down more than 300,000 Indian troops and paramilitary forces, at a mounting cost to Indian taxpayers. In a war of attrition, victory is temporary at best.

"As long as the militants have a base outside of Indian control, there is nothing that we or the world can do to limit terrorist infiltration from Pakistan," says Ajai Sahni, director of the Institute for Conflict Management, a conservative think tank in New Delhi.

The challenge that India faces in Kashmir mirrors the problems that American forces are facing in Iraq and Afghanistan, Dr. Sahni says. A stronger military "has no advantage in a guerrilla war, and this is registering in the mind of the Islamist strategist," he says.

While India portrays the Kashmir insurgency as a foreign intrusion, and Pakistan portrays it as an indigenous freedom struggle, the truth lies between.

In Baramulla district, which runs along some of the most rugged terrain in the 460-mile Line of Control, villagers have grown accustomed to the sight of gunmen - some are strangers from Pakistan, others are neighbors.

Baramulla is a major route both for infiltration into Indian Kashmir, and increasingly, other troubled Indian states.

"The way the numbers are going, the attacks will increase," says a senior state police official in Baramulla headquarters. "We hear from radio intercepts that the militants are desperate. They say, 'Do something, you are late, what is this?' People are becoming frustrated on that side," he says, referring to Pakistan.

Manzoor Ahmed, police chief of Baramulla's largest town, Bandipora, says his town is one of the biggest transit points for infiltration, and these days, there are just as many Kashmiris heading to Pakistan for training as there are militants coming to Kashmir to fight.

"Lashkar-e Tayyaba is basing camps here in Bandipora itself, up in the hills," says Mr. Ahmed, referring to a Pakistan-based militant group founded in Lahore. In addition, up to 40 local boys have disappeared this year, most of them assumed to have headed to Pakistan for training. "The militants get good shelter from the people."

These militants are dangerous not just because of their attacks, another police official says privately. They also form a virtual parallel government, an authority in remote areas where Indian officials rarely go. "We are in a stalemate," the official says. "The militants avoid confrontation, and save themselves for another day. And our forces too have become less active. They know we won't be able to solve this in one day, so why lose your life?"

Back in Hakabara, local laborers have begun to shovel away the remains of Jana Begum's home to find any remaining weapons that the militants might have been carrying.

Little is known about the militants except that they had shouted at the Indian soldiers in Urdu, the language of Pakistan, but also much of north India. They are assumed to be Lashkar members, as that is the group that operates most extensively in the Baramulla district. Lashkar had extensive ties with the Pakistani military - ties that the government insist were cut in January of 2002.

"This is a normal contact," says Col. R.P. Kalita, commander of an elite counterinsurgency battalion. "We had been getting information that the terrorists had come to this area, so we conducted a house to house search, and then they opened fire on us."

Jana Begum's son, Nazir Ahmed, has an empty stare. "Six or seven years ago, militants used to come here, but not in recent years," he says, pausing briefly. "We just want to work, to make a living."

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