Flashlights cut through the fog after a falling rock hit the ground, lighting up the rocks above the stream where the six Lashkar-e-Taiba assault unit was hiding. “Pakdo”, a voice shouted from the Indian Army outpost 20 metres away, “catch them”. The men remained still, guessing the guards had seen nothing, and only hoped to panic any infiltrators into betraying their position.
The guess paid off: No patrol came towards the stream. Before the first light, the Lashkar unit had begun its nine-day march towards the Lolab valley in Kupwara, undetected.
Last week, police arrested Zabiullah Saqib, a member of that infiltrating group who survived a ferocious March 21 firefight in Kupwara district’s Fateh Khan hamlet, which claimed the lives of the rest of his unit. His testimony to his interrogators, obtained by Business Standard, casts disturbing light on how adept groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba has become at penetrating India’s anti-infiltration fence on the Line of Control (LoC).
Zabiullah said it had taken just 30 minutes for his group of six trained fidayeen, and six porters, to cut through coils of razor-sharp concertina wire piled two metres above the snow, and then evade thermal imaging, surveillance radar designed to detect human movement, and rings of patrols.
The testimony raises questions about ambitious government plans to build an improved version of the fence at upwards of Rs 60 million a km, all along the 2,900 km border with Punjab.
“Everyone in the government seems to think there is some kind of tech-fix that will seal the Line of Control,” says a senior military official. “The truth is no fence can deliver the kinds of results people are hoping for”.
Little noticed amidst news of renewed recruitment of young Kashmiris among jihadist groups, the role of foreign jihadists — almost all Pakistani nationals — has become increasingly important across the region. Their ability to enter Kashmir in ever-larger numbers has undermined one of Indian security policy’s key beliefs: That the LoC fence would prevent infiltration.
In 2014, 29 foreign terrorists were killed in the Kashmir Valley, government data shows; last year, the number was up to 48. In the same period, unidentified terrorists killed in action — in practice, largely foreign nationals carrying no documentation — more than doubled from 101 to 209.
The sustained surge in numbers is the first of its kind since India and Pakistan agreed on a ceasefire along the LoC in 2003, and fencing was put in place. Infiltration fell, and with that, the numbers of terrorists killed in action across all of Jammu and Kashmir — all the way from 1,494 in 2003 to just 100 in 2011.
Following massive street violence in 2008, sparked off by protests against the grant of land-use rights to the board that manages the Amarnath shrine, elections were held to the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly.
Kashmiri participation in jihadist groups, measured by the numbers of individuals killed in fighting, fell dramatically following the elections — from 124 in 2007, to 65 in 2008 and 29 in 2009 (see chart).
The number of identified foreign nationals fell, too, from 127 in 2007 to 33 in 2009 — but for the first time since the fight began in 1990, foreigners now formed half or more of the numbers of terrorists active, measured by the numbers of killings.
Last year, figures for the Kashmir zone show, terrorist fatalities surged to 209 from 136 in 2016, 121 of them either unidentified or foreign. Police, central police and army fatalities also grew to 83, from 81 the previous year. Killings of civilians surged from 23 to 71.
Far from deterring jihadist groups in Pakistan, and their backers in the Inter-Services Intelligence, the data suggests that the cross-LoC strikes ordered by the Indian government in 2016 simply led the other side to also step up the tempo of violence.
Now, the LoC fences face a stern test — and so far, doesn’t seem to be up to stopping the tide.
For years now, the limitations of the fencing on the LoC have been well known. Batteries for the hand-held thermal imagers drain quickly at cold, high-altitude posts; replacements for damaged or worn parts involve extended paperwork and protracted delays. Repairs to sensitive surveillance radar can take weeks. Fuel to power the generators that feed searchlights often runs low.
Even worse, the growing intensity of fire and artillery exchanges between Indian and Pakistani posts has made patrolling an ever-more dangerous business.
In 2015, the Border Security Force (BSF) firmed up plans to enhance security on the India-Pakistan border with five layers of low-light closed-circuit cameras, thermal imaging, surveillance radar, laser trip-wires, and motion sensors buried in the ground. These devices were to be linked in real time to a central control room, which would direct patrols to investigate potential breaches.
For its part, the army began out new-model barriers capable of withstanding heavy snowfall, which brings down up to a third of the LoC fence each year, necessitating months of repairs costing up to Rs 600 million. Again, the new-type fences were to have sensors linked in real time to central control rooms
Last year, though, the BSF project was stalled after it became clear the project would cost Rs 60-80 million a kilometre, far higher than the Rs 10 million the Ministry of Home Affairs was willing to spend. Two pilot projects, to be constructed by Tata Power and Reliance Infrastructure, are on hold.
Part of the problem, experts say, is that that the BSF lacked the competence to determine precisely what it needed — even waiving its own stated standards after it became clear no technologies existed that could meet its standards.
“The BSF does not have the required technical expertise to offer clear guidelines to vendors so that they can provide suitable products”, Institute of Defence and Strategic Analyses scholar Pushpita Das observed in a study.
In the US, similar fences designed to deter narcotics flows across the border with Mexico have achieved little. The United States’ Drug Enforcement agency noted, in 2016, that despite the growth in border protection, Mexican cartels “are able to introduce multi-ton quantities of illicit drugs into the United States on a yearly basis”.
“Like all other cross-border operators, terrorists are adept at finding ways around obstacles”, a senior intelligence official told Business Standard. “The Line of Control fence has its uses, but illusions have built up around its effectiveness”.