Osama in Kashmir? - By R. Prasannan Back   Home  
Indian intelligence agencies believe that he is hiding in Deosai in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. And the presence of al Qaeda there has brought India and Pakistan closer to a conflict
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They have looked on the cliffs of Bamiyan, in the bunkers of Kandahar and the caves of Paktia. They have high-resolution satellite cameras, the best of thermal imagers, U-2s, SR-71s, drones and other eavesdroppers. Why then haven't the Americans caught Osama bin Laden? "Simple," say some Indian intelligence men, "they have been looking in the wrong places."

There is no hard fact to confirm it, but many in the Indian security establishment believe that the terror-master is hiding in Kashmir. To be precise, somewhere in the bowl of the Deosai plain between the Zanskar range and the Great Himalayan range perimetered by Astor, Saqma, Gultari and Burzilbai, across the line of control (LoC) from Dras and Matayan. The Deosai plain, situated at a height of 13,000 feet, is about 100 km long.

If not Osama himself, at least part of his al Qaeda is believed to have reached the area a few days after the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington. Unusual motor and mule transport movements were detected in the region in the days that followed. The Indian Army thought the Pakistanis were preparing for another LoC incursion or militant infiltration, "but nothing of that sort occurred," said an officer. "What then were they doing? It is an area which they were sure that the Americans won't be looking at."

Afghan refugees arriving in Peshawar a fortnight ago told western journalists and intelligence men about a fleet of tinted-windowed Toyota Land Cruisers driving out of Kandahar a few days after September 11. The drivers were not Afghans, but Arabs. Though a guest of the Taliban, Osama has always surrounded himself with his trusted Arab crack troops of al Qaeda. This led to the suspicion that one of the passengers was Osama.

Osama's latest video clipping has limestone rock and caverns in the background. This made American geologists infer that the spot was somewhere in Paktia in Afghanistan, close to the Pakistan border. But the video address did not refer to any specific incident of the previous few days, and it is now believed that the tape had been made at Paktia while on transit, many days before its release.

Soon after President Pervez Musharraf's offer of Pakistan's support to the US in its war on terror, Indian Army signalsmen had intercepted messages from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) to Afghani militants in the Valley. The minders were asking the Afghanis on the Indian side to return to PoK, to be escorted into Afghanistan. But four days later there were signals that many would be pushed into the Valley. Indian officials then had believed that the idea was to sanitise PoK of terrorist camps for the benefit of American eyes. Now it is thought that the trainees in PoK camps were only being asked to scramble.

Subsequently, Indian Army noticed movements in Gultari and some other areas pointing to another Pakistani bid to push militants into the Valley. The vigil on the LoC was upped and, for the first time, the Indian side initiated firing at the slightest signs of infiltration. The firing which began on the day before George Fernandes retook charge of the defence ministry, on October 15, continues, though with small arms.

The Pak army has a fairly large camp in Gultari which is visible from the famous Tiger Hill, where the fiercest battle of the Kargil war took place. This camp, where 11 Northern Light, 24 Sind, 18 Punjab, 5 Baluch and elements of Khyber Rifles are located, has also been unusually active in the last few weeks.

How al Qaeda activists, probably with Osama, could have reached the area is a matter of conjecture. There are three major routes from Kandahar to Pakistan. One is the Kandahar-Ghazni-Kabul highway, which runs northeastwards. As one drives up, there are two major forkings, both of which head eastward to a border point some 250 km north of Quetta.

Al Qaeda presence in the northern areas is said to have caused the recent tensions along the Line of Control. (right) Border Security Force men on guard at Akhnoor Yet another route is from Ghazni from where one has to travel southeast, enter Waziristan in Pakistan, near Razmak. From here one can travel to Bannu. From Bannu, the most likely route runs northward into the Trans-Indus Kohistan. There is a road from Chitral, through Shandour pass and Lowari pass and further through Gupis into Gilgit. Jeeps can pass on this road in summer. It was closed because of snowfall only last week.

From Gilgit there is a road, made motorable in 1980, that forks a few miles east. One arm runs to Bunji, crosses the Zanskar range into Astor and ends a few miles south of Burzilbai. From Burzilbai there is a mule track which has recently been made motorable for jeeps up to Gultari, said an Indian Army officer. The other arm, running parallel to the Indus, goes to Skardu, crosses the Ladakh range, further to Yagho, where it forks again. One goes to Khapalu and Siari and feeds the Siachen brigades of the Pak army. The other turns southward from Yagho, crosses the Ladakh range again, and reaches Olthingthang.

On the way, from Shirting, there is again a mule track running southwestwards, crossing the Zanskar range into Saqma, past Gangam (where the mutilated bodies of four Indian soldiers were handed over during the Kargil war) and thence to Gultari. This route feeds the Gultari base from Skardu, where Pakistan's Northern Light Infantry is headquartered. This mule track also has recently been made motorable for jeeps.

The area is actually more inaccessible than some of the known cave networks of Afghanistan, especially during winter. "Unlike Afghanistan, the area is snow-bound," said an officer. "From now till the end of April, they [al Qaeda men] can hide there, without the world knowing about it. There have been no terrorist training camps in the area, but there have been Pakistani army camps and transit points. This route was made use of to supply the Kargil infiltrators at the height of winter."

The area is at least 70 km away from the LoC and beyond the range of Indian artillery guns. The best of them have a range of 25 km (35 km in the rarefied atmosphere of Siachen).

Incidentally, the Musharraf government has recently prepared a plan for making the Chitral-Gilgit road good enough for trucks. According to a paper by B. Raman, former additional secretary in the cabinet secretariat who now directs Chennai's Institute for Topical Studies, there is also a plan to provide a shorter route between Astor and Skardu. Says Raman: "During his recent visit to the Northern Areas, his third since October 1999, Musharraf inaugurated work on both these projects."

Though yet to be confirmed, there have been reports of Osama or his al Qaeda terrorists having been spotted in Hyderabad as well as Kashmir. However, sources in the intelligence community say that the confusion about Hyderabad arose because there is a Hyderabad in Pakistan too. Either Osama's or the Taliban's spokesmen have denied most of the reports that he had declared a jihad on India. The four authenticated interviews he gave before September 11 to the media had nothing on India. All the same, al Qaeda did have financial links with groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. In 1999 there were unconfirmed reports that Osama had visited Kashmir. Most of these reports appeared weeks before the visit of the US counter-terrorism team to India on September 17, 1999.

The recent firing on the LoC is believed to be a manifestation of the tension caused by the presence of al Qaeda members in the Northern Areas. In fact, soon after the end of the Kargil operations, there was tremendous tension in Skardu when the local Baltis opposed the presence of Lashkar-e-Toiba militants (mostly withdrawn from Kargil) among them. Such was the tension that the whole town had to be closed early August 1999.

Americans infer that Osama's latest video address was from Paktia, while on transit to PoK. (left) An earlier address from an undisclosed location on Al Jazeera TV

The concern on the Indian side is whether Pakistan, worried about getting caught by the Americans, would push al Qaeda activists into the Indian side of the LoC. The pattern of LoC firing post-September 11 is an indication of this concern. Though it was the infiltration season (Pakistan always sends the last batches of trainees in September before snow clogs the passes), there was no movement in the days after the September 11 attacks. Then there were the intercepts on exfiltration. Next, activities were noticed in the Gultari camp. And then the attempts at infiltration and the firing, which is yet to stop.

The recent threats and denials by Indian leaders on the hot-pursuit option are believed to be intended to keep Islamabad and its brigades in PoK off their balance. That the Pakistanis got perturbed became evident when Musharraf moved two infantry divisions and an armoured brigade from their reserve positions to opposite Akhnoor and two armoured divisions and one armoured brigade to opposite Ganganagar in Rajasthan. Pakistan genuinely suspects that India may resort to adventurism in Kashmir, at least with the limited aim of destroying the temporarily closed training camps. Pakistan, going by its strategic doctrine of 'Riposte', knows that it may not be able to defend Kashmir in strength and would have to make an armoured counter-thrust in Rajasthan.

Though India has made it out that its post-Brasstacks doctrine is to push with armour from Rajasthan into Sind, Pakistani analysts consider it strategic deception. They believe that India can, and would, push XV Corps on Skardu-Gilgit to recapture the Northern Areas. They anticipate a brigade-level diversionary attack from Gurais to Gilgit while the main attack would be made by two brigades from Kargil to Skardu, with a supporting attack from Thoise through Khaplu to Skardu.

The presence of al Qaeda in the Northern Areas, followed by talk of hot pursuit, has indeed brought the two countries closer to a conflict. Is that why the Colin Powells and Donald Rumsfelds are calling at Islamabad and New Delhi every week? The bigger concern is whether the Americans would now enter Kashmir, a prospect unacceptable to both India and Pakistan.
Published in the-week.com