Four bearded militants warm themselves at a gas heater in an Islamabad safe house. A wireless set suddenly crackles. "Our boys have entered Srinagar Airport," a grave, distant-sounding voice announces. "Pray for them. It has now been 15 minutes." The voice, speaking in Urdu and broadcasting from deep within India's part of Kashmir, is detailing the progress of a suicide mission by Lashkar-i-Taiba, a ruthless, Pakistan-based militant group waging war to wrest Kashmir from India. The four men in the safe house, also members of Lashkar-i-Taiba, immediately go into fervent prayer. They are not the only ones to receive the radio transmission. Other militant groups in Pakistan can tune into the same frequency. So can the Pakistani military. A phone in the house rings, and one of the militants answers. He is asked what's happening. His reply: "Why don't you find out from your side?" After hanging up, he explains the caller was a Pakistani army colonel.
That scene occurred in early January. Five Lashkar operatives disguised as police officers attempted to attack the Srinagar airport that day. But Indian army guards turned them away, and the operation was aborted. Two weeks ago, however, a second attempt succeeded. Six would-be martyrs, dressed in police uniforms and driving a stolen government jeep, reached the outer defense gate of the airport and indiscriminately tossed grenades and opened fire with rifles. Back in the Islamabad safe house, a coded message came through at 2:15 p.m. saying the men had reached their target. Abu Ammar, a 30-year-old Pakistani veteran of the Afghan war—his face is scarred from shrapnel and his right hand is mangled—knelt and touched his forehead to the floor in prayer. "I have learned that whenever you succeed in your mission, just bow down, thank God and hail his greatness," he said. After a three-hour gun battle at the airport's perimeter, all six of Abu Ammar's men were dead, along with four policemen. (Two civilians were killed and 12 injured.)
Since Kashmir erupted in 1989, India has pointed a blunt and unwavering finger at Pakistan, accusing its neighbor of fomenting the entire problem. It's a large and cynical exaggeration: anti-Indian sentiment runs high within Kashmir, and in the first half of the 1990s, Kashmiris themselves provided the steam in the anti-Indian militant movement. They were disorganized and willing to murder, but passionate and anxious to plead their nationalist cause with the outside world.
Today, however, India's charge rings a lot truer. Despite a decade of denials—Islamabad insists it provides only moral and political support, not training or tangible aid—Pakistan is fueling militant activity in Kashmir. Of the five main militant groups operating in Kashmir, four are based in Pakistan, where open recruiting and fundraising are commonplace. Training of militants is also done on Pakistani soil. The Pakistani military is deeply involved, especially in the smuggling of anti-Indian militants across the Line of Control.
Militant groups have roots all over Pakistan, from their well-equipped training centres in Muzaffarabad—the capital of Pakistan's slice of Kashmir—and the country's North-West Frontier province to the nice, middle-class houses in Lahore and Islamabad. Those houses may look no different from their neighbors at first glance, but what about the strange antennas on the roofs, the international phone lines and the transient occupants with unkempt hair, camouflage jackets and hiking boots? And what of those unmarked four-wheel-drive vehicles pulling up at dawn with clockwork precision? Here is an inside look at how Pakistan runs its covert war in Kashmir:
Recruiting and Training
There are thousands of young, motivated Pakistani men anxious to join the militancy in Kashmir, which they consider a holy war. They come from all walks of life: not merely from the religious schools known as madrassahs, or the far-flung, poverty-mired towns and villages, but also from Pakistan's educated and Westernized middle and upper classes. In the jihad they find brotherhood, a sense of mission and purpose. And for these highly religious volunteers, many of whom are still in their teens, there is nothing more sacred in life than achieving the status of a martyr. These are the grunts in the war. The leaders are Pakistani veterans of the Afghan war. The largest training camp in Pakistan is run by Lashkar-i-Taiba, a wing of an Afghan mujahedin group known as Markaz Al Dawa Wal Irshad. It is set on a vast mountain clearing overlooking Muzaffarabad. (Training grounds for the other three militant groups are located in the North-West Frontier province.) Armed men guard the facility round-the-clock. There are only two structures, one an armory, the other a kitchen. Trainees live and sleep in the open, whether in the sweltering summer or the depth of winter. The field is dotted with installations used to teach the fervent young—some no older than 14—how to cross a river, climb a mountain or ambush a military convoy.
The day of a trainee begins at four in the morning. After offering prayers, the militants go for exercises. A breakfast of tea and bread is at eight, followed by a full day of rigorous drills, which are interrupted only for prayers and a simple lunch, usually rice and lentils. Coursework covers how to use sidearms, sniper rifles, grenades, rocket launchers and wireless radio sets, as well as the art of constructing bombs. The teachers are Lashkar veterans of action in Kashmir and Afghanistan. Sports, music and television are forbidden. Trainees are only allowed to read pre-screened newspaper articles. Training is divided into two stages. The first three-week session gives religious education and basic knowledge of how to handle firearms. Once a volunteer has passed that course, which costs the organization about $330 per trainee, he is sent to a designated city or town, often near his birthplace, to work at the group's offices and become more involved with the organization.
When a volunteer proves himself capable, motivated and loyal, he is enrolled in a special three-month commando boot camp, which costs the group $1,700 per student. (The money is raised from overseas groups and the Pakistani public, often via open demonstrations in Pakistani cities of militants working out, scaling walls and showing other martial tricks. Generous donors are invited to visit the not-so-secret camps to see how their money is spent.) Phase two is designed to push each volunteer to his physical limit and cull the weak from the strong. In the final weeks, recruits use live ammunition, construct actual explosives and perfect ambush techniques. The final exam lasts three days. A group of trainees, sometimes as large as 100 individuals, hikes and climbs through high-altitude, wooded terrain for three days without food or sleep. They are not allowed to slow their pace except for a few naps. At the end the hungry and thirsty survivors are given a goat, a knife and a matchbox. That's their reward, and they have to cook and eat it in warlike conditions.
Only the fittest from each graduating group are given a chance at martyrdom across the border in Kashmir. The local commander makes his choice, and the fortunate few are dispatched to safe houses along the Line of Control known as "launching pads." (Parents' permission is technically required for anyone who opts for jihad. Many boys get it easily, but some who don't, fully submerged in the dream of martyrdom, pressure their parents into complying.) At the launching pad, while waiting for their marching orders, the boys write wills and what might be their last words to their families. At this point, the Pakistani army plays a crucial role helping to arrange the infiltration of the militants across the Line of Control. Militants officially deny Pakistani army involvement, but those who fought in Kashmir tell Time that the wait at the launching pad is dictated by their leaders, who are in touch with the army. "Until an unmarked vehicle turns up at your safe house," says a veteran of Al-Badr, the first Pakistan-based militant organization to get members across the line, "you don't know when your number will come."
When it does, this is what happens: "The vehicle, covered from all sides, will pick up two, three or four militants according to the plan and dump them at one of the forward posts of the Pakistani army," the Al-Badr veteran says. "People in civvies give us arms, ammunition, food and money [Indian currency]. We are asked to check our weapons. After a day or two they give us the signal to go ahead." None of the boys is allowed to carry his own arms to the Line of Control, although sometimes an individual can choose a favorite AK-47 and find it waiting for him at the army camp along the line. The next step is the most hazardous: from the Pakistani army post, the group embarks on a three-to-seven night journey into Indian-controlled Kashmir, traveling by night, hiding during the day. The group leader wears night-vision goggles. The rest follow blindly across the mountains. There are numerous obstacles: Indian mines, tracer flares, Indian border patrols anxious to shoot at them. "But whenever such a situation arises," says a Lashkar militant, "the Pakistani guns come to our rescue to provide cover."
Militants making the return trip go through a reverse route, ending up at a Pakistani army base—sometimes with souvenirs. Abu Haibatullah, 32, was sent across the Line of Control in the mid '90s with a particular mission: to bring back an Indian soldier for interrogation. He managed to ambush and disarm a soldier, but when the Indian tried to snatch Haibatullah's gun, he killed him. He then decided to return home with the soldier's head. "Lots of people came to see the head," he recalls proudly. "Some were from the Pakistani army and they praised me for my gallantry."
In the 1990s, the Pakistani militants hired local guides—ethnic Kashmiris—to help them get across the mountains and into India. "On a number of occasions," says Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, 42, the supreme commander of the Lashkar-i-Taiba militants, "they took the money and tipped off the Indians. So we trained our own manpower." In other words, the Pakistani militants don't always trust the Kashmiris on whose behalf they are waging this war. The Pakistani militancy, which had its roots in the Afghan war, is now an institution unto itself.