DEBKAfile, 21 November 2001

21 November:  Escalating border clashes, incursions and a massive Indian army buildup on the Line of Control in the disputed province of Kashmir in the last 48 hours are some of the most threatening side-effects of the Afghan war, bringing two nuclear powers close to flashpoint.

Early Wednesday morning, November 21, a senior diplomatic mission arrived in Kabul, the first since the Taliban seized the Afghan capital in 1996 and closed the Indian embassy. In addition to a Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Satinder Lambah and his staff, the mission includes a group of military doctors and nurses. Lamba will meet Northern Alliance and other Afghan leaders before returning to India. India has already established a field hospital on the Tajik-Afghan border and looks forward to restoring its “historic ties” with Afghanistan, the third country after Russia and Iran to send diplomats to Kabul.

According to DEBKAfile’s sources on the Indian subcontinent, the Indian army is holding its heavily boosted military force in offensive posture opposite the Pakistani army in Kashmir.

As seen from New Delhi, Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf’s grip on government is wobbling dangerously since the setback to his policies administered by the Northern Alliance’s grand sweep of most of Afghanistan. Indian intelligence reports officers of the pro-Taliban Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as plotting to oust him. Indian defense minister George Fernandes warned recently that Pakistan’s involvement in the anti-Taliban conflict would not only destabilize its society and army, but rock the country’s foundations dangerously. To fight his way out of this corner, Musharraf may resort to stepping up Pakistan-backed Islamic terrorist attacks in Kashmir, or outright invasion, deliberately triggering war with India to deflect popular disaffection.

DEBKAfile ’s Indian military sources report Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as poised on the brink of initiating wide-scale military action against Pakistan, pre-emptively or not, after declaringIndia to be in a situation of “zero military tolerance”.

His words are matched by action. Large-scale Indian assault units have been moved to Kashmir to reinforce its defensive Holding Corps. India’s 21 Strike Force, comprised mainly of the 33rd armored division, has advanced towards Akhnoor in the Jammu region, where the Indian forward command post is already located. The division was reinforced by two armored infantry brigades and mechanized artillery units from main bases in Meerut and Mathura. In addition, the Indians are transferring into Kashmir armored and infantry brigades to transform 16 Corps at Nagrauta in Jammu, 15 Corps at Badami Bagh, Srinagar and 14Corps at Nimmu and Leh from defensive to attack forces.

Indian military sources told DEBKAfilethat these movements amount in practical terms to a full Indian war alert in Kashmir.

As it is, the daily shelling by Pakistan and India could at any moment ignite the entire front in a flash, drawing a powerful Indian military response irrespective of the state of the Afghanistan war.

Wednesday, November 21, Indian border guards killed a dozen guerrillas crossing from Pakistan into the Pakistan side of Kashmir, at Ramgarh, 40 miles from the state’s winter capital Jammu. According to an Indian spokesman, the men were “Muslim terrorists”. A few hours later, an Indian Special Operations Group of the local police gunned down two top commanders of the Pakistan-based Al-Badr unit, including its operational chief, Hafiz Ahsan Ali, called “Nayeem” in a raid on the outskirts of Srinagar.

Both sides report exchanges of fire along the entire international border.

Pakistani “Chenab Rangers” claim success in foiling Indian security attempts to erect an electronic fence along the boundary at three points. This fence was designed for the Indian army by Israeli experts as part of the defense exchanges between the two countries. A senior Israeli defense delegation is due in New Delhi before the end of the month.

India’s leaders believe that the United States, pinned down as it is by the Afghanistan stalemate, is in no position to tie India’s hands and force it to desist from military action. In any case, as the Indian prime minister told President George W. Bush in the White House on November 9, India holds America responsible for rendering an outbreak of Pakistani-Indian war hostilities virtually inevitable by taking Pakistan as its senior partner in the war in Afghanistan, although India was one of the first countries to side with the American anti-terror drive.
In the face of this charge – and since the wheel of war has turned against the Taliban - the United States has become more receptive to New Delhi’s point of view.

”A terrorist is a terrorist,” said US ambassador Robert Blackwill Wednesday in the Indian capital when asked how Washington regarded Pakistani support for militants fighting Indian rule in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. “They are not freedom fighters,” the ambassador stressed. “No country will be permitted to provide sanctuaries to terrorists. “

Blackwill announced the US and India were on the cusp of a “major relationship” entailing resumption of the defense cooperation disrupted by India’s nuclear tests in 1998, arms sales, joint exercises, counter-terrorism measures and shared intelligence.