MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan - Pakistan has resumed arming, training and providing logistical support to militants fighting Indian security forces in the troubled state of Kashmir less than a year after convincing the U.S. government it had adopted a hands-off policy there, according to Pakistani military sources.
The Pakistan army's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate - akin to the CIA - and its Field Intelligence Unit are coordinating the shipment of arms from the Pakistani side of Kashmir to the Indian side, where Muslim insurgents are waging a protracted war, the sources said.
They said the Pakistani military is also occasionally helping train militants and coordinate their fight against India. Both India and Pakistan control a portion of Kashmir but claim the entire region as their own.
Pakistani political and government officials denied any active role in arming or training militants in Indian Kashmir, saying their support was limited to aiding the insurgents through political and diplomatic initiatives.
The United States considers Kashmir one of the world's prime flash points for nuclear war. India and Pakistan - both of which are capable of making nuclear bombs - have fought three wars since achieving independence 47 years ago, and two were over Kashmir, a region famous for its beautiful Himalayan mountains, shawls, carpets and papier-mache crafts.
The Pakistani military sources - including two serving and two recently retired army officials familiar with the inner workings of ISI and its Kashmir operations - said Pakistan had suspended active support for the insurgency last year when the United States threatened to add it to the list of countries sponsoring terrorism. Such a move by Washington would have required automatic severing of aid and business ties between the United States and Pakistan.
During the hiatus, Pakistan "privatized" its Kashmir operations, funneling support to the militants through nongovernmental organizations that were often run by retired army and ISI officials, the sources said.
Aid resumed, but reduced
After the United States decided not to add Pakistan to the terrorist list, however, the army early this year resumed its active Kashmir operations, although at a much reduced level, the sources said.
In its annual report on terrorism released this month, the U.S. State Department confirmed that "there were credible reports in 1993 of official Pakistani support to Kashmiri militants," but officials believe the aid is at a lower level. Despite this, Pakistan was not added to the U.S. list of terrorist states.
Many private organizations also continue to send arms to the insurgents in operations overseen by the Pakistani army, the sources said. A recently retired army official said, however, that no private organization has ever been permitted to launch an independent operation against Indian security forces from Pakistani soil. "It always remained in safe, official hands," he said.
Shafqat Kakakhel, director of the Pakistani Foreign Ministry's South Asia bureau, said it would be "impossible" for the Pakistani army to halt all smuggling of weapons from Pakistan to Indian Kashmir by private groups.
"I'd never suggest that no one is training in Azad Kashmir (Free Kashmir, as Pakistanis call their sector of the region), or that no one comes into (Pakistani) Kashmir and goes back (to India) with guns and bags of bullets," he said. "But I haven't seen anything to suggest that ISI has the sanction or has been given the role to get involved in these things."
In the past, however, ISI had engaged in rogue operations without the knowledge of the government, and the U.S. decision not to add Pakistan to the terrorist list last year was based on the government's good-faith effort to curtail the military's covert aid program for Kashmiri militants, according to Western diplomats.
It is unclear whether Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto approved the resumption of active assistance to the insurgents. Political analysts noted that she has given the army - which played a role in ousting her from office in 1990 during her first term - wide latitude since returning to power last fall.
Once an autonomous state ruled by a prince, Kashmir today is divided in two, with the western third controlled by Pakistan and the eastern two-thirds controlled by India. Tens of thousands of Pakistani and Indian army troops face off along the "line of control" - the 225-mile border determined in the various wars but not officially recognized by either side.
Dozen people die daily in India
There are hundreds of instances of firings across the border every year, resulting in dozens of civilian and military deaths. The dispute has blossomed into a full-blown civil war in Indian Kashmir, where about a dozen people are killed every day in clashes between militants and Indian security forces.
While the area used to enjoy an unusual degree of autonomy from the central Indian government and was relatively tranquil, over the decades India has stripped Kashmir of its autonomy, staged rigged elections to capture control of the local government and, when violence erupted, sent in security forces that today number more than 500,000 troops.
Most militants, citing numerous rapes, tortures and executions by Indian forces, say they are fighting for independence. Because Kashmir is the only majority Muslim state in India, the conflict has taken on religious overtones. U.S. officials say the insurgency has become increasingly indigenous and could now survive for years without any outside support.
Military sources said the decision to renew active support for Kashmiri militants under a more secretive and professionally managed program was made at a meeting of top army generals early this year.
Senior Pakistani army officials strongly defended the decision, claiming a moral responsibility to engage an enemy that has defeated them three times and aided East Pakistan in breaking away to become the independent state of Bangladesh in 1971.
Militants keep Indian army busy
"We can never forget that event," a senior army official said. He noted that the Kashmir insurgency was keeping hundreds of thousands of Indian troops occupied, a "strategic gain" that he said minimized the more than 2-1 manpower advantage enjoyed by India's active armed forces.
"For us, it's a matter of life and death," said a recently retired army brigadier. "With tens of thousands of troops fighting a full-scale insurgency, the Indians could never think of launching any adventure against Pakistan."
At the same time, Pakistan has done nothing to stop private organizations from funneling aid to militants in Indian Kashmir. Last month, Jamaat-i-Islami, the leading fundamentalist political party in Pakistan, claimed that it collected 25 million rupees - almost $1 million - in a three-day nationwide fund raiser for a jihad, or Islamic holy war, in Kashmir.
Here in Pakistani Kashmir, the central government continues to allow a substantial degree of local autonomy, which, combined with the shared Islamic religion, has kept the domestic situation fairly normal.
Citizens say they want to see Kashmir reunited, followed by a popular vote on the area's future. Most say they favor accession of the entire region to Pakistan, but some also favor independence; few people on either side of the border say they favor joining India.