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Gilgit-Baltistan: The AQ Khan Proliferation Highway—Part VI

(To be read along with “Gilgit-Baltistan: The AQ Khan Proliferation Highway” — Part I , Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V)

The Aga Khan Foundation has over the years undertaken many rural development projects in the NA. Whatever little development has been there is mainly due to the Aga Khan Foundation. Even though the Islamic fundamentalist parties from time to time mounted a campaign against successive Aga Khans and their workers in the NA by projecting them as Western agents and anti-Islam, the Government of Pakistan saw to it that there was no interference with the Foundation’s work because of its excellent international image.

2. The only major development project taken up by the Government was the construction of the Karakoram Highway with Chinese assistance to facilitate the overland movement to China of the exports from Punjab. The benefit of these exports largely went to the people of Punjab. It was completed in 1978.

3. The Karakoram Highway was also used for the movement to Pakistan of Chinese nuclear and military equipment such as the M-9 and M-11 missiles, equipment for the Chashma nuclear power station constructed by the Chinese etc. The two countries avoided transporting such sensitive equipment by sea to avoid detection by the US. Some of the missiles supplied by North Korea to Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto’s secret visit to Pyongyang in 1993 also came by the overland route via China and then the Karakoram Highway. Some of the missiles for Iran from China and North Korea were also transported by the same route.

4. On March 9,1995, Pakistan, China, Kazakhstan and Kyrghystan signed at Islamabad a Transit Trade Agreement to facilitate trade between Pakistan and the Central Asian republics (CARs) via China. Under a separate agreement between Pakistan and China, it was decided to upgrade the Karakoram Highway to facilitate this trade with the CARs, with Pakistan meeting the expenditure on its side and China on its side. While work on the Pakistan side involving an investment of US $ 85 million started after the signing of the agreement, China dragged its feet on upgrading the Highway in its territory because of its concerns over the increasing use of the Highway by the Uighur extremist elements for getting arms, ammunition and explosives from Pakistan and by Pakistani narcotics smugglers for smuggling heroin to China.

5.Writing in the “Herald” (December,1995), the monthly journal of the “Dawn” group of publications, Ahmed Rashid, the well-known Pakistani expert on Afghanistan and the CARs, said: ” Beijing’s reluctance stems from the fact that the proposed road would run across Xinjiang and the Chinese fear that the route would increase the traffic in fundamentalism. After an abortive Islamist uprising in the town of Baren in 1992 in which 22 people were killed, China closed its road links with Pakistan for several months. In the second week of November,1995, Ibrahim Rouzi, Director of Xinjiang’s Religious Affairs Bureau, ordered a Government probe into the mushrooming of unauthorised mosques and Quranic schools in the region, which, he said, were often opened from funds from abroad. “We must firmly oppose religious activities which run counter to the Socialist system, divide the motherland and incite fanaticism by disseminating speeches in mosques about a religious war,” he added.”

6.Ahmed Rashid further reported in the same article that six Islamic militants (Uighurs) from Xinjiang, who were undergoing training at the Islamabad Islamic University, attended a convention of the Jamaat-e-Islami at Lahore.

7. The “International Herald Tribune” reported on May 28,1996, that following a resurgence of pro-independence terrorist activity in Xinjiang, the local authorities had tightened border security and issued the following instructions: ” We must greatly increase control on frontier crossings, put more soldiers on duty, strengthen inspection of goods crossing the border and seriously stop weapons, splittists and reactionary phamplhlets entering China.”

8.The “Far Eastern Economic Review” of Hong Kong reported as follows in its issue of June 13,1996: ” Beijing has ordered the re-deployment of several army units in the troubled Muslim region of Xinjiang as a result of increased separatist activities in the border areas. A Chinese scholar told a seminar in Hong Kong that he had been delayed for six hours while travelling in the region in May because of a massive shift of troops in the Aksu District. The official media have confirmed the assassination by separatists of one Muslim cleric and several polcemen in the regional capital Urumqi in late February. The movement of troops from military sub-districts in the region is believed to be the largest since a separatist insurrection took place in the Western border county of Akto in April,1990″

9.Another reason for China’s concerns over the threats to its internal security from the Karakoram Highway was the increasing use of the Highway by narcotics smugglers for smuggling heroin from Afghanistan into China via Pakistan. As in the FATA, in the NA too, large sections of the local people, because of the extreme poverty, started taking to narcotics smuggling as a means of livelihood.

10. Quoting a Chinese diplomat in Islamabad, the Urdu language daily “Nawai Waqt” of Pakistan reported as follows on June 4,1996: ” China has deported hundreds of Pakistanis, who had illegally entered Xinjiang for hunting eagles. These Pakistanis did not possess any valid documents to enter the Chinese territory. He also disclosed that dozens of people, allegedly involved in the smuggling of drugs, were arrested by Chinese guards and one of them has been sentenced to death in Beijing. Several Pakistani drug smugglers are still languishing in Chinese jails.”

11. It added: ” The diplomat termed as incorrect a report about denial of visas to Pakistani tourists wishing to visit China. He said that following the arrest of about 450 Pakistanis in October,1995, in Xinjiang for illegal activities, Beijing has decided not to issue visas to any individual tourist. However, tourist groups are not being denied visas if they are sponsored by Pakistani or Chinese tourism institutions. Moreover, no trader or industrialist of Pakistan will be refused a visa. Asked whether the arrested Pakistanis were indulging in unhealthy political activities in Xinjiang, he declined to comment.”

12. After seizing power in October 1999, Pervez Musharraf took up with the Chinese authorities the importance of the early implementation of the project for the upgradation of the Karakoram Highway. The Chinese took up the work on their side according to a mutually agreed revised schedule and have reportedly completed it ahead of schedule. The upgradation work on the Pakistan side has been much behind schedule.

13. In the winter of 1998-99, Musharraf used the NA as the launching pad for the infiltration of the Pakistani Army into the Kargil area of India’s J&K. Pakistani troops, assisted by Mehsuds and Wazirs from Waziristan trained by Al Qaeda, occupied the Kargil heights during the height of winter with the objective of disrupting traffic between Srinagar and Kargil and starving the Indian troops deployed in the Siachen sector of J&K. After the explosions outside the US Embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam by Al Qaeda in August 1998, the Nawaz Sharif Government came under considerable pressure from the US either to act against Al Qaeda sanctuaries in Afghan territory or to let the US do it. Musharraf sold to Nawaz the idea that some of the inmates of Al Qaeda camps in the Afghan territory could be shifted to the NA for helping the Pakistan Army in its operations in J&K.

14. Nawaz agreed to it under the impression that the operations planned by Musharraf on the Kargil heights would only involve the tribals trained by Al Qaeda and not the Pakistan Army. In May,1999, a military conflict broke out between the Indian and Pakistani armies when the Indian Army took action to eject the Pakistani Army invaders from the Indian territory on the Kargil heights. The Indian Army killed or captured regular soldiers of the Pakistan Army, many of them belonging to its Light Infantry Regiments raised in the NA. Through a back channel mechamism, the Government of India confronted Nawaz with conclusive evidence of the involvement of the Pakistani Army in the illegal occupation of the Indian territory, which triggered off the conflict.

15. Nawaz was taken by surprise because the clearance given by him to Musharraf was for shifting some of the inmates of Al Qaeda camps in Afghan territory to the NA for use against India and not for using the Pakistan Army for occupying Indian territory. The anger of Nawaz with Musharraf for using the Pakistan Army for occupying Indian territory set in motion the train of events which ultimately led to his overthrow and arrest by Musharraf in October,1999.

16. During the height of the Kargil fighting, the British High Commission in New Delhi used to organise daily briefings on the fighting for the benefit of some of the British journalists, who had assembled in New Delhi to cover the conflict. One of the British journalists who was covering the conflict from New Delhi was Julian West. In a despatch from New Delhi, which was carried by the “Electronic Telegraph” (May 30,1999) Julian West reported as follows:

(a). “A group of British Islamic fundamentalists are reported to be among the insurgents …According to Western intelligence sources, six Britons are reported to have recently received training in mountain techniques and high-altitude warfare.”

(b).”The British Muslims are among a number of Islamic guerillas being trained in remote valleys near Skardu, in Pakistani Kashmir, just north of the LOC from Kargil…. Their instructor reportedly claimed that he was being paid Pound Sterling 30 a day—probably by Pakistan’s military intelligence agency ISI.”

( c ).The preparation of a mixed force of Afghan, Kashmiri, Pakistani and even British Muslim guerillas, trained to fight at high altitudes, reinforces India’s contention that the current conflict was well planned. It also further confirms long-standing reports that Pakistan employs a loose network of international terrorists as well as Pakistani army regulars and Kashmiri militants– not only for operations in Afghanistan, but also for intrusions into Indian Kashmir.

(d). “Western intelligence has long believed that various Muslim dissident groups in Britain are front organisations for Islamic extremism, funded by an international network of wealthy Muslims and often sponsored by Pakistani and Arab intelligence agencies.”

(e).”Although the Indian army claims that these are Pakistani army regulars in disguise, Western intelligence believes that many are Afghan, Pakistani and even international Muslim militants backed by Pakistan’s ISI.. Principal amongst these is Al Badr, a terrorist group linked to Osama bin Laden….”

(f). An intelligence source, who believes about 3,000 to 5,000 militants are currently being trained in various camps run by Pakistani intelligence in Pakistan and possibly in Afghanistan, said: “This current operation (in Kargil) has all the hallmarks of the ISI.”

(g). “The operation almost certainly has the backing of the ISI and could not have been launched without the knowledge of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.”

17.Apart from Al Badr of bin Laden mentioned by Western intelligence sources, other organisations which have claimed responsibility for the occupation of the ridges in the Kargil-Dras sector were:

(a). The Lashkar-e-Toiba. “The Times” of UK correspondent in Islamabad (May 31, 1999) quoted Abdullah Muntazir of the Lashkar as saying as follows: ” We have Muslim volunteers from all over the world coming to join the jihad….A large number of our fighters have come from the Afghan province of Nuristan. ” The correspondent also reported that at least four other Pakistan-backed militant groups were recruiting people to fight in Kashmir.

(b). The United Jihad Council of Muzzafarabad , which claimed to be a united front of 14 unnamed organisations. It is headed by Syed Salahuddin belonging to one faction of the Hizbul Mujahideen. The Hizbul Mujahideen works in close concert with the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), the Jammat-e-Islami of Pakistan and the Hizb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Heckmatyar of Afghanistan.Since the US declared the HUM as an international terrorist organisation in October, 1997, its volunteers operating in Kashmir use the cover of the Hizbul Mujahideen. (20-9-09) (To be continued )

( The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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