SOUTH ASIA INTELLIGENCE REVIEW
ULFA Talks Tough With Bombings
Up to ten bombings and grenade attacks across Assam by the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) on Sunday (January 22, 2006) have disrupted operations in the gas, oil and power sectors in the State, besides keeping the security establishment on tenterhooks ahead of Republic Day, January 26. The 291 MW gas-based power plant at Kathalguri in Dibrugarh District, 550 kilometres east of Guwahati, run by the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO) shut down completely, shortly before midnight Sunday, after rebels blew up a six-metre stretch of the main gas supply pipeline.
While B.C. Sharma, Managing Director of the Assam Gas Company Limited (AGCL), that transports gas to the power plant, told this writer it would take at least 48 hours for his engineers to restore gas supply, power authorities said the State would face a shortfall of 100 MW due to the shut down of the plant. Assam consumes 700 MW of power at any given point, and a shortfall of 100 MW, therefore, is a huge reduction in supply. “We shall be forced to cut power or ration supply until the generation at the plant resumes,” Subhash Das, Chairman of the Assam State Electricity Board (ASEB), told this writer on Monday, January 23.
Indian oil major, Oil India Limited (OIL) has already felt the impact. “We have closed down nine gas wells due to the disruption in gas supply to the power plant,” Nripen Bharali, an OIL spokesman told South Asia Intelligence Review. This is because the power plant at Kathalguri was lifting 1.4 million cubic metres of gas a day and its shut down has left the gas produced by OIL (and transported through a pipeline by AGCL) unutilised. AGCL authorities said the company would stand to lose INR 2.8 million a day on gas transportation to the power plant. Estimates of OIL losses due to the closure of its gas wells are yet to be worked out.
Further, there has been disruption in crude movement through pipelines in the Moran area of eastern Assam after some gas pipelines were blown away in the vicinity. “Gas is used to run certain heaters meant to ensure a smooth movement of crude oil through pipelines. The blowing up of the gas pipelines has hit us because the heaters won’t run without gas,” an OIL official explained.
While it has become a sort of ritual for the ULFA to engage in or step up its violence in the run up to important days in the national calendar, such as Republic Day and Independence Day, the rebel group’s actions this time round has come at a time when its hand-picked representatives are engaged in ‘exploratory’ peace talks with New Delhi. Assamese writer Indira Goswami, who is heading the 11-member People’s Consultative Group (PCG), feels that the ULFA could be getting restive due to the Government of India’s delay in holding the second round of talks with her Group. The first round of talks, attended by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, was held in New Delhi on October 26, 2005. The delay in holding the next round is being interpreted by PCG members as part of New Delhi’s ‘lack of sincerity’ in the ULFA peace process. The PCG is supposed to prepare the grounds for possible direct talks between the ULFA and the Government of India.
However, ULFA’s decision to step up its offensive ahead of Republic Day is not surprising, and remains consistent with the past record. What is surprising, though, is the rebel group’s capacity to strike across the State across a widely dispersed area in such a large number of coordinated attacks – including major attacks in the capital, Guwahati – with the intelligence machinery and the security forces being able to do precious little to prevent such attacks.
The choice of its primary target is not unexpected. ULFA had slapped a INR Five billion ($112 million) extortion demand on the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) in the first week of January 2006, at a time when the oil major was planning to invest INR 33 billion in exploration and other activities in Assam, implied that ULFA was bent on sending out a real tough message that it is a force to reckon with. By launching a string of grenade and bomb attacks, it has sought to demonstrate its fire power and strike potential. Another significant aspect of the current series of attacks is that ULFA has actually laid an ambush on security forces after a considerable period of time. One policeman was killed when ULFA militants ambushed an Assam Police party near Borpathar in the eastern District of Golaghat on January 22.
The string of ULFA attacks since January 20, 2006, have been rather daring raids, going well beyond the planting of improvised explosive devices (IED) stealthily at soft targets. Instead, cadres have carried out grenade attacks, venturing close to their targets, including police posts, at significant personal risk, demonstrating a hitherto absent sense of confidence and determination. The January 20 grenade attack in front of the main entrance to the heavily-guarded Guwahati Refinery caused injuries to 10 people, including Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) personnel on duty. Again, on January 22, ULFA cadres chose to lob grenades at a check post in Guwahati, manned by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). At least three CRPF men were wounded. Then, there was a grenade attack near the high-security Police Reserve in Guwahati, leading to injuries to at least two police officers. A few others were wounded when an IED, planted on a stationery bus near the Police Reserve went off as policemen and a crowd had gathered after the grenade attack.
The delay on New Delhi’s part in holding the second round of talks with the ULFA-appointed PCG could well be part of the Government’s strategy to protract the process till the Assam Assembly elections are over by May 2006. Holding a second round of talks earlier would have put New Delhi under pressure to hold the third round before the polls, requiring some specific commitments on the outcome – and such commitments, or their lack, could have impacted on voters. Delhi’s vacillation on this is, consequently, not difficult to understand within the given political context. The failure of the security and intelligence establishment to notice the rise in militant movement and preparations, and the longer term failure to stop or cut off access to the supply of explosives to ULFA is, on the other hand, difficult to comprehend or accept. For more than 15 years now, security forces have been engaged in counter-insurgency operations in Assam, and they have periodically claimed to have ‘broken the back’ of ULFA. They are yet to identify and stem the source of explosives to the organization, or to clarify whether the bombs are being manufactured within Assam, or are being procured ready-made from an external source. How is such an abundance of hand grenades available in the State? And how can these explosives and grenades be moved about across the State, and into the State capital, with apparent ease, at a time when the authorities are at the highest levels of alert as they gear up to thwart ULFA’s diktat for a boycott of Republic Day celebrations, and the threat of violence on that date?
Rituals of a Tactical Peace
As each new round of talks between India and Pakistan approaches, there is a frenzy of analysis of potential ‘breakthroughs’; a number of ‘new formulas’ – invariably tired rehashes of a communal partition of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) – are pulled out of the void and discussed breathlessly by ‘experts’; there is great and natural excitement in the media.
The talks come and go. Terrorist killings in J&K, and sporadically in other parts of the India continue, even as Pakistan complains bitterly about the slow pace of ‘progress’ towards the goals it seeks to secure on the negotiating table, having failed to achieve these through a vicious campaign of terrorism over 17 years.
The third round of the ‘Composite Dialogue’ process between the two countries, inaugurated by Foreign Secretary level talks at Delhi on January 17-18, 2006, was no different, and, while pro forma diplomatic platitudes were naturally voiced in the Joint Statement released at the end of what is increasingly becoming a practiced ritual, there was little sense of any forward movement.
There was, nevertheless, a subtle shift of tenor suggesting particularly that the stakes had abruptly been raised. The troubles in distant Balochistan found a place in the talks, as Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Riaz Mohammad Khan carped about India’s ‘interference’ – the Indian External Affairs Ministry had earlier issued a statement criticizing the excessive use of force, including air power and artillery, against largely civilian targets in the troubled province – but was firmly rebuffed, as India asserted its right to express such concerns, and denied any interference in the province. Pakistan – as has routinely been the case in the past – once again raised the issue of ‘self-governance’ and ‘self-determination’ in Kashmir. This time around, however, someone on the Indian side rediscovered a spine, and refused to roll over: these were excellent ideas, it was agreed, and self-governance should be made available to the people of Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), including Gilgit-Baltistan, at least in the measure that they are already available to the people of the Indian State of J&K. The subject was not raised again.
Before the talks commenced, Khan had stated, on January 16, at Islamabad, that the objective of the Delhi talks was to see “how to push the peace process forward”. At the end of the talks, the Joint Statement was couched in evasive and meaningless generalizations: “The two Foreign Secretaries, with the objective of promoting a stable environment of peace and security, agreed to mandate the two experts groups to continue consultations on security concepts and nuclear doctrines to develop measures for confidence building in the nuclear and conventional fields aimed at avoidance of conflict.”
In realistic terms, it is clear that the process is headed nowhere and there is every likelihood of an eventual breakdown, transient or permanent. The reasons are not far to seek. First, the peace process remains, in substantial measure, tactical rather than substantive, with Pakistan in particular treating the negotiations as a parallel instrument to terrorism to exert pressure on India. Further, the hiatus between the rival positions on Kashmir is unbridgeable, and it is unsurprising, consequently, that the two sides are yet to commence substantive discussions on this issue. The restoration of communication links, people-to-people exchanges, Track Two diplomacy and a range of confidence building measures (CBMs) have all gone smoothly and have largely been successful. The Indian High Commission in Islamabad, for instance, issued 90,000 visas to Pakistanis in the year 2005 in comparison to 60,000 in 2004, a reflection of rising popular bonhomie. In particular, the bus services (Srinagar-Muzaffarabad and Amritsar-Lahore) and coordinated relief efforts in the aftermath of the October 2005 earthquake have been received well by people of both the countries. The ground situation in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), however, remains a cause for concern, with over 1739 terrorism related killings and a continuous stream of infiltrators across the Line of Control (LoC) and international border, though the secular decline in levels of violence, which commenced after the 9/11 attacks in the US, has been sustained – albeit only marginally between 2004-2005. 521 civilians and 218 security force (SF) personnel died in terrorist violence in J&K in year 2005.
Worse, terrorist attacks by Pakistan-backed groups have occurred in places as far as Delhi and Bangalore. Furthermore, arrests and seizures connected with Pakistan-backed terrorist groups across India, outside J&K and the Northeast, numbering at least 62 modules during the 2004-05 period, indicate the level of penetration and subversion. These modules have been neutralised in locations that extend from Uttaranchal in the North, to Andhra Pradesh in the South, and from Gujarat in the West to West Bengal in the East. Official sources indicate that, between 1998 and 2003, security agencies had neutralized more than 180 Inter Services Intelligence (ISI)-backed terrorist modules across the country (excluding J&K and the Northeast), who had been tasked to target security and vital installations, communication links, and commercial and industrial centres, as well as to provoke instability and disorder by circulating large quantities of counterfeit currency and by drug trafficking.
The future of the dialogue process amidst such a situation of sustained violence and subversion, can only be uncertain. Despite General Pervez Musharraf’s repeated commitments not to let Pakistani soil be used for terrorism directed against India, little has been done, and there is overwhelming evidence of continued state support of – or, minimally, tolerance of high levels of activities by – a number of terrorist groups in Pakistan. The growing power of these groups was particularly evident in the aftermath of the earthquake in PoK, when the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), in its new garb as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, emerged as the most prominent organization in relief operations. Reports indicate that General Musharraf had, in fact, called up LeT chief, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed immediately after the quake, and emphasized Islamabad’s reliance on the jihadis, both for relief operations and temporarily for ‘defense’ along the LoC, in view of the massive damage the Pakistani Army infrastructure had suffered. India’s patience cannot be eternal on this count, and Delhi rightly reminded Islamabad about the January 6, 2004, Joint Statement in which President Musharraf had given an assurance that he will not allow any part of the territory under Pakistan’s control to be used for terrorism against India.
The bottom-line is that, even though the varied CBMs currently operational between the two countries have strengthened processes of 'emotional enlistment', they do not, in any measure, alter India's and Pakistan's stated positions on the Kashmir issue. They do little, consequently, to change the fundamentals of the conflict in and over Kashmir. There is also the greater danger of the CBMs acquiring a life of their own, with the perpetual postponement of any discussion on ‘substantive issues’. This is something that has been posited as a desirable option, on the model of the ‘freeze’ that has been imposed on the border disputes between India and China. But a comparable ‘freeze’ on the Kashmir issue is not a viable concept between India and Pakistan – particularly in view of the centrality that has been ascribed to Kashmir within the political ideology that dominates Pakistan.
The counterfeit movement that was sought to be imposed on the process by General Musharraf’s proposals, through the media, on de-militarisation, self-governance and joint management in J&K, can also lead nowhere. As repackaged versions of another communal partition, these have been flatly rejected by New Delhi. The Indian Foreign Secretary, Shyam Saran, while briefing the media on January 18 disclosed that he had reiterated to the Pakistani side Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s statement that the redrawing of boundaries or territorial readjustments were outside the scope of a settlement between the two countries, though any proposal short of these could be considered, and India remained committed to whatever was required for free flow of people, goods and ideas on either side of the LoC.
With a multiplicity of fronts opening up internally, President Musharraf is increasingly being painted into a corner. Projecting an ‘uncompromising attitude’ on the issue of Kashmir may, within this context, appear politically attractive in the short run. But Pakistan can ill-afford any escalation of tensions on its eastern borders today, and this is abundantly clear to New Delhi. Islamabad’s inability to manage its internal crisis appears slated to worsen in the immediate future. As a country, in Stephen Cohen’s words, “which is fading away into insignificance", Pakistan is still carrying too much baggage to the negotiating table. Unless it rids itself of the excess weight of its irrational ambitions and current geopolitical over-reach, its eclipse will be the more certain, and the more proximate.
Weekly Fatalities: Major Conflicts in South Asia
January 16-22, 2006
Provisional data compiled from English language media sources.
kills Army guide in Samdrup Jongkhar:Cadres of
the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA)
attacked a Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) patrol near village Gerwa in the southern District
of Samdrup Jongkhar, bordering Assam in India’s Northeast, and killed a Bhutanese
Army guide on January 12, 2006. An unidentified official said, "The RBA was on
a routine patrol in the area when they were fired on with automatic weapons by
suspected ULFA militants killing one village guide accompanying the security team."
He further said, "This is the first time in two years when we are once again getting
reports of movement of militants in our area. The killing of the RBA guide is
a bad signal and we really fear the ULFA is trying to set up bases once again
inside our territory. We have put on alert our troops to ensure that no militants
are able to use our land for any unlawful activities." Meanwhile, Bhutanese newspaper
Kuensel said, "A day before the encounter, a villager had reported seeing three
armed men in the forest below the village". The
Pioneer ,January 17, 2006.
One person killed as ULFA triggers four bomb blasts in Assam: One person was killed and eight security force personnel were injured when suspected United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) cadres triggered four bomb blasts — three in the Guwahati city and one in Upper Assam's Jorhat town — on January 22-night. ULFA cadres lobbed a grenade at a police patrol post and triggered two time devices almost simultaneously near Police Reserve at Paltanbazaar and on R.G. Baruah Road in Guwahati. Five SF personnel were injured in a grenade attack near the Guwahati Commerce College. Simultaneously, two bomb blasts occurred in quick succession near Police Reserve on the A.T. Road. A civilian was killed and three police personnel were injured.
ULFA cadres had triggered another bomb blast on January 21 on pipelines of the Oil India Ltd inside Rangali Reserve Forest under Kakatibari police station in the Sivasagar district. Superintendent of Police Bishnu Ram Medhi informed that the explosions damaged a 400-foot pipeline, besides a gas pipeline running parallel to the crude oil line causing a gas leak. A day earlier, 10 persons, including eight personnel of the Central Industrial Security Force, were injured in a grenade attack by ULFA at the entrance of the Guwahati Refinery at Noonmati in Guwahati city. The Hindu, January 23, 2006; The Assam Tribune, January 22-23, 2006.
India and Pakistan hold third round of talks under Composite Dialogue framework: The Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan met in New Delhi on January 17-18, 2006 for the third round of talks under the India-Pakistan Composite Dialogue framework. Foreign Secretary of India Shyam Saran led the Indian delegation while the Pakistani side was led by Foreign Secretary Riaz Mohammad Khan. They discussed, among others, issues related to ‘Peace and Security including CBMs’ and ‘Jammu and Kashmir’. Official sources said India raised the issue of terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan. Saran told his counterpart Khan that Islamabad must agree on extradition and mutual legal assistance treaties as proof of its commitment to tackle terrorism. India also reportedly presented two "non-papers," or written ideas which do not amount to a commitment, suggesting that no new defence post/work be taken up along the Line of Control and that Brigade Commanders be permitted to hold flag meetings. The Hindu, January 18, 2006.
17 Maoists and six soldiers killed in Makawanpur district: At least 17 Maoists and six soldiers were killed and 18 soldiers wounded in an overnight clash after an attack by the Maoist insurgents in the Makawanpur District, Royal Nepalese Army sources said on January 22, 2006. The Maoists attacked the security forces carrying out a search operation in Faparbari, 150 km south of capital Kathmandu, the sources said. Press Trust of India, January 22, 2006.
Three Al Qaeda operatives killed in Bajaur air-strike identified: Three of the foreign terrorists killed in the January 13 air strikes in the Bajaur Agency have been identified, ABC News said on January 19, 2006. One of the dead was said to be 52-year-old Midhat Mursi, also known as Abu Khabab al-Masri, a top Al Qaeda bomb maker with a five million dollar reward on his head. Another was reported to be Abu Obaidah al-Masri, Al Qaeda’s chief of operations for the eastern Afghan province of Kunar and the third was Abdur Rehman al-Maghribi, the Moroccan son-in-law of Osama Bin Laden’s top lieutenant Ayman Al-Zawahri and the head of Al Qaeda’s media operations. The fourth has not been identified but reports said that he may have been an Egyptian national named Mustafa Usman. A Pakistani intelligence official said that Khalid Habib, head of Al Qaeda’s operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan, may also have been among the dead. Daily Times, January 20, 2006.
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