SRINAGAR, India – India is bracing for more militancy in the battle-scarred region of Kashmir, believing that fighters now focused on resisting U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan will shift toward the Himalayan flashpoint with Pakistan.
Some say increased violence recently along India's heavily militarized border with Pakistan proves that shift is already underway.
As a result, India is increasing use of drones, thermal sensors and foot patrols as it tries to catch out any battle-hardened militants moving through the forested mountains near the frontier. At the same time, India's troops have increasingly been engaging in skirmishes with Pakistan's military.
Rebels "are testing us. They're making their presence felt by launching audacious attacks," an Indian army commander in Kashmir said on condition of anonymity in line with army policy. "They have started recruiting young people into their folds. They are training some of these boys locally."
U.S. officials and experts acknowledge there are valid concerns Though the U.S. government has not discussed such a risk publicly the chief of its forces in the Pacific says the U.S. is increasingly discussing terrorist movements with countries in the region.
"We are thinking about it more and more each day, and this includes dialogue with our partners in India and Pakistan," Adm. Samuel Locklear told reporters in Washington this week.
India has long accused Pakistan of arming and training militants who fight in Kashmir, a charge Pakistan vehemently denies. Pakistan has consistently said it gives the rebels only moral and diplomatic support.
The two countries regularly blame each other for starting skirmishes, But they agree the violence has escalated to its highest level — killing dozens of troops and civilians on both sides — since a 2003 cease-fire agreement. In August, the countries' troops engaged in fierce fighting almost daily after India said 20 militants along with Pakistani soldiers crossed the border and killed five Indian soldiers. Pakistan denied that, saying instead that Indian shelling killed two of its civilians.
Some Pakistani analysts believe the country's army leaders have little interest in rocking the boat now, raising the worrying possibility that the recent violence was sparked by militants who have gone rogue or are operating in cooperation with lower-level officials sympathetic to their cause.
"We need to be vigilant, we need to be prepared and we need to be alert for any such eventuality," the Indian Army's Northern Commander Lt. Gen. Sanjiv Chachra said in a TV interview recently broadcast in India. "I think the drawdown (of U.S. forces in the region) will definitely have effect. As a professional army we are keeping a tag of it."
The nuclear-armed countries' contentious border — including a 740-kilometer (460-mile) disputed and heavily militarized stretch called the Line of Control — has long drawn fire from both sides as each claims the entire territory of Kashmir as its own. Two wars have been fought over those claims. Vast areas pockmarked by watch towers and razor wire keep villagers from traveling freely.
A constant military presence by at least a half-million troops on the Indian side has nurtured a climate of fear and inspired decades of rebellion. The uprising and Indian crackdown has left 68,000 people dead. While most anti-India sentiment is now expressed in street protests, graffiti has started to appear on the streets of Srinagar, the main city in Indian Kashmir, inviting foreign rebels with greetings of "Welcome Taliban."
Kashmir is an obvious next battleground for Islamic militants who sympathize with the Kashmiri rebellion, Indian army officials and international experts say.
Within India "there is widespread anticipation that Pakistan will divert elements of Jihadi forces (in Afghanistan) to this side," G.K. Pillai, a former Indian home secretary, told the Associated Press.
In the past, some rebels in Kashmir were either trained in Afghanistan or were Afghan nationals, India says.
"Our worry is not the number of militants," the Indian army commander said on condition of anonymity. "The worry is the quality of the people who are likely to come. They're battle-hardened, aggressive and smart. They know the warfare."
Of particular concern is Lashkar-e-Taiba, a well-organized group based in Pakistan's Punjab province. The group is widely believed to have carried out the deadly 2008 attack in India's city of Mumbai and is believed to have historical ties to Pakistani intelligence.
Its leader, Hafiz Saeed, regards Kashmir as "unfinished business" and probably the group's "core mission," said Jonah Blank, senior political analyst at the U.S.-government funded think tank the Rand Corp. and a former adviser to John Kerry.
Stephen Tankel, an American University professor who has written a book on Lashkar, said the group has "been vocal about an intention to rejuvenate the jihad in Kashmir."
"LeT is a big enough, strong enough and elastic enough organization that it won't shift away from Afghanistan. Rather, we can expect them to remain active there and to put additional efforts into Kashmir," Tankel said. "Early indications suggest this is already underway, including an uptick in high-profile attacks in Kashmir in which LeT is believed to be involved."
Indian military and police officials say they are seeing alarming changes in the decades-old tactics that Kashmiri rebels and Pakistani military supporters have generally used in the past.
This year's fighting between India and Pakistan has unusually extended southward from the Line of Control to border areas that are not disputed by India. And while Pakistani troops in the past would fire across the border to provide cover for infiltrating militants, such fire is now coming regardless of any rebels being present, according to police chief Ashok Prasad in Indian Kashmir.
There appears to be little appetite for a full-blown conflict within either government, and Pakistani officials dismissed the idea that they would want to raise border tensions by sending militants across into Kashmir.
"Even if we are mad, why should we be creating trouble at this point of time when we are in so much trouble ourselves?" said retired Pakistani diplomat Riaz Hussain Khokhar, who served as ambassador to India and as foreign secretary helped negotiate the 2003 cease-fire. Pakistan is dealing with its own domestic insurgencies, a moribund economy and fears that Afghanistan will implode when the U.S. combat mission ends. "There is no effort on the part of Pakistan to send in militants at this point of time."
Pakistan's Nawaz Sharif and India's Manmohan Singh agreed in September to work on reducing border hostilities.
But even as they spoke, their armies were lobbing mortar shells at each other. The next month, the fighting spread to southern border areas that had been largely peaceful for a decade, prompting officials on both sides to call it the most serious fighting in a decade.
"We probably are not looking at a return to the levels of violence witnessed a decade ago," Tankel said. However, "even a small uptick in raw numbers could have significant political, economic and security consequences."
Pakistan's new government has said it wants to ask the U.S. for help in resolving the conflict, but India balks at the idea of intervention in what it considers an internal and bilateral dispute.
Kashmiri politicians challenging India's sovereignty over the region accuse the Indian army of using Pakistani interference, infiltration and militancy to justify its continued military presence, and worry that the renewed violence will worsen the situation.
"This is a bloody line that has consumed lives of thousands of Kashmiris, Indians and Pakistanis," said Syed Ali Geelani, who was freed last week after more than 200 days of house arrest. "Kashmir is under India's military occupation, which needs to end."
Katy Daigle reported from New Delhi. Associated Press writers Matthew Pennington in Washington, DC, and Rebecca Santana in Islamabad contributed to this story.