December 2005 News

J&K: The Wrath Of The Lashkar

26 December 2005
South Asia Intelligence Review
Praveen Swami

New Delhi: To most people, the devastation of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) this October was a tragedy that demanded compassion. To the Lashkar-e- Taiba's founder and spiritual mentor, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, it was a divine order to go to war. Pakistan's rulers, he said: were not afraid of Allah but [US President George W.] Bush. At his behest, they wanted to purge our schoolbooks from verses on jihad, befriend India and recognise Israel. They banned all the jihadi outfits and abandoned jihad. They made jihad an abusive term. They blatantly ridiculed the commandments of Allah. Thus they invited the wrath of God in the form of the earthquake. Ever since the Great Kashmir Earthquake of October 8, 2005, the Lashkar has been engaged in a mission to avert further displays of divine wrath. Indian intelligence officials believe that well over a hundred Lashkar cadre have crossed the Line of Control (LoC) thereafter, and if these assessments are correct, the renewed Lashkar build-up would mark the highest level of cross-border infiltration since November 2003, when a ceasefire was established along the LoC. Using mountain hideouts along the arc from Bandipora to Kupwara and Handwara as bases, newly- arrived Lashkar cadre have participated in a series of high-profile fidayeen (suicide squad) attacks in recent weeks. Just what is going on, on the ground? Optimists see no real cause for alarm: the decline in jihadi violence in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), which began after the India-Pakistan 'near-war' of 2001-2002, continues apace. What is also evident, though, is that the decline seems to be reaching sea level. While the drop in violence, measured by indices such as fatalities in the conflict or numbers of violent incidents, was dramatic in the years after the near-war, it has begun to level off in 2005. In some weeks this winter, violence levels have been higher than in 2004, which seems to negate fond hopes that an end to the jihad is in sight. Many Lashkar operatives involved in these attacks appear to have infiltrated into J&K in the wake of the earthquake, using the opportunity offered by the disruption of Indian border defences. Ejaz Ahmad Butt, a Pakistani national arrested in the course of a November 28 fidayeen attack at Srinagar's Lal Chowk, said he had crossed the LoC on October 25 along with six other Lashkar cadre, by cutting the fencing along the LoC. Butt said his group had made three abortive infiltration attempts after the earthquake, turning back fearing interdiction by Indian patrols on two occasions, and being ordered to return by Pakistani troops on another. Other recently arrived Lashkar operatives have used the same route to operate in the Jammu region, to the south. On December 16, the Jammu and Kashmir Police (J&KP) arrested Lashkar operative Samiullah Arain, who had been tasked to execute strikes in the State's winter capital, Jammu. A resident of the Badshahi Masjid area in Lahore, Arain operated under the code- name 'Abu Muslim'. Like Butt, Arain had spent time at hideouts in the Rajwar Forests before being despatched on his mission. Lashkar cells, the October 29 serial bombings in New Delhi make clear, have also been switched on outside J&K. From the testimony of Lashkar organiser Shabbir Bukhari, a Srinagar resident arrested in November 2005 for his role in transporting terrorists into strike positions in the city, it is apparent that the organisation had been working hard to build and maintain new covert cells ever since 2002, to be activated when cadre became available. Investigations into the Arain case also threw up evidence of the activation of new Lashkar cells in the Jammu region. Arain, it transpired, was to be received in Banihal by a long- standing Lashkar operative named Abdul Ghaffar, a resident of the village of Patnala. Ghaffar, who had trained at Lashkar camps in Pakistan since 2001, is also believed to have been despatched across the LoC shortly after the earthquake. Few civilians in J&K would dispute the proposition that the security situation has deteriorated in the wake of the earthquake. Residents of the mountains above Bandipora, for example, have been reporting an increased terrorist presence for several weeks. In November, Army authorities were forced to temporarily close a military-run school for villagers in the small village of Aragam after Lashkar terrorists threatened the students' parents. A Government-run Higher Secondary School in the area was also forced to relocate after the Lashkar denounced the practice of co-education as 'un-Islamic'. One reason for the growing infiltration might lie in problems with patrolling along the LoC. While senior Army officials insist the heightened infiltration is not a consequence of failures in policing the LoC, Indian defences do seem to have suffered some degradation as a consequence of the earthquake. Several dozen bunkers, essential to positioning troops on the high mountains for counter-infiltration patrols, were destroyed during the tremors, along with considerable stretches of counter-infiltration fencing. Field commanders say troops have been reluctant to reoccupy some bunkers because of aftershocks. Two supplementary causes for the unusual intensity of violence this winter might lie in Pakistan. General Pervez Musharraf's legitimacy has been severely eroded by the appalling performance of the Pakistani state in mitigating earthquake- related hardship. Beset by revolts by feudal elites in Balochistan, battling Islamists in the North West Frontier Province, and hard-hit by protest in the Northern Areas, General Musharraf is in no position to act against groups like the Lashkar, which have won enormous public support in PoK because of their well-funded relief efforts. It is also possible to argue that the escalation in violence suits General Musharraf's larger objectives. India has not yielded the kinds of dramatic concessions on J&K he may have wished for. New Delhi has responded with ill-concealed disdain to General Musharraf's successive 'formulae' for forward movement on the 'Kashmir issue', including his so-far-unexplained proposals for 'self-governance'. Given that the absence of forward movement makes General Musharraf increasingly open to criticism from both Islamists and military hawks in Pakistan, the rise in jihadi violence may be intended to signal to New Delhi that it cannot take the post-2002 de-escalation for granted. All these possibilities, however, need to be read against factors intrinsic to the jihad: the fact that the world the Lashkar operates in is a fiction authored by fanaticism. What else does one make of an organisation which proclaims, as the December issue of the Lashkar house organ Voice of Islam does, that the European Union's 'ex-foreign secretary' believes the continent will soon 'be Islamised'? That Prince Charles has secretly embraced Islam? Or that the death of western materialism being imminent, it is 'Islam only which has all the basic ingredients to form the most harmonious and peaceful society that ever came into being in human history'? Put simply, the Lashkar-e-Taiba's headquarters at Muridke is not just a short drive from Lahore, but also at some distance from the real world. Pragmatic motives do indeed inform its recent actions, but the events which have begun to unfold after the Great Earthquake cannot be understood as a response to opportunity alone. For organizations like the Lashkar, the decline in violence after 2001-2002 was no more than a tactical retreat, forced on Pakistan by the vagaries of history. Resuming the jihad in J&K is more than just an opportunity to capitalise on changed circumstances: it is mandated, as Saeed insisted, by God himself. For decades, the United States of America and Europe have allowed Pakistan's military establishment to indulge its Islamists. Some cause or the other - defeating the Soviet Union, the Iranian revolution, the war on terror - has always made it expedient to defer compelling Pakistan to confront the jihadi armies, which threaten not just regional stability, but the country's own future as a modern state. More than once, the West has been stung by the tail of the jihadi scorpion; each time, it has bellowed its wrath, but stopped short of stamping out the reptile. Events after the great earthquake make it imperative for policy-makers in Washington DC and European capitals to contemplate whether this course of action is either useful or wise. By Praveen Swami Deputy Editor and Chief of Bureau, Frontline Magazine.


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