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Apr 28, 2008 | 22:58 GMT

8 mins read

Pakistan: A New Phase in the Militant Proxy Saga

Pakistan is seeing the reappearance of several banned Kashmiri militant groups, according to an April 25 media report. The reappearance of these groups is part of a broader shift in the long history of Pakistan's involvement with militant proxies.
Several banned Kashmiri militant groups are resurfacing in major Pakistani cities, Pakistan's Dawn News reported April 25. Members of prominent groups like Harkat ul Mujahideen, al Badr, Harkat-e-Islami, Jaish-e-Muhammad and Hizbul Mujahideen reportedly are setting up new offices, changing their names, putting up flags and posters, holding large rallies, and delivering sermons in mosques to publicize the groups' activities. The news channel specified that Harkat ul Mujahideen has relocated its base from Islamabad to the city outskirts in Rawalpindi and is considering renaming itself Ansar-ul-Ummah, while Jaish-e-Muhammad is still deciding on a name change. The report also claimed that most of this activity is taking place in the port city of Karachi, and that the groups probably will be reactivated by mid-May. These groups are seizing the opportunity to come out from hiding while the newly elected Pakistani government remains in flux. But this apparent revitalization of Pakistan's Kashmiri militant groups probably also is taking place with a wink and a nod from the country's military and security apparatus. To understand the drivers behind this strategy, Pakistan's history of militant management must be examined more closely.

The Birth of Pakistani Militant Networks

Straddling the Persian Gulf, Central Asia and India, Pakistan is located in a strategic stretch of the Islamic belt. The country's Islamist-nationalist foundation combined with a mountainous and sparsely populated periphery creates a natural hotbed for Islamist militancy that Islamabad has long made use of in its dealings with its neighbors. India has been Pakistan's primary threat since their 1947 partition. After Pakistan lost its eastern foothold in 1971 with the independence of Bangladesh, it became all the more imperative for Pakistan to bring Afghanistan under its control. There existed a real fear in Islamabad that India would bolster Pashtun nationalist movements in Afghanistan, which could reclaim Pashtun territory in Pakistan and thereby put a stranglehold on Islamabad. As a result, Pakistan must use its ties among the Pashtun majority in Afghanistan to downplay nationalism, play up Islamism, and ensure a Pakistan-friendly government is in control of Kabul. This explains the Pakistani bid to undermine the Indian- and Soviet-friendly Marxist regime in the 1980s, and later bring the Taliban to power in 1996. At the same time, Pakistan has a strategic need to maintain a solid stake in Kashmir. Pakistan, which shares an affinity with the majority-Muslim population in Kashmir, needs the territory to buffer against India. Pakistan must also protect its main water supply, the Indus River basin, which passes through Kashmir from its headwaters in Tibet. The territorial tug-of-war between India and Pakistan thus provided Pakistan with a framework to build up a militant proxy base designed to undermine Indian stability. In 1989, efforts by the Pakistani intelligence agency known as Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to establish these Kashmiri groups came to light when a popular uprising — swiftly exploited by Pakistan — broke out in the Vale of Kashmir against Indian rule. The uprising allowed militant cells steadily to make their way into India from Pakistan to carry out attacks. Pakistan's use of these groups reached a peak in the 1999 Kargil war, when Islamist Kashmiri insurgents under the thumb of the ISI helped Pakistani forces infiltrate the Line of Control into Indian territory. New Delhi reflexively began to blame Islamabad for each new attack in India, citing its support for Kashmiri militants. (click image to enlarge)

Pakistan's Post 9/11 World

But 9/11 changed all that. Soon after al Qaeda moved against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, the Pakistani government came under the spotlight for its ties to al Qaeda and the Taliban. Under pressure from both the United States and India, the Pakistani government had to work to create the impression that it was indeed distancing itself from these militant proxies, including those fighting on behalf of Kashmir. As a result, many of these groups officially were banned by the Pakistani government, and thus were forced to go underground and operate under different names. Pakistan intended for the crackdown to occur mainly on the surface, however. Every now and then a Kashmiri militant leader would be placed under house arrest and then released a few days later. Government addresses were made on television condemning several of the militant groups while the militant leaders continued to collect donations through charity organizations. Official bans were announced on the groups' activities while attacks in Kashmir continued, albeit at a lower tempo. While Islamabad had to keep up appearances with New Delhi and Washington, it also had a strategic need to maintain a working relationship with these groups both for its own security as well as for its grand strategy in dealing with Afghanistan and India. But over time, al Qaeda's influence over these groups expanded, making it all the more difficult for Pakistan to distinguish between the "good" and "bad" jihadists. The groups handled by the ISI either complied with Islambad's wishes and brought down the level of attacks, went rogue, joined up with transnational jihadist forces like al Qaeda, or tried to strike a tenuous balance between the ISI and al Qaeda. As a result, Islamabad's grip over these sundry Islamist militants gradually loosened, and the militants that it formally had on its payroll started turning on the state. Pakistan now has reached the stage where its primary threat has emanated from its own borders, namely, a raging Islamist insurgency seeking to topple the Pakistani state and establish an Islamic polity. Political developments over the past year, particularly the debacle of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's efforts to contain dissent within the judiciary and his Red Mosque crackdown only have exacerbated the backlash from the government's anti-militant maneuvers. It was thus only a matter of time before the military and security establishment reassessed their militant management strategy.

Time for a Shift in Strategy?

At this point, Pakistan needs to put a lid on the jihadist presence concentrated in its Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the North-West Frontier Province and the Pashtun corridor in northwestern Balochistan province. Naturally, this is easier said than done, and the newly elected government in Islamabad still is trying to figure out exactly how to go about striking the nearly impossible balance between negotiations with militant leaders and airstrikes against militant strongholds. But a key part of this strategy does involve shifting the militant focus from Afghanistan back to Kashmir, which explains the re-emergence of Kashmiri militant groups in major Pakistani cities. There is a constant ebb and flow between the militant theaters in Kashmir and the tribal areas along the Pakistani-Afghan border. Recruiting, training, funding and supplying takes places on both sides, making it just as easy to funnel a Pashtun militant to the Vale of Kashmir as it is to funnel a Punjabi militant to Afghanistan. Pakistan's present need to constrict the militant flow to its problem areas along the Afghan border does not necessarily mean it can or will cut ties completely with these groups. Instead, the ISI is more likely to point to employment opportunities in a more favorable militant atmosphere, such as Kashmir, where it can shore up its links with select groups and start to rein in those that have gone rogue.

The View from New Delhi

The revitalization of Pakistan's Kashmiri militant node naturally is a cause for alarm in New Delhi. Since 9/11, India has been quite content to see Pakistan too busy to pursue an aggressive strategy in Kashmir. But if Pakistan is now making a concerted effort to shift the militant tide to Kashmir, current Indian military strategies will need to shift as well. Oddly enough, however, the sight of Kashmiri militant groups openly operating in Karachi and Islamabad with the ISI's knowledge may end up working in India's favor. India, after all, is much more comfortable with the idea of Pakistan reasserting control over its militant proxies so that it has someone to blame when an attack occurs. Kashmiri groups with cells operating in India increasingly have taken on a jihadist tone in their attacks and rhetoric over the past few years, further obscuring the link between the groups and their alleged Pakistani handlers. If Pakistan manages to reassert control over these groups, India will have a relatively easier time managing its so-called nonstate actor threat with Islamabad.

Just the Beginning

Pakistan is entering a new phase in its militant proxy saga, and the reported re-emergence of Kashmiri groups in Pakistan is likely just the beginning. It is one thing to see these groups putting up banners while the ISI is watching, but it is quite another to see the ISI return to commissioning attacks in Kashmir. While Islamabad needs to reduce the pressure on its border with Afghanistan, the Pakistani government also cannot afford to rock the boat too much with India, particularly as the United States is showing a serious interest in developing closer ties with New Delhi. But the jihadist insurgency in Pakistan is a critical threat to Pakistan's stability, a threat that cannot be dealt with solely through airstrikes or two-week truces. If Pakistan is going to get its house back in order, it needs to reorganize its militant priorities.

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