Originally Published 2013-06-26 00:00:00 Published on Jun 26, 2013
The apparent role of Lashkar-e-Tayyeba in the terrorist attack in Srinagar on June 24, killing 8 jawans, has raised several questions which may sour the tone and tenor of New Delhi's renewed engagement with Islamabad.
Kashmir attack: Ominous signs
The apparent role of Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) in the terrorist attack in Srinagar, which killed eight Indian soldiers on June 24, has raised several questions which may sour the tone and tenor of New Delhi's renewed engagement with Islamabad.

The expectations of a better bilateral relationship raised in the wake of the return of Nawaz Sharif as the Prime Minister of Pakistan are likely to be dimmed if the terrorist group, operating out of Sharif's stronghold, Punjab, is not reigned in effectively.

There are substantial reasons to believe that LeT, a transnational terrorist group accused of the 2008 Mumbai attacks with strong links to Pakistan Army, is behind the attack. The modus operandi and the target are two such indicators. The focus of LeT's attacks in Kashmir has almost always been the security forces. Outside Kashmir, the terrorist group has targeted mass transit and markets. The timing, the route of entry and escape and the method of attack indicate a detailed planning and reconnaissance. The hijacking of the car, blocking the military vehicle and escaping overcoming armed pickets is tactics which LeT cadres have imbibed from their experiences within Pakistan and in Afghanistan.

Another indictor is the emerging coalition of terrorist groups tasked to revive terrorism in Kashmir. The first clear signs of such a coalition was noticed within weeks of the Mumbai attacks when Hizb-ul Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammad and LeT got together in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) to work out a joint strategy to keep the "Kashmir Jihad" alive. Since then, there have been frequent reports about the groups training and planning together to revive terrorism in Kashmir. These groups have also been moving money through shared channels, an indication of the level of cooperation.

Although there is no evidence whether these groups have formed an umbrella group for better synergy, LeT supremo Hafiz Saeed seems to be in the lead. Saeed has both money and clout to assume the leadership position. Saeed's loyalty and proximity to Pakistan Army makes him indispensable in reviving terrorism in Kashmir and elsewhere in India.

An obvious indicator is the sudden flurry of activity by LeT in Pakistan occupied Kashmir and the group's internal fissures over "Kashmir jihad". Saeed and his group were forced to lie low after the Mumbai attacks. The army was neither interested in putting Saeed behind bars nor in dismantling the LeT terrorist infrastructure which had been of considerable use against India, and Afghanistan. LeT was a key "strategic asset" and had its uses even within Pakistan to negotiate or neutralise insurgent, rebel and extremist groups inimical to Pakistan Army.

LeT has been working for the past several months to revive its links to Kashmiri militants. In December last, members of the All Party Hurriyat Conference, an umbrella group of militants in Kashmir, had met Saeed in Lahore where the latter asked them to help his group revive "jihad" in Kashmir. With Saeed was Hizb-ul Mujahideen leader Syed Salahuddin.

Early June, Saeed's Twitter, Facebook and blog accounts got flooded with "Kashmir". The social media outreach was a precursor to his whirlwind tour of PoK-Rawalkot, Muzaffarabad and Kalabagh. His message to his eager audience was hardly subtle-the only way to deal with India was through jihad and not by giving MFN status or working out economic deals.

The big question is whether Saeed had the nod of GHQ in the attack? There will never be any direct evidence of such complicity. But are there circumstantial signals of such a possibility? Perhaps, yes.

The army is not happy with the possibility of a renewed vigour in the bilateral relationship. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been speaking his mind aloud about establishing a deeper and meaningful economic relationship with India. The fact that Army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, chose to advise Sharif to go slow on India during his first meeting, clearly underlines the discomfort in GHQ. The army is also perturbed over India's opposition to its central role in Afghanistan. India has been subtle but insistent on neutralising Pakistan's role in the reconciliation process by supporting an Afghan-led process.

LeT is one of the key "strategic assets " of the army in leveraging events in India and Afghanistan. Saeed is both loyal and an ally and has proved himself time and again to be of immense use to the army. His recent remarks calling other terrorist groups not to target Pakistan and his group's role in attacking the anti-army Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan's recently occupied strategic outpost in Tirah valley confirm his strong links to the military establishment.

Using LeT to spark a new wave of violence in Kashmir can serve Pakistan Army's interests within Pakistan, restrict the new civilian government's overtures to impose authority over military matters and keep India pre-occupied enough to ensure its strategic objectives in Afghanistan.

These developments have an unmistaken sense of déjà vu and can nettle hopes of a meaningful relationship between the two neighbours. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will have to the walk the next step in taming "jihadi" groups like LeT endowed generously by his younger brother's government in Punjab for the past two years. It is difficult but not impossible.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow with Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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