Lashkar-e-Taiba threatens more violence in Kashmir

March 25, 2009

The Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based militant group blamed by India for last November’s assault on Mumbai, has threatened more violence in Kashmir after a five-day gunbattle that killed 25 people, including eight Indian troops.

A spokesman for the group, speaking from an undisclosed location, said: “India should understand the freedom struggle in Kashmir was not over, it is active with full force.”

The threat by the Lashkar-e-Taiba, if followed through, would be a new headache for the United States, which would like to see an improvement in relations between India and Pakistan as it overhauls its approach to both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Washington has been careful to avoid any suggestion that it would intervene overtly in the Kashmir dispute, in what has been seen as an acknowledgement of Indian sensitivities about outside interference.  But Indian newspapers have reported that the United States has nonetheless been quietly leaning on India to reduce tensions on Pakistan’s eastern border so that its army can concentrate on fighting militants on its western border with Afghanistan.

And former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, leading a review of strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan expected to be released this week, has suggested in the past that a resolution of the Kashmir dispute would help ease tensions across the region.

In an interview with Germany’s Spiegel magazine last December, he said that for those involved in global jihad, the Kashmir cause is in many ways “like a second Palestine”.  Solving the conflict and bringing peace between Israelis and Palestinians, he said, would help dry up support for al Qaeda. “We are not going to get al Qaeda to change its mind. These are fanatics. What we want to do, though, is to separate the fanatics from the rest of the Islamic world.”

So the last thing Washington needs is any new flare-up in violence in Kashmir that would push back any chance of resolving the dispute and raise tensions along the India-Pakistan border. (Before a ceasefire was agreed at the end of 2003, the Indian and Pakistani armies fought near daily artillery duels across the Line of Control dividing Kashmir, which India said were meant to prevent infiltration of militants into Kashmir from the Pakistani side.)

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On the subject of the review of strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, special envoy Richard Holbrooke made a couple of intriguing comments in an interview with the BBC this week. 

First he said openly that the Afghan Taliban were based in Quetta in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.  “Quetta appears to be the headquarters for the leaders of the Taliban and some of the worst people in the world,” he said.  Many analysts have assumed for some time that the Afghan Taliban are operating out of Quetta — so much so that the New York Times suggested earlier this month that the United States might extend its attacks on militant targets on the Pakistan border into Baluchistan. But it’s quite new for U.S. policymakers to talk publicly about the Taliban’s presence in Quetta.

Foreign Policy picked up on a similar statement last week by Lieutenant General Michael Maples, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.  “Now that the U.S. government has gone on record that the Quetta shura … is operating openly in Pakistan, it won’t be long before policymakers are asked some pretty tough and uncomfortable questions,” it said. “Like, what are you doing about the fact that our own government now admits that the Taliban’s nerve center is functioning not in Pakistan’s tribal areas, but in the capital of a major Pakistani province…”

Secondly, the BBC quoted Holbrooke as saying that conflicting reports that Taliban leader Mullah Omar himself may support dialogue was a “mysterious issue” that U.S. officials were ”trying to learn more about”.  I’ve discussed the question of talks with the Taliban in an earlier post but I thought that response from Holbrooke was curious.

For an interesting take on the possibility of talks with the Taliban, Jean MacKenzie, program director for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Afghanistan has published an interview in the Global Post with two former high-ranking Taliban officials who both said dialogue was feasible.

She also has a separate story on an interview with the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan.  There’s a lot in there worth reading, though I was struck by his comment that “you cannot talk to the Taliban from a position of strength. We are Afghans. If we are in a lower position, and the enemy acts tough, we will act 10 times tougher.”  That is perhaps one answer to those who say the United States should improve its military position against the Taliban first before it considers dialogue.

(Reuters photos: Women mourn at the funeral of a Kashmiri Muslim soldier/Fayaz Kabli; and U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke)

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