What was the message behind the bombing in Pakistani Kashmir?

June 28, 2009

The suicide bomb attack on the Pakistan Army in Pakistani Kashmir on Friday was not only unprecedented; it also raised questions about the state of militancy in Pakistan.

At its simplest level, the first suicide bombing in Pakistan’s side of Kashmir was seen as a reaction by the Pakistani Taliban to Pakistan’s military campaign against them in South Waziristan. “The militants are hurting and they are reacting. And this is a reaction to the successful operations we’ve had in Waziristan and we’ve had in the Malakand division,” Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told Reuters.

The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir, while a government official described the bomber as a Taliban militant from Waziristan.

What is puzzling, however, is the decision to target Pakistani Kashmir. While there are historical links between Pakistan’s frontier tribesmen and Kashmir dating back to partition, as discussed by Indian strategic analyst B. Raman in this article, the region has until now been the preserve of Punjab-based militant groups focused on fighting India in Indian Kashmir. The biggest of these, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), has avoided staging attacks on Pakistani targets, and of all the militant groups operating in Pakistan, it would be expected to be critical of attacks on the military.

Why, therefore, would the Pakistani Taliban attack the Pakistan Army on the LeTs home turf? And why would Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud risk alienating the LeT — blamed for last November’s attacks on Mumbai — by sending one of his men to launch the first suicide bombing in Pakistani Kashmir and then openly claiming credit for it? An accident of the mayhem spreading in Pakistan, a sign of greater cooperation between the two groups, or a deliberate message from him to the LeT?

There has been speculation in the past among security analysts about how far the Pakistan Army and its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency have been using contacts in the LeT — which the ISI once nurtured to fight Indian rule in Kashmir — to seek information to use against the Pakistani Taliban and its al Qaeda allies.  That speculation dates back to the arrest of  senior al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah in an LeT safe house in Faisalbad in 2002.

But in the murky world of Pakistani militancy, nobody has ever been able to work out exactly how the different groups fit together, and in particular on the extent to which they shift between cooperation on a shared agenda and competition between their many different objectives – from Afghanistan to Kashmir to global jihad to targetting the Pakistani state itself.

The attack in Muzaffarabad probably provides an important clue. What is much harder, however, is to work out how to decipher that clue.

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