Fidayeen power

Published : Jul 18, 2003 00:00 IST

An Indian soldier lights the pyre of a colleague, one of the 12 soldiers killed in the attack by militants at the Sujwan Army camp in Jammu on June 29. - AFP

An Indian soldier lights the pyre of a colleague, one of the 12 soldiers killed in the attack by militants at the Sujwan Army camp in Jammu on June 29. - AFP

GENERAL PERVEZ MUSHARRAF watched stone-faced as U.S. President George Bush announced a relatively meagre $3 billion aid package for Pakistan, but shot down its demands for F-16 combat jets. It left the General open to a barrage from his domestic critics, Islamist and democratic, who alleged that he had given away too much to the U.S., receiving nothing much in return. Four days after the Bush-Musharraf press conference at Camp David, two terrorists cut the perimeter fence of a camp of the 36 Infantry Brigade in Sujwan on the outskirts of Jammu. The terrorists made their way to a barracks, and shot dead a dozen soldiers, mostly in their sleep.

Two major explanations have been put out for the timing of the suicide attack. First, it took place on the day President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was due to visit the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar: the shrine is a political and religious signifier of unequalled import in the Kashmir Valley. Second, commentators speculated, the attack could have been intended to signal that Musharraf simply will not be able to contain the jehadi groups until India and the U.S. gave still larger concessions to Pakistan. Commentators in Pakistan pointed out that even the U.S. Central Command conceded that Pakistan had lost $10 billion by allowing the use of its air and land by the U.S. forces in Pakistan. Zia-ul-Haq, it was pointed out, had secured aid worth $4.2 billion and 40 F-16s for his acquiescence to the U.S. war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, while Benazir Bhutto secured $4.6 billion and 60 F-16s.

Both explanations are plausible, but not wholly satisfying. For one, the theory that the Sujwan attack was intended to send a signal to India rests on the assumption that jehadi groups can strike at will, and at intensity levels of their choosing. That simply is not the case. Since January 2003, seven attempted fidayeen attacks have been reported in Jammu and Kashmir, six of them on security force installations. In only one incident was the number of security personnel killed greater than the number of terrorists eliminated. This particular incident was on April 25, when a Border Security Force (BSF) camp near Bandipora was attacked, leading to the loss of three soldiers and the elimination of two terrorists. In several instances - an assault on the 24 Rashtriya Rifles camp at Dragmulla, Kupwara on April 29, and an attack on May 1 on the BSF near Tral - the attackers were shot, with no losses at all for the security forces. In one instance in February, the Army intercepted and killed Peshawar resident Rizwan Khan even before he could start his planned suicide strike near Jammu.

Put crudely, setting off bombs on buses or killing villagers are time-tested and relatively reliable means of sending signals: fidayeen attacks, for all their drama, are just not reliable or effective enough. Over the years, the Indian security forces have developed fairly well-drilled systems to deal with suicide attacks, which the figures show have generally operated with success. An attempt made on April 26 on the Radio Kashmir building in Srinagar sought to mimic the tactics used to attack Parliament House - using an explosives-laden car with an official beacon. Central Reserve Police Force guards, however, refused to allow the car into the complex. This compelled the terrorists to detonate it outside the building. Three terrorists were killed, with none of their objectives achieved. That fidayeen tactics are losing their shock value is evident from the fact that while 2001 registered 28 fidayeen attacks, the number fell to just 10 in 2002.

An internal investigation has been ordered to find out just why the perimeter guards in Sujwan were unable to detect the terrorists who cut the fence, but it is clear that the lapse is not part of a general pattern. What does seem probable is that the Lashkar-e-Toiba, which is believed by intelligence officials to have carried out the attack, used its not-inconsiderable assets in Jammu to plan the attack and provide shelter to the fidayeen in the vicinity of the Sujwan Army camp. Just last June, the Jammu and Kashmir Police had arrested Pakistani national Zulfikar Rana, who also used the name Mir Husain. A top Lashkar operative, Rana had purchased a large home in Jammu's Ustad Mohalla area, which is a short walk from the Sujwan camp. He spent over Rs.20 lakhs on the home, and for acquiring fake identification papers and state subject status. Posing as an inconspicuous businessman, Rana ran a broad Lashkar network, operating in Rajouri, Poonch and Doda.

But the fact remains that the Sujwan camp attack shattered a lull that set in after April, when the India-Pakistan peace process seemed briefly to be gathering momentum. Now Musharraf may well acquiesce in a sharp escalation in hostilities, hoping to convince the U.S. that he can only rein in the Islamist groups if India makes significant progress in making concessions on Jammu and Kashmir. Musharraf's tactic has been to make covert alliances with the jehadi groups, and use the threat they present to seek concessions from the U.S. Now, it seems, the jehadis are starting to resent being used, and are asking for payback. In a June 29 television interview, top Islamist leader Fazl-ul-Rahman described the General as "the American ambassador".

There are also signs of dissent in the Pakistan Army. According to an expert in Pakistan-related affairs, B. Raman, Lieutenant-General Mohammad Aziz, a senior military figure known for his Islamist leanings who was shunted upstairs under U.S. pressure in 2001, has begun to campaign against Musharraf. Accompanied by Major-General Mohammad Anwar Khan, the President of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Aziz has been holding meetings in the remote tribal regions of northern Pakistan. His speeches, Raman writes, "have been virulently critical of India and Hinduism and also give hints of his disapproval of Musharraf's refusal to shed the post of COAS." The Islamist Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, which Musharraf helped come to power, is now growling at its creator, and is demanding that the General demit office either as President or as Chief of the Army Staff.

It is much too early to say, of course, whether the honeymoon between Musharraf and the mullahs is truly coming to an end. What is clear, however, is that Pakistan is once again in a state of flux - and that, as a consequence, Jammu and Kashmir is more than likely soon to be subject to uncomfortably interesting times.

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