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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 April, 2005, 11:29 GMT 12:29 UK
Pakistan: Where have the militants gone?

By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC News, Pakistan-administered Kashmir

There has been total silence from militants in Muzaffarabad
Wednesday's militant attack in the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, Srinagar, the day before the historic bus journey linking the divided territory of Kashmir, draws attention to a contrasting political temperature in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.

The bus from Srinagar has been described as a coffin by four little known militant groups on the Indian side. They have warned passengers to stay away from the journey.

But on the Pakistan side, there is total silence from the militants who were till recently vociferously opposing the peace process between Pakistan and India.

Pakistani militant groups fear that any attempts at normalisation that are not specifically focused on the issue of Kashmir would sideline the "core issue" that has kept the two subcontinental adversaries at loggerheads for over half a century.

Even the opposition to the bus service from Pakistan's mainstream religious parties - who have for long been a kind of a political front for the militants - has been somewhat muted.

'American gimmick'

Many among them have described the initiative as something akin to "offering a soother to a baby in serious pain". Most have dismissed it as a gimmick orchestrated at the behest of the Americans.

President Musharraf
Musharraf has stepped up a campaign against extremists

But there have been no major public rallies on the issue anywhere in Pakistan, least of all in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir which is gearing up to see off its first bus to Srinagar in nearly 60 years.

The silence is in stark contrast to the highly turbulent period immediately after the 11 September terror attacks.

Kashmiri militants had then stepped up their activities in what eventually proved to be a vain bid to convince the world that their struggle should not be equated to terrorism.

No wonder then, that analysts and journalists converging on Muzaffarabad are repeatedly asking the question: Where have all the militants gone?

Increasing tension

The answer may lie in the steadily increasing tensions between Pakistan's religious parties and the government of President Pervez Musharraf.

Gen Musharraf was ratified by the parliament as Pakistan's president in 2003 with the help of the religious parties who had bagged an unprecedented presence in the legislature in the October 2002 elections.

Not only was the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) - a six party religious alliance - able to win about one-fifth of the seats in the National Assembly, it also succeeded in forming provincial governments in two of Pakistan's four provinces.

Predictably though, the arrangement came under severe strain as Gen Musharraf's government - in alliance with the US administration - stepped up its campaign against religious extremists.

Protesters in Lahore
A radical Islamic alliance has protested against Gen Musharraf'
Pakistani security officials say that the last straw came with the December 2003 twin attacks on the president.

"It personalised Pakistan's war on terror to a battle between Gen Musharraf and the extremists," says one security official.

Pakistani investigators were able to identify the president's attackers as members of an extremist group that was believed to be linked to Kashmir.

"After that, whatever historic understanding or tolerance that may have been there between the Pakistani authorities and those involved in the militancy in Kashmir simply vanished into thin air," says the official.

Three categories

In the subsequent rethinking that took place within Pakistan's security apparatus, religious militants and their political sympathisers were divided into three categories.

One was the "hard core" which had to be eliminated using the full force of the state backed by sophisticated tracking technology provided by the Americans.

The second category was that of 'borderline militants' - essentially meaning people who could be convinced that it was perhaps time to re-evaluate the need for armed struggle.

Such people, among others, include members of the Pakistan-based Muttahida Jihad Council - an umbrella organisation representing all the militant groups directly or indirectly involved in the Kashmir imbroglio.

And the third - comprising most of Pakistan's mainstream religious parties - was simply branded "a nuisance".

As negotiations for the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar bus service matured, Pakistani authorities went into an overdrive to ensure that all these categories were conveyed their options.

Pakistani security officials say they are confident that all these groups have understood the situation.

There are visible signs that the gravity of the situation may indeed have dawned upon them.

Syed Salahuddin, who heads the Muttahida Jihad Council and is easily accessible to the media at most times, has suddenly dropped out of sight.

The MMA, whose constituent parties had always treated Kashmir as the backbone of their politics, are spending more time stopping women from running marathons than protesting against a bus service which it still believes will do "more harm to the Kashmir cause than good".

And the actual fighters, who were never shy of the media even in most trying circumstances, are nowhere in evidence in any part of the Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

The only thing that is in evidence in Muzaffarabad these days is the excitement over the revival of a bus service that had stopped over half a century ago.

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