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The "Distraction" that Takes the Heat Off Bin Laden

How better to distract Pakistan’s army from supporting America’s “war on terror” than by promoting, yet again, a war in Kashmir?

Whether or not the mysterious “Hindu” holy men who turned into mass murderers in the slums of Jammu on Saturday night were Islamist gunmen, a suspicion is growing in Pakistan that supporters of Osama bin Laden would be happy to provoke another crisis with India if it relieved the pressure on al-Qa’ida along the Pakistan-Afghan frontier.

In the past two weeks, two major gun battles have been fought in the tribal territories along the Afghan border between Pakistani troops and al-Qa’ida men, in the last of which four Islamists, all apparently from Chechnya, were shot dead near the Jarma Bridge in Kohat.

A Pakistani policeman and a soldier were also killed. The authorities in Islamabad have been boasting that their para-military forces have penetrated some areas of the semi-autonomous tribal territories along the frontier for the first time in 100 years–a claim which probably says as much about the last days of the British Empire as it does about modern Pakistan.

But al-Qa’ida knows that these battles are being encouraged by the FBI, whose officers are urging the Pakistanis to move ever deeper into the hitherto untouchable Pashtun tribal zones whose rule has always been entrusted to local village chieftains.

In recent days, credible reports have described how some local Pakistani tribal elements have been seized by US special forces inside Pakistan, in effect, kidnapping them then taking them for interrogation in Kandahar.

Little wonder, therefore, that al-Qa’ida might want to hit back. By indulging in a new round of guerrilla warfare and killing along the old Line of Control in Kashmir, Islamists can achieve several objectives. They can force President Pervez Musharraf to withdraw his troops from the Afghan border to reinforce the Pakistan army opposite the Indian front line. They can once more force the world’s eyes away from the guerrilla battles in Afghanistan.

Most of all, they can force Washington to pay more attention to the dangers of a nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan than to its continuing and still far-from-successful campaign in Afghanistan.

At the same time, a resurgence of violence in Kashmir reminds 150 million Pakistanis that it is the nation’s most serious wound and the source of constant humiliation. General Musharraf’s latest tinkering with the constitution– along with his continued support for the US–is creating renewed anger in the country’s cities.

The massacre of 24 civilians by attackers dressed as holy men can only concentrate the minds of those who are losing faith in General Musharraf, not to mention those Muslim religious extremists who always opposed him.

It was surely not by coincidence that the attack came at the moment when US and Indian intelligence officers were concluding two days of talks on “counter-terrorism” in Washington, a conference–the fifth of its kind–which ended with a joint statement that “the two sides agreed to further intensify intelligence sharing and co-ordinate action in pursuit of the remains [sic] of al-Qa’ida members and associated terrorist groups”.

In reality, any militant Islamic group can regard itself as part of al-Qa’ida if it wishes–bin Laden’s “foundation” is not a formal institution with card-carrying members– although this is still not apparent to the US.

Saturday’s killings will therefore serve to recreate all the old ambiguities.

India and Pakistan will have to pretend to be more interested in crushing “terrorism” far from Afghanistan than ending the Kashmir dispute, while the Americans–anxious to encourage the continued assistance of both sides against al-Qa’ida–will have to pretend to be more interested in Kashmir than in their “war on terror”. All of which will be good news for Osama bin Laden.

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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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