Pressure is mounting on Pakistan to contain militants itching for a fight with arch-nemesis India amid growing calls for action in its escalating dispute with New Delhi over Kashmir.
Only last week, hundreds rallied in Pakistani Kashmir, calling for armed retaliation over India’s decision to revoke the special autonomy granted to its portion of the Muslim-majority region.
Delhi’s move earlier this month upended a decades-old paradigm with nuclear-armed rival Pakistan, which also claims the former princely state, and left Islamabad scrambling for international support against the move.
But in the mosques and marketplaces of Muzaffarabad in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, the calls for jihad are gaining momentum – even as analysts warn that any militant violence could backfire on Islamabad.
Radicalizing a new generation
“If India doesn’t stop the oppression then, God willing, it will find us there with guns,” protester Tariq Ismail told AFP at a march organized by the US-designated terrorist group Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.
Residents elsewhere in the city suggested that India’s move was set to radicalize a new generation, years after the insurgency that began in the 1980s in Indian-held Kashmir claimed the first of tens of thousands of lives.
“I have six children. I will send them for jihad … God willing our morale is gaining momentum,” said Muhammad Amjad, a 47-year-old former militant.
Bilouri Begum, 41, lost her husband, cousin and nephew to the earlier fighting.
“I brought up my sons. God willing, I will send them (for jihad) and will also go with them,” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks.
The sentiment was not limited to the fringes.
Support for violence
Pakistan’s most high-profile news anchor, Hamid Mir, hosted three former Pakistani diplomats on his show on Geo News this week, all of whom supported violent resistance in Indian-held Kashmir.
“Even if people go from Pakistan (to join) a legitimate resistance, that’s legal,” argued former ambassador to the US Ashraf Qazi.
Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since independence in 1947. They have fought two full-scale wars and countless skirmishes over it.
Washington and New Delhi have long accused Islamabad of fanning the insurgency in Indian-held Kashmir, and of weaponizing jihadist groups as proxies to attack India.
The deadliest such attack came in Mumbai in 2008, when militants from Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba killed more than 160 people.
Any fresh militant attack at this delicate moment “will have severe implications for Pakistan,” security analyst Amir Rana told AFP.
Insurgents nearly triggered an all-out war in February after a suicide bombing claimed by Pakistan-based militants in Indian Kashmir sparked tit-for-tat air strikes – the first between nuclear-armed powers.
Waiting for an opportunity
A militant strike would probably hit Pakistan’s economy hard, as it balances a new IMF bailout and tries to avoid being blacklisted by a terror financing watchdog later this year.
Rana warned that India was waiting for “any opportunity” to exploit Pakistan’s history with militancy.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has already warned that India could stage a deceptive “false flag” operation in order to justify attacking Pakistan, vowing to “fight until the end” if that happens.
“Any jihadist activity in Kashmir will cause huge damage to Pakistan both diplomatically and economically,” analyst Khalid Ahmed said.
The powerful Pakistani military has long held Kashmir as a defining issue against India. But whether the Pakistani security establishment has the militants firmly on a leash is debatable.
“I don’t think the jihadists are under the full control of the government, they never were,” Ahmed added.
Kashmir militancy expert Myra MacDonald likened Islamabad’s hold on the militants to “turning on and off a leaky tap – no matter what Pakistan does, you will still get some water dripping from it.”
It is possible for the military to tighten its grip, she argued, pointing to a period of peace negotiations from 2003-2007, when violence dropped. But Kashmir tends to be unpredictable.
“In the run-up to the Mumbai attacks, for example, the jihadi groups were getting restless and needed a spectacular attack to keep their supporters happy,” she explained.
“Like big corporates, these groups need to advertise their brand from time to time in order to get money and support. That risk will remain until they are fully dismantled.”