A rapprochement between nuclear- armed rivals Pakistan and India is bad news for thousands of militants who have spent the past decade trying to oust Indian security forces from the disputed Kashmir Valley.
One of them, Iqbal Meer, now spends most of his time with friends in the basement of a home outside this city. The walls are plastered with posters of militants fighting in Kashmir. "My life is to wage jihad and liberate my motherland," says the well-built Mr. Meer, who belongs to Hizb-ul Mujahideen, the largest Kashmiri militant group. "I want to fight. I cannot be a silent spectator of a puppet show being played between Pakistan and India with the strings pulled by America."
Since Sept. 11, the US and India have increased pressure on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to withdraw support of Kashmiri militants and to end infiltrations across the Line of Control (LoC), which divides the valley into Pakistan and Indian-administered Kashmir. During a recent visit to Pakistan, US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said Mr. Musharraf assured him that "there was nothing happening" across the LoC and that any guerrilla camps that still existed "would be gone tomorrow."
This trend is worrisome for militants like Meer, who say they are being reduced to mute spectators as Washington pushes India and Pakistan to reduce tensions that brought both nations to the brink of war last year.
"We have sacrificed our lives, the lives of our relatives and friends. We have left behind our life in search of a dream to liberate Kashmir. We have carried guns instead of books. How can we be pragmatic now," says Zulfiqar, also known as Abu Ammar, a veteran fighter of the Hizb-ul Mujahideen. "My younger brother is missing. My nephew has been killed. When I left my home and last saw my daughter, she was just a 4-year-old girl. Now she is preparing to go to college. If Islamabad bows to the pressures, then it will be betrayal."
Some 5,000 Kashmiri militants belonging to various guerrilla groups - primarily Hizb-ul Mujahideen and Jamiat-ul Mujahideen - have been operating in Pakistan-administered Kashmir since 1989. Indians say 40,000 people have died in the violence since then, but Kashmiri fighters put the death toll around 80,000.
In addition, large Pakistan-based pan-Islamic groups such as Lashkar-i Tayyaba are actively involved in fighting inside Indian-administered Kashmir. These groups fought alongside the mujahideen during the first Afghan War in the 1980s. Pakistan has recently banned such pan-Islamic groups, but they now operate under new names.
Pakistan has maintained that it provides only moral support for the Kashmiris. But "Pakistan is believed to have backed Kashmiri militants and Pakistani holy warriors with logistic and financial support [as well]," says Arif Jamal, an Islamabad journalist and expert on extremist groups.
However, due to massive deployment of Indian and Pakistani troops on both sides of the LoC, cross-border infiltration has decreased in recent weeks, according to Kashmiri fighters. If the "moral" support ends, then in all probability, any supply line will be cut off, which may strangle the mujahideen fighting Indian forces within Indian administered Kashmir itself.
"They (the Kashmiri fighters) are disillusioned because Pakistan has never publicly admitted its support, which means they can withdraw it easily under present international pressure," Mr. Jamal says.
Some observers say the relationship between militants and Islamabad won't change overnight. "The unholy alliance between Pakistan's security agencies and jihadi groups is old and has ideological bonds," says Lahore-based political analyst and peace activist, Imtiaz Alam.
"With changing scenarios all over the world, there has been a change of minds but there is a need of a change of hearts towards jihadis by sympathizers among Pakistan's defense establishment," he says.
Pakistan's jihadi culture has been in place for more than two decades. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Muslim militant groups were funded and trained by the US and other Western nations. After Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan, these trained militants relocated to Kashmir.
Despite a US ban on Hizb-ul Mujahideen and Jamiatul Mujahideen, Pakistan has never outlawed Kashmiri militant groups. "Hizb is a Kashmir-based organization and the authority to ban it lies with the Kashmir government" says the federal interior minister, Faisal Saleh Hayat. "However, Pakistan's policy is crystal clear. The government will not allow any individual or group of organizations to use its territory for launching terrorist attacks on a third country," he says.
Pakistan-controlled Kashmir is also known as Azad (independent) Kashmir. It has its own prime minister and parliament and deploys thousands of troops along the LoC. Kashmiri fighters used to have training camps and offices there, but Islamabad says it has now dismantled such guerrilla operations.
In the past, talks between Pakistan and India have foundered on the issue of Kashmir. But New Delhi and Islamabad have made significant headway in recent weeks. Tuesday, Pakistan named a new ambassador to India. Both sides agreed to restore bus, rail, and air links. And, most significantly, both countires seem willing to talk on all issues including Kashmir.
Kashmiri commanders say they are adopting a wait-and-see policy. "If the militancy ends, what will bring India to the negotiating table? There is no other tactic. India will have a free hand to kill and further suppress Muslims in the valley," says Ghulam Hussain Kiyani, known as the intellectual voice of Kashmiri militant groups. "We are not against talks, but with India guns, should not be silent."