Pakistan shut down today to allow a variety of religious extremists and groups calling for jihad – including rebranded terror groups – to march, shout, and rally on public roads in the name of Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan region.
Kashmir Solidarity Day has been held annually since 1991, when Pakistan’s military and civilian leadership openly backed an armed resistance in the Indian-controlled Kashmir Valley.
Yet today’s event, declared a public holiday by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, saw a US-designated terrorist group on the streets of Lahore and militants in Karachi calling for open war with India. The celebrations came days after President Obama’s three-day visit to New Delhi, where he was the guest of honor at India’s annual Republic Day.
The holiday appears to undercut Mr. Sharif's stance of “zero tolerance” against support of militancy declared in the aftermath of last month's extremist attack on a military school in Peshawar. The attack left 132 students dead, some of them in elementary school.
Allowing its streets to be filled with extremists for the ostensible cause of Kashmir is widely seen as a signal to the US and its allies that it still needs Pakistan. Some experts see today's show of militancy as a proxy for the government's displeasure with Pakistan's perceived isolation and lack of attention from Obama.
After “Obama’s visit to India, the Pakistan’s security establishment is incensed and therefore wanted to do this show,” says Ayesha Siddiqa, author of "Military, Inc.," a book about Pakistan's most powerful institution.
“The military thinks proxies are the only option,” Ms. Siddiqa adds. "They are kept to bark and scare Indians, and the world. But the scary part is that it doesn't have a clear plan for how to engage with such militants in [the] future, especially when they go independent as we saw in the past,” she says.
Solidarity and conspiracy
The largest rally was held by Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD) in its hometown of Lahore. JuD, which portrays itself as a charity organization, is the reincarnation of the banned terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba. JuD is accused of orchestrating terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008, including the storming of the famous Taj hotel. The US designates it a terrorist group.
JuD chief Hafiz Saeed said in a speech today that, “India and the United States are conspiring against Pakistan. We need to realize this before it is too late. The solidarity which all of Pakistan showed today with Kashmir is a positive sign.”
At an rally in Karachi, Syed Salahuddin, head of the Kashmiri militant organization Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, called for open war with India. The event was organized by Jamat-e-Islami, Pakistan’s largest religious-political party. India and Pakistan have fought two wars since independence in 1947 over Kashmir.
Today’s rallies by religious militants underscored Pakistan’s problem with the so-called "good Taliban" and "bad Taliban."
Good Taliban in Pakistan are groups seen by the Army as supporting its goals, especially in places like Kashmir and Afghanistan. The bad Taliban are jihadis and others opposed to the Pakistani government and who advocate a harsher version of sharia law.
After the Peshawar attack, the Sharif government appeared to put its foot down by forming a “zero tolerance” policy on militancy for both good and bad Taliban, whose members often move between both groups.
Yet the Pakistan Army never joined Sharif in declaring “zero tolerance,” despite the attack on children of military families. Many say the Kashmir rallies show how little attention is paid to the policy.
“There is no change,” says Khadim Hussain, a counterterrorism expert. “We thought that Peshawar would make the Pakistan Army change their policy, but today’s massive rallies, especially by banned militant organizations, reflect no change. They forget that these pro-Pakistan groups and the anti-Pakistan group share ideologies, logistics, and have given refuge to each other many times.”