Yasin Malik, the chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, says… (Annie Gowen/The Washington…)
SRINAGAR, India — After a decade of relative quiet, Indian and Pakistani troops are shelling each other with vigor again along their disputed border, raising tension between the nuclear-armed nations and forcing hundreds of villagers to flee.
Many fear there is worse to come. As the American military withdraws from Afghanistan, some Pakistan-based militants who had been fighting there have pledged to turn their attention to the Kashmir border region — and their old foe, India. Already, there are signs that militant activity is on the rise in this area, with graffiti appearing saying “Welcome Taliban.”
In recent days, the disputed border that separates much of the Indian-controlled state of Jammu and Kashmir from Pakistan has turned into a virtual war zone. A month of cease-fire violations by both sides has resulted in the deaths of at least 11 soldiers and two Pakistani civilians and the wounding of several residents.
“We can’t sleep at night,” said one village head, Lal Din, 38. “Whenever we hear gunshots and mortars we huddle together in the corners of our shacks. We are helpless to do anything to prevent it.”
The two sides have fought for more than six decades over this hilly and verdant land, which has been at the heart of two of the countries’ three wars. While few people see the current skirmishes as exploding into a full-scale conflict, the fear of further deterioration is widespread.
“In three or four months, the people fighting in Afghanistan or Pakistan could come here,” said Sheikh Younis, 42, who runs a mobile phone shop in a mall in downtown Srinagar, not far from the lotus-fringed lake where tourists take rides in colorful boats. “People are very concerned about it. What’s going to happen after 2014?”
Militant incursions on rise
The current skirmishes began in August, when five Indian soldiers were ambushed and killed while on patrol in Indian-controlled Kashmir. That triggered near daily mortar and machine-gun fire from both sides along the Line of Control — some 460 miles of razor-wire fencing, surveillance cameras and heavily armed military posts snaking through the Himalayas.
Although no major population centers have been hit, the exchanges of fire have renewed tensions as leaders of the two nations were to try and meet later this month during the U.N. General Assembly.
Kashmir, whose population is mostly Muslim, has been bitterly contested since the British granted India independence in 1947 and the land was split into Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. In the late 1980s, an Islamist insurgencybacked by Pakistan emerged, seeking to end India’s control over the disputed territory. Kashmir suffered more than 50,000 dead in that conflict.
Over the last decade, India and Pakistan have crept toward normalcy, with easing visa restrictions and hopes for increasing bilateral trade. Violence along their disputed border ebbed, too, after a 2003 cease-fire agreement. Insurgent activity also declined dramatically, in part, experts say, because many of the fighters now had a far more compelling target nearby — American and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Now, residents say the relative calm could be over.
The army and police say cross-border incursions by militants are on the rise. In recent days, Indian army officials claimed they shot and killed five foreign fighters in Kashmir, including one from Pakistan’s lawless North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan.
As the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan wanes, leaders of Pakistan-based militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba — which carried out the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks — have publicly pledged to turn their attention again to Kashmir. On Friday, its founder, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed — who lives openly in Lahore despite a $10 million U.S. bounty offered for his arrest — gave a fiery speech laced with anti-India rhetoric to thousands in Islamabad, demanding the “liberation” of Kashmir.
Stephen Tankel, an assistant professor at American University and author of “Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba,” predicted that Lashkar and smaller militant groups “are going to seek to ramp up as the U.S. draws down its forces in Afghanistan.”
“It’s pretty clear there is some sort of a strategy in place to slowly polarize the situation once again and do it in a way that looks as indigenous as possible,” he added.
Local residents say they are worried by growing support for militants, with funerals of home-grown fighters drawing larger crowds. Many young Kashmiri men — who consider the Indian army a brutish occupying force — are seeking to join insurgent groups like Lashkar and Hizbul Mujahideen to win an independent Islamic state, they say.