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Pakistani Crackdown Gives Rise to Doubts

South Asia: Curbing Islamic extremism is widely seen as key to easing tensions over Kashmir. But to some, it borders on betrayal.


MANSEHRA, Pakistan — The first hint of a government crackdown against Muslim extremist groups in this dusty market town came in January, local businessman Jamil Ahmed recalls.

That's when police told him to stop collecting money for the militant Al Badr organization, which for nearly a decade ran a training camp in the nearby hills. Locals say it was one of eight such camps in the Mansehra area that turned young Pakistani volunteers into Islamic warriors--known as jihadis--and then launched them across the frontier to fight in the Indian-controlled portion of disputed Kashmir.

By March, jihadi recruiting posters that had lined the streets of this town in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province for years quietly came down, as did billboards proclaiming Indian atrocities against the predominantly Muslim Kashmiris. Then, Ahmed and other residents say, the camps themselves were closed about two months ago and those who ran them vanished.

For political moderates here and in India, that's good news.

Curtailing the jihadi groups is widely viewed as a vital first step in scaling back a crisis that has led India and Pakistan to mass about 1 million troops on their border and raised the frightening prospect of the world's first war between two nuclear-armed states.

Pakistani officials say the crackdown in Mansehra is part of a broader move against Islamic militant groups that began tentatively this year and appears to have gradually gained greater purpose. Leaders of many of the militant groups were detained last month, according to authorities.

Today, there is little visible evidence in Mansehra of either the jihadis or their cause.

After initial skepticism, India appears to have accepted that Pakistan has stopped militants from crossing the so-called Line of Control that divides Kashmir, but the extent to which their activities inside Pakistan have been halted remains unclear. India, for example, says that at least three training camps still operate in the area around Mansehra--a charge that Pakistan rejects.

"I can say with authority there are no training camps operating now," declared army Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, who is leading Pakistan's efforts to shut down the extremist groups.

Locals, however, refused to take a foreign reporter to visit the camp locations, saying they were afraid of possible reprisals from "the agencies"--a reference to Pakistani intelligence organizations, including the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, that for years have been the jihadis' main backers within the country's military establishment.

The government's follow-up on the initial arrests of suspected militant group members has also raised questions about the crackdown's effectiveness. For example, 21 militants arrested here in April under an anti-terrorism law were set free recently for lack of evidence.

For President Pervez Musharraf, shutting off support for the jihadi groups means stepping back from a decade-old strategy: using religiously motivated fighters to harass India with a persistent, but effective, low-grade guerrilla campaign in Kashmir.

The mountainous, spectacularly beautiful territory, claimed by India and Pakistan, has been the object of two of their three wars in the last 55 years. After suffering defeat twice in conventional conflicts at the hands of superior Indian forces in Kashmir, Pakistan embraced the jihadis in the late 1980s.

Although government support for the jihadis has always been denied publicly, the groups for years recruited openly, published magazines, solicited donations and operated sophisticated training camps.

Two years ago, Al Badr leader Bakht Zameen even brought a group of Pakistani reporters based in Peshawar to the group's camp near here to watch a colorful graduation ceremony for recruits who had completed basic training before heading for Kashmir.

"The level of discipline was amazing," said one witness who declined to be identified. "It was like watching an army."

A 22-year-old volunteer jihadi from Peshawar who used the nom de guerre Uqab said in an interview this week that his main training camp instructors were retired Pakistani army members. He went through a camp run by the Hezb-ul-Moujahedeen group two years ago near Muzaffarabad, the capital of the Pakistani-held portion of Kashmir.

Uqab said the camp offered three types of courses, including three-week basic training and a special forces session that taught recruits how to use a variety of weapons, including hand grenades and rocket launchers. The third course lasted six months and was for suicide bombers.

"Very few people are selected for this course," Uqab said.

In recent months, actions attributed to the jihadi groups, including a daylight attack in December on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi, have exacerbated political tensions between the two nations.

For Musharraf, moving against the Islamic militants carries considerable domestic risks in a country where the struggle to break India's grip over Kashmir is imbibed with mother's milk.

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