Indian police station attacked by Muslim militants in Jammu and Kashmir State

Indian soldiers, Photo: Reuters

Indian soldiers, Photo: Reuters

On March 20, at least two militants, believed to be from Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeI) raided an Indian police station in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kathua district. Four Indians were killed. The militants, dressed in Indian military fatigues, were then killed in a shootout with security forces. Photos showed the police installation scarred from gunfire, with bodies exposed outside.

The attack, the first in the state since the shaky new state government took power in February, underscores the continued militant threat in the disputed region, despite ongoing Indian counter insurgency operations. India has killed a number of suspected militants in the state recently. Most of these clashes were targeted raids, launched after intelligence surfaced of militants hiding among the population in a specific area.

At this time, however, it remains unclear whether the militants were local residents or infiltrated from Pakistan. If the latter is the case, Kathua’s location points to a militant infiltration across the International Border. This section of the border has been the focus of cross-border fire between Indian and Pakistani border forces in recent months. To that point, India has asserted that such clashes provide cover for militant infiltration. On the other hand, Indian security officials have stated that pro-Pakistan militant factions have increased recruitment of locals inside Jammu and Kashmir State, thereby lessening the use of cross-border attacks. Infiltration has simply become more difficult, thus necessitating greater local involvement in the insurgency.

While India will maintain its stance that Pakistan supports the insurgency, if Delhi deems that Islamabad supported the attack operationally, relations between the two nuclear armed states could once again take a downturn. It may be no coincidence that the raid occurred shortly after high-level talks to improve bilateral ties between India and Pakistan were held earlier this month.

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Taliban suicide bombings during Mass spawn Christian riots in Pakistan’s Lahore

Pakistani Taliban fighters, Photo: theaustralian

Pakistani Taliban fighters, Photo: theaustralian

Pakistan’s sectarian conflict continues to fester. During the morning hours of March 15, two Islamist suicide bombers belonging to Jamatul Ahrar, affiliates of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), chose to target Pakistan’s largest Christian community, in Youhanabad, Lahore. The bombers detonated their explosives and themselves near Saint John Catholic Church and Christ Church during Sunday Mass. In total, 15 people were killed and over 80 wounded.

Almost immediately, local Christians poured on to the streets in anger. Denouncing the perceived lack of police protection, the protests quickly turned violent. While not proven, locals alleged that the police contingent assigned to protect the locales were watching a cricket match instead of doing their job. A main highway was blocked and two suspected militant accomplices were taken by the mob. They were beaten to death, and then set on fire for all to see. Another body was reportedly found with gunshot wounds nearby as well. A local metro station was then ransacked, while cars were overturned on the aforementioned highway. As news of the attack spread, Christians gathered to block roads in Karachi and Islamabad.

The suicide bombings should come as no surprise. Pakistan’s Taliban has threatened such attacks and is adamant on undermining stability throughout the country. Again, a means of achieving this is targeting sectarian minorities. This includes Shiites, Christians and other seemingly non-Sunni Islamic sects. By targeting minorities, seemingly at will, the militants are showcasing the government’s inability to protect its citizens. This assessment is underscored in the fact that the TTP claimed responsibility for the blasts almost immediately.

Pakistan will surely respond, yet the effectiveness of any response remains questionable. Statements will be made denouncing the attacks by most parties, and guarantees of protection will be offered to the nation’s beleaguered Christians. Indeed, security will be bolstered around religious sites and near important government interests, yet this is only a defensive measure. Likewise, government offenses in the tribal areas, the Taliban’s citadel, have thus far been unable to stymie the militant threat. Militants can simply cross into Afghanistan or move to blend in with larger communities. To that point, in Karachi, where the Taliban is seeking to entrench itself among the refugee Pashtun population, nightly government raids have failed to defeat militancy there as well. Karachi only seems to be getting worse.

Amid the expanding influence of fundamentalist Sunni groups in Pakistan, coupled with the ongoing Taliban-state conflict, Pakistan’s minorities will remain under daily threat. The next major attack is only a matter of time.

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Suspected militants stab nine in China’s Guangzhou on March 6

Chinese security forces patrol Guangzhou Railway Station after March 6 attack (Photo: CNN)

Chinese security forces patrol Guangzhou Railway Station after March 6 attack (Photo: CNN)

During the morning rush hour of March 6, at least two assailants stabbed and wounded nine people outside a train station in the southern city of Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. Security forces shot and killed one of the attackers, and arrested the second. The city experienced a similar attack less than a year ago, when six people were stabbed by knife wielding assailants. Moreover, authorities blamed a mass-stabbing attack in March 2014 at a Kunming train station on Uyghur Muslims. That attack left 31 people dead.

In this context, it is suspected that ethnic Uyghur-Islamist militants from the restive Xinjiang region were likely behind today’s attack. Chinese security forces are engaging in an ongoing counter insurgency campaign against separatists in Xinjiang. There, attacks and clashes are relatively commonplace, with a number of incidents over the past month indicating a possible intensification of the insurgency. It should also be noted that given the nature of censorship in China, it is likely that many incidents in Xinjiang are not reported. Along with government operations, counter insurgency measures have included laws against the proliferation of Islamic practices, to curtail local support for fundamentalist Islamist factions. Taken together, this latest attack underscores the lingering threat of militancy in major Chinese as volatility in Xinjiang continues.

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American-Bangladeshi writer, activist killed by suspected Islamists in Dhaka on February 26

American-Bangladeshi writer and blogger, Avijit Roy, and his wife, were attacked after leaving a book fair during the evening hours of February 26 near TSC intersection at Dhaka University in Dhaka. The assailants were said to have used cold weapons, possibly machetes. Avijit later died at Dhaka Medical College Hospital, where his wife remains in critical condition. Reports indicate that the couple arrived in the country about a week ago to showcase two of Avijit’s latest books. Avijit, the author of the Mukto-mona blog, was well known as a perceived defender of free thought in Bangladesh. He was reportedly an advocate for atheism, human rights, science, and metaphysical naturalism. On February 28, reports indicated that a previously unknown Islamist group claimed responsibility for the killing.

After their admittance to the hospital, reports indicated that two crude explosive devices detonated outside the hospital. Also, a protest against the killing took place outside the hospital as well. Furthermore, reports indicate that Abijit was receiving death threats from Islamist militants due to his views. An online bookstore in 2014 stopped selling his works, due to reported threats by Islamists linked to Jamaat-e-Islami.

Almost immediately after the attack, suspicion from the couples’ family and friends focused on Islamist militants. This was largely due to their opposition to his Avijit’s work, recent threats, along with their implication in previous murders targeting like-minded thinkers in Bangladesh. At least two atheist activists have been killed in the past two years, and four since 2004. Overall, the killings highlight continued volatility in Bangladesh, along with the persistent threat of Islamist militancy. Likewise, the attack could exacerbate secular-Islamist tensions in Bangladesh, and further complicate stability at a time of heightened political tensions and persistent violence relating to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led hartal campaign. Moreover, there are concerns that increased tensions between the two main secular parties, the BNP and the ruling Awami League, along with the subsequent state of political paralysis, will drive more Bangladeshis towards the Islamist camp.

In that context, while such attacks have happened in the past, militants may be aiming intensify attacks against their rivals to take advantage of instability caused by the hartal campaign. Jamaat-e-Islami is also supporting this campaign. As has happened in the past, the latest killings could prompt mass protests or new hartals in Dhaka and elsewhere over the coming days. Secular activists would rally to demand that more be done to curb Islamist influence. Islamists, on the other hand, could hold their own protests demanding harsh punishment for atheist activists and for the government to shut down websites promoting secularism in Bangladesh. To that point, it is also possible that the government will respond with measures to ease tensions by placating to one side.

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Fighting intensifies between Burmese army, TNLA and DKBA

TNLA rebels (Irrawaddy.org)

TNLA rebels (Irrawaddy.org)

Reports indicate that clashes between the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) escalated following several skirmishes in recent days. The TNLA said its fighters destroyed opium fields belonging to a pro-military resident, sparking an intensification of hostilities in Nankhan Township in the restive Shan State.

Although periodic and localized clashes between ethnic insurgent groups and the Tatmadaw are common, these latest flare ups come in the midst of an ongoing escalation in Shan State’s Kokang region between ethnic Han Chinese militants and the Myanmar military. Several hundred Kokang militants from the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) launched an offensive against the region’s capital, Laukai, on February 9. Fighting has raged ever since, with the Tatmadaw pursuing MNDAA fighters along the mountainous Chinese border. Considering this, it is possible that other insurgent factions, like the DKBA and TNLA, seek to take advantage of the government’s perceived preoccupation with fighting in Kokang and intensify operations against local government interests, whether they be economic or military-related. The military has reportedly shifted forces to the Kokang region to effectively put down the current insurrection, and better secure Laukai. Therefore, additional hostilities between the aforementioned factions should be expected over the coming days, yet it remains to be seen if either side will seek to escalate further.

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Pakistan & India: Cross-border fire reported along Line of Control (LoC) on February 27

Reports indicated that shooting erupted between Indian and Pakistani forces near Pakistan’s Kenthigal Dabsi village in the Nakyal district along the Line of Control (LoC), leading to one Pakistani civilian receiving wounds. Earlier, several shots were reportedly fired in India’s Pura sector along the International Border near Jammu.

Such cross-border incidents are common and underscore persistent tensions along both the LoC and International Border in Jammu and Kashmir. There has been a relative decline in the intensity and frequency of cross-border incidents in recent weeks, following an intensification of violence in early January. Nonetheless, the issue of border clashes will likely be discussed during the visit by India’s Foreign Secretary to Islamabad on March 3. Although most border incidents remain localized to the immediate forces opposing each other across the border, such skirmishes do run the risk of leading to a further escalation, especially if casualties are recorded or if one side implements greater force. Recent goodwill gestures between both sides, however, indicate that the parties likely aim to contain border tensions.

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India & Pakistan border hostilities likely to continue as Islamabad seeks to intensify Kashmir debate

Pakistani troops: Photo - AFP

Pakistani troops: Photo – AFP

On January 13, in a joint conference with Sartaj Aziz, adviser to Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif on national security and foreign affairs, visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry asked Pakistan to work with India to establish peace. However, Aziz ruled out any dialogue with India if the disputed Kashmir region was not part of negotiations. Kerry made the comments after holding talks in India, where President Obama will visit later this month. The Pakistani stance comes as tensions have escalated considerably between India and Pakistan since the last quarter of 2014. The said tensions have been most clearly evident in numerous cross-border clashes between Indian and Pakistani troops in parts of the disputed regions of Jammu and Kashmir. Both sides have accused the other of being behind the escalation. Since December, around a dozen fatalities on both sides have been recorded. The most serious incident came on December 31, when five soldiers on both sides were killed.  Much of the recent fighting has been focused to the International Border between India and Pakistan, on the southern flank of Jammu and Kashmir. The International Border is a relatively smaller border portion in the overall disputed Jammu and Kashmir region. Both sides say hundreds of ceasefire violations were recorded in 2014, with unconfirmed reports indicating that the year saw the most border incidents since the current ceasefire came into being in 2003.

In that context, in late December, India’s defense minister instructed commanders stationed along the border with Pakistan to intensify retaliations against Pakistani fire. As a result of cross-border fire, which occasionally lasts for hours on end, Indian officials in New Delhi have reportedly asked local authorities in Jammu and Kashmir to construct fortified bunkers for local populations.  Over ten thousand Indian civilians have fled their communities along the border with Pakistan as a result of cross-border fire, which has mostly involved mortar and small-arms fire. Pakistani reports have also alleged Indian fire into Pakistani civilian areas.

Furthermore, the latest tensions come on the heels of ongoing negotiations to form a government in Indian controlled Jammu and Kashmir. India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) campaigned heavily for the region’s state assembly elections. After performing reasonably well, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the BJP are now trying to form a government. Turnout was deemed a success for the BJP, especially given calls by pro-Pakistani separatists in Jammu and Kashmir to boycott the elections.

Meanwhile, and in conjunction with cross-border hostilities, the threat of militancy in Jammu and Kashmir, and inside major Indian cities, persists. During the morning hours of January 14, two Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militants reportedly encountered Indian security forces in the Chankhan area of Sopore, 40 kilometers northeast of Srinagar, in Jammu and Kashmir. Reports suggested that LeT commander Abu Huzaifa, was one of the two militants.

On January 15, reports indicated that Indian military officials believe approximately 200 Pakistan-based militants may attempt to infiltrate in order to attack what the government referred to as “soft targets,” including schools, civilian areas, and religious places. The Indian Army believes the militants are poised at 36 launch points throughout the Pakistani controlled area across the Line of Control (LoC) in the Pir Panjal range. Meanwhile, five militants were killed by Indian security forces in Gader in Shopian, Jammu and Kashmir on January 15. The five were reportedly affiliated with the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Hizbul Mujahideen. Indian forces conducted a search of the forested area after intelligence reports indicated militants had entered the region. Unconfirmed reports suggest the Division Commander of (JeM), Mohammad Toyib, was among the militants killed.

Tensions between India and Pakistan are longstanding and this has necessitated a highly militarized border between both countries. At present, the conflict between India and Pakistan is highlighted chiefly by continuous allegations that both sides are using militancy to undermine the others’ security, along with border clashes in Jammu and Kashmir. Both issues are linked. On top of their historic rivalry, there are several new factors that have further undermined bilateral relations between the two nuclear armed states and exacerbated instability along their shared borders.

First and foremost, Pakistan is highly volatile and under a heightened state of alert for militant attacks. Attacks occur daily, throughout the country, including in major cities. Warnings of militant attacks have also escalated following the December 16high-casualty attack in Peshawar. As a result, Pakistan has intensified its counter militancy operations nationwide, especially in the northwest tribal regions. Pakistan claims it has killed over a thousand militants from its now intensified operations in the northwest, named Khyber 1 and Zarb-e-Azb. Pakistan may be aiming to balance its military activity, given the relative controversy of targeting militant Islamists within traditional Islamic Pakistani society, while hostility to India remains a popular policy domestically. Therefore, internal Pakistani concerns regarding the prestige of the military following the launch of campaigns targeting Islamist militants could be bolstering an interest to escalate tensions with India.

Strategically speaking, Pakistan is also likely concerned over the continued American so-called pivot to East Asia. As a major strategic ally of America, Pakistan is likely concerned that the pivot, along with the end of American military operations in Afghanistan, could leave it increasingly isolated, thus forcing it to become more reliant upon American rivals like China and Russia for various kinds of support. Conversely, it is also likely that Pakistan is wary of growing ties between India and the US, highlighted by Obama’s upcoming visit. This could necessitate Pakistan to take steps in order to ensure its interests are secured.

As tensions with India have been a major focus of John Kerry’s visit to the region, it is possible that Pakistan aims to cite the increasing tensions with India to place the US as a mediator between the two sides. Additionally, Pakistan is likely to cite India’s growing military and economic prowess, along with the threat from internal Pakistani militants, when requesting further American assistance.

Pakistan likely has an interest to reinvigorate the Jammu and Kashmir debate, especially on the global stage. Islamabad is likely concerned that the regions will eventually be perceived as de-facto Indian or a non-conflict. As Pakistan ultimately aims to reclaim these areas, this may warrant hostilities in order to showcase Pakistan’s claim. Targeting the International Border could also be a Pakistani attempt to show that all of Jammu and Kashmir is under dispute, not just certain border markings. The lack of international concern resulting from India’s elections in the disputed regions only likely enhanced Islamabad’s views on this matter. Those elections were widely perceived by Indians as a referendum on Indian rule in the disputed regions.

Despite the tensions with India, national security and foreign affairs advisor Aziz’s statement indicates a possible Pakistani interest in renewing talks with India over Kashmir. Direct military pressure could be a method to achieve this goal, especially as President Obama could use his visit to urge India to engage in fresh negotiations with Islamabad. PM Modi of India, however, is a Hindu nationalist and likely wary of entering negotiations meant to retake territory under Indian control. The elections in Jammu and Kashmir likely served to further cement his hesitation towards negotiations over these disputed regions. Also, Modi is likely cognizant of the strategic ramifications of bending to Pakistani demands at a time of rising concerns of future tensions with China. Both China and India have active border disputes in Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh, which led to a brief war in 1962. Furthermore, the recent cases of Pakistani shelling of Indian border villages, as opposed to fighting positions, may have been an effort to exert further pressure on the Indian government to ultimately force it to the negotiating table.

In that context, the Indian threat of severe retaliation was likely meant to deter Pakistan from taking more aggressive steps that could force India into another border war. The current BJP government is likely keen to avoid an escalation at this time, as this could complicate the establishment of a new government in Jammu and Kashmir, and counter an overall national security strategy to reach strategic parity with China. As mentioned above, Pakistan may be hoping that PM Modi will choose negotiations to ease the fighting in Kashmir.

If negotiations are the goal, Pakistan is likely of the impression that a certain and calculated level of force is required to achieve this. This assessment is bolstered in that much of the recent fighting has taken place along the southern International Border of Jammu and Kashmir, which is manned mostly by the Indian Border Security Force. Their positions are less fortified when compared to the regular and better-armed Indian army troops positioned in the rugged mountains of northwest Kashmir. Moreover, tactical analysis from recent clashes points to efforts by both sides to control the level of escalation. They have refrained from using airpower and heavy artillery.

Altogether, tensions will remain high along the border in the coming weeks. Further clashes should therefore be expected, along with the possibility of a more widespread escalation. Such an escalation could result incidentally from unacceptably high casualties suffered by either side during bouts of cross-border shelling. Nonetheless, much of the fighting, even the possibility of an escalation, and will remain localized to Jammu and Kashmir, most likely the southern sector, over the coming weeks. Efforts to avoid such a development are likely as well, as both sides likely aim to keep the situation under control in order to protect their respective interests.

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