- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 4, 2001

SRINAGAR, Kashmir As the Muslims of Kashmir hunker down for the bitter Himalayan winter, many fear the defeated Taliban, and perhaps Osama bin Laden himself, are about to add to their troubles.

Analysts and politicians are divided about whether the threat is real. Some say it's highly unlikely. Others worry that the humiliated militiamen retreating into Pakistan could turn their sights on Kashmir.

For a people already enmeshed in a 12-year Muslim insurgency and living in a territory claimed by both India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed rivals, these are terrifying prospects.

For Washington, anxious to keep these two countries members of its anti-terrorism coalition, Kashmir poses a difficult challenge.

"Kashmir has the potential for becoming the next focal point for Muslim militants throughout the world," said Ali Imran, a political analyst and columnist for the Kashmir Observer newspaper.

A Pakistani political analyst, Khwaja Masud, believes the Taliban are demoralized and incapable of waging any struggle outside of Afghanistan.

"They are not in a position to go anywhere else to fight," he said in telephone interview from Islamabad.

Indeed, there's no evidence of infiltration into Kashmir by Taliban or the Pakistanis who fought with them. Still, the backwash of the Afghan war is evident.

When British colonial rule ended in 1947, two countries were created Muslim Pakistan and mostly Hindu India. Although Kashmir has a Muslim majority, two-thirds of its land went to India. Pakistan felt robbed, especially after India refused to carry out a U.N.-mandated referendum on the province's future, insisting that Pakistan first get the militants to retreat.

In the 12 years since the present separatist war broke out, tens of thousands have been killed.

The Indians have long claimed that Pakistan arms and trains the militants and that the guerrillas have close ties to al Qaeda and Pakistani intelligence, which helped fund and organize the Taliban in the early 1990s.

The militant groups insist they need no help from the Taliban.

Yahya Mujahid, a spokesman of the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba militant group, said in Islamabad it is unlikely that al Qaeda and the Taliban would seek refuge in Kashmir.

"Kashmir is not a place to find sanctuary," Mr. Mujahid said. "It is a place to wage jihad."

But the Indians note that shortly after the bombing in Afghanistan began, an al Qaeda statement named the Kashmir conflict as another provocation to jihad, or holy war.

And while winter may keep the Taliban away from Kashmir, India should still be alert for traces of al Qaeda in the region, said Brahma Chellaney, an analyst with the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

"When these guys get flushed out from their hide-outs in southeastern Afghanistan, where will they move?" Mr. Chellaney asked. "They'll move eastward into Pakistan and the tribal areas. Once they're there, they'll be an embarrassment, so the Pakistanis will encourage them to move on to Kashmir and encourage jihad there."

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