Jammu & Kashmir

Uncertainty over the effect of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on the Kashmir valley

Print edition : October 08, 2021

Security forces at Vailoo in Anantnag district of Kashmir on May 11, where three members of the Lashkar-e-Taiba were killed in an encounter. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban leader, said in a BBC interaction: “As Muslims, we also have a right to raise our voice for Muslims in Kashmir, India or any other country.” Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

With the Taliban in control of Afghanistan, there is concern in India that terror activity could spill over from that country into the Kashmir valley, especially in the context of the growing alienation of Kashmiris as a result of the Modi government’s muscular policies on the Union Territory.

EVER since the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan, political and journalistic circles in New Delhi have been trying to guess how the extremist group feels about India, particularly Kashmir. The Union Territory is in their special focus because after August 5, 2019, New Delhi’s iron-fist, bureaucratic control has deepened alienation among local residents and created fertile ground for possible local support for terror attacks from across the border.

Such apprehensions are fuelled by the general consensus that Pakistan, aided by China, is expected to control the important pillars of defence and foreign policy in the Taliban regime.

In this context, it is important to recall the developments of September 4, when Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief General Faiz Hameed became the only high-ranking official to visit Kabul. Said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official: “Hameed rushed to Kabul after a clash between Mullah [Abul Ghani] Baradar and Haqqani-supported groups in which Baradar sustained injuries.” That a Pakistani general could play a role brokering peace between the Haqqani groups and many other Taliban factions, who do not accept Haibatullah Akhundzada as their leader, is a clear indicator of Pakistan’s capacity to meddle in the affairs of Afghanistan and dictate terms of policymaking.

India has so far maintained a nuanced approach to the developments in Afghanistan. It has neither recognised the Taliban regime nor made any overt statement of solidarity with the resistance camp in the Panjshir valley led by Ahmad Massoud and Amrullah Saleh, who has declared himself President of Afghanistan. The message coming from Afghanistan has been incoherent despite efforts by its top leadership to assure the world and India that it would not let its soil be used to facilitate terror. In one of its first statements on India after militarily attaining power in Kabul, the Taliban betrayed its unease with the Indian government’s hard-line approach to Kashmir. Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesperson of the Taliban, said in an interview with Pakistan’s ARY News, a private channel, that India should “have a positive approach” to the Kashmir valley. Mujahid touched on the relations between India and Pakistan, stating that the two nuclear-armed countries should “sit together” and resolve matters. He said that “both are neighbours and their interests are linked to each other”.

Mujahid signalled how the Taliban’s proximity to Pakistan would be a factor in the realignment of the geopolitical equations in the foreseeable future. Talking about the cultural and religious ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan, he said that the Taliban saw Pakistan as its “second home”. “Afghanistan shares its borders with Pakistan. We are traditionally aligned when it comes to religion; the people of both countries mingle with one another. So we are looking forward to further deepening of ties with Pakistan,” Mujahid said in the interview.

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Many viewed the Taliban’s statement, though subtle and circumspect, as a warning bell of how allegiances formed out of religious identity could be the driver of what unfolds on India’s western border. Days after Mujahid’s interview was aired in Pakistan, Suhail Shaheen, another Taliban leader, said in a BBC interaction: “As Muslims, we also have a right to raise our voice for Muslims in Kashmir, India or any other country.” However, he also clarified that the Taliban “had no policy” of launching armed operations against any country.

Top Taliban leader Anas Haqqani rubbished talk that the Haqqani network’s close association with Pakistan’s ISI and military could translate into an armed misadventure in Kashmir. He said in an interview recently that there was “lots of negative propaganda about us and it’s all wrong”. “The media worldwide, and especially in India, are spreading negative propaganda about us. This is spoiling the atmosphere,” he said, dismissing reports that Pakistan provided the Taliban with logistical supplies in its military siege of Kabul and other provinces of Afghanistan. He said that the new “regime” in Afghanistan desired a good relationship with India. “We don’t want anyone to think wrong about us. India has helped our enemy for 20 years, but we are ready to forget everything and take the relationship forward,” he stated.

He seconded Shaheen’s assertions of the Taliban’s non-interventionist policy on Kashmir. He said: “Kashmir is not part of our jurisdiction and interference is against policy. How can we go against our policy? It is clear we will not interfere.” The Taliban has also clarified that India is welcome to complete its infrastructural projects in Afghanistan. “We want all help for the people of Afghanistan. We want not only India but the rest of the world to come and support us,” he said.

Warning notes

But David Devadas, an author and a defence and security expert, feels it would be naive to fall for the Taliban’s narrative. “I’ve predicted for a decade that the U.S. would hand Afghanistan to the Taliban and that Afghans would then come to Kashmir. Since the Inter-Services Intelligence has tried to refurbish the Taliban as the responsible ‘good guys’, the Afghans they send here are likely to wear a different label. The ISI is good at manufacturing and selling multiple brands,” Devadas told Frontline.

According to him, the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed, old hands in the Kashmir jehad, will surely be involved. “Both were active against the U.S. in Afghanistan but have played bigger roles in Kashmir in the past. The group called Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent too has cordial relations with the Taliban and the ISI. So, that could be a new label for Afghans who engage in anti-India hostilities,” he said. The ISI, Devadas avers, could deploy other proxies, such as the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), to step up terrorism in India. He said: “The ISI could easily wash its hands of that group, which is seen as anti-Taliban. They’re the ‘bad boys’ of the Kabul airport attack, after all. But that attack was hardly possible unless the Haqqani faction, which was already in charge of Kabul’s security, had turned a blind eye. And Haqqani is the ISI’s closest asset. It’s always possible that the ISI’s most covert wing could be running the IS-K operation. It doesn’t seem to be run by its supposed parent, ISIS [the Islamic State].”

Anuradha Bhasin, a senior Kashmiri journalist and the executive editor of Kashmir Times, Jammu and Kashmir’s oldest English daily, apprehends that terror operatives from Sudan, Iran and Syria too, not just Afghanistan, could move to the Kashmir valley. She is of the view that foreign militias will be able to sustain themselves in the Kashmir valley today unlike in the 1990s when the Afghan insurgents who poured in did not find much local support.

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“Today the alienation in Kashmir is so pronounced that local [people] are ready to look up to anybody who offers armed aggression against Indian rule, despite knowing the danger to Kashmir stemming from it,” she told Frontline. She said that the anger in the Kashmiri youth was a direct fallout of the Narendra Modi government’s muscular policies that rejected dialogue and negotiation and relied on violently quelling dissent. Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat shares the belief that the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul will impact Kashmir. On August 25, he said: “Everything that has happened [Taliban takeover of Kabul] was something that had been anticipated. Only the timelines have changed…. From the Indian perspective, we were anticipating a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. We were concerned about how the terrorist activity from Afghanistan could overflow into India. To that extent our contingency planning had been ongoing and we are prepared for that.” He was forthcoming on how the Taliban was being viewed in the power corridors. “It is pretty much the same. It is the same Taliban that was there 20 years ago. News reports and reports from expats who have come from there are all telling us the kind of activities that the Taliban are into. All that has happened is that the partners have now changed. It is the same Taliban with different partners.”

The historian and political commentator Siddiq Wahid countered that hypothesis. He was of the view that the Taliban would be too entangled internally to look outward or engage in provocations vis-a-vis Kashmir. “It is not correct to assume that this version of the Taliban is the same as the one of 20 years ago, whereas there is enough evidence to enable an entire article on how it is a different Taliban, one that leans inward, within Afghanistan, for a policy context for itself. To be sure it has said that it will speak up against political injustice in Kashmir, but that is not the same as armed intervention, for which they hardly have the resources or the time; besides, it is not as if they do not have opponents within Afghanistan to keep them busy,” Wahid told this reporter.

At any rate, General Rawat’s comment assumed significance as it was a departure from the carefully worded statements from Indian officials, who had been expressing concern about the situation and the potential threats that could come from Afghanistan but were loath to condemn the Taliban directly.

However, there is no consensus on the timeline of the terror spillover from Afghanistan. Anuradha Bhasin said that much would depend on whether the Taliban was able to sustain itself. “The Taliban has acquired a more chaotic landscape this time, with several ethnic groups competing for power. Though Pakistan will be a key player in Afghanistan, their dominance is still not clear. If the ethnic conflict goes out of its hand, it would open the gate on this side of the border with India.”

Concern in Kashmir

However, within Kashmir, there is a vast circle who is upset about the many news reports on the Taliban’s foray into the valley. They believe that the Indian government is purposefully creating a narrative of imminent threat from the Taliban as this would help the government polarise the Indian electorate on communal lines and build up its image as the sole protector of Hindu interests against Islamist extremism.

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Siddiq Wahid said: “This apprehension about the Taliban and Pakistan rushing into Kashmir that emanates from some strategic circles in Delhi is lazy argument rather than analysis. There seems to be a measure of ignorance about the Taliban amongst most Indian analysts because official India has chosen not to engage with them for the last 20 years. Nor have such analysts come up with any meaningful evidence that the resistance in Kashmir is driven solely, or even primarily, by pan-Islamist motives. The ecosystem of analysts must exercise patience before indulging in hasty speculation.”

He further argued: “The Taliban and Pakistan will be restrained by their alliance with China, and the latter is not exactly enamoured of pan-Islamism, an ideology which both Afghanistan and Pakistan were hugely leaning towards a quarter century ago.”

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