By Abhinav Pandya
After the abrogation of article 370, Pakistan faces a credibility crisis in Kashmir as it failed to orchestrate large-scale terror attacks and social unrest. At this moment, when, in Pakistan’s calculations, India is vulnerable due to recent developments in Afghanistan, the US’ embarrassing withdrawal, and fears of China’s escalation in Ladakh, Pakistan is likely to intensify militancy in Kashmir.
Further, high levels of public alienation due to the end of special status and decades of jihadist radicalization will ensure massive support to Taliban, AQ, and IS-styled radical jihadist infiltrators.
India’s three-decade-old Pakistan-sponsored Islamist militancy-hit Jammu and Kashmir stands vulnerable to intensified terrorist violence with the Taliban takeover. Pakistan, facing heat from the FATF pressure, is likely to shift terror training camps from the Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK) to Afghanistan as Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, on account of Taliban’s endemic ties with the GHQ Rawalpindi, will be like a de facto Pakistani colony and a favourite safe-haven for jihadists of all hues and colors. Such an exercise equips Islamabad with much-needed deniability in a major terror attack by a Pak-sponsored terrorist group in India. Also, it will help in easing off the FATF pressure.
Reportedly, training of the cadres of India-focussed terror groups has already begun in Afghanistan, in the Taliban training camps. In April 2020, in a raid at Taliban camp in Nangarhar, the Afghan Security Forces killed ten militants of Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), a Kashmir-focussed terror group responsible for some of the deadliest fidayeen attacks like Pulwama (2019), Pathankot(2016), and the parliament attack(2001). After the abrogation of article 370, Pakistan is trying to revive Al Badr, a Kashmiri terror group active in the 1990s. After the 1990s, Al Badr went dormant in Kashmir; however, it sustained its presence in the FATA region and cultivated strong links with Haqqanis and the Taliban. Reportedly, its present commander, Hamza Burhan, a resident of Pulwama, met Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a pro-Taliban leader and Hizb-e-Islami chief. It seems the ISI has revived Al Badr in Kashmir because the latter can have better coordination with Taliban foreign terrorists due to its generational ties.
Pakistan may divert a segment of the Taliban’s battle-hardened terrorists to Kashmir for the following reasons. After three decades of a war-like jihadist lifestyle, they may not be an ideal fit for governance-related positions, and keeping them idle may transform them into an internal security challenge for Pakistan. Sending them to Kashmir in a calculated and well-strategized manner may be the best bet for Pakistan and perhaps for its benefactor China, to keep the region on the boil and keep India under pressure and boxed in. It serves the Chinese interests as they would focus on consolidating in the Indian Ocean, where the Indian Navy continues to be a force to reckon with. India’s headaches in Kashmir are likely to adversely impact its counter-measures against the Chinese moves in the Indian Ocean.
Reportedly, terrorist commanders from PoK have instructed the valley-based terrorist leadership to lie low and protect themselves for another month and a half to two months, with the promise of intensifying militancy and social unrest after that by sending foreign fighters. In the short run, Pakistan may confine itself to a medium-level terror strike in Kashmir to test India’s response. However, in the long run i.e. after seven-eight months when Islamabad is done with providing a semblance of stability-cum-establishment to Taliban and some rudimentary level of diplomatic recognition for Taliban as a counterweight or evil necessity against ISIS-K, Pakistan is likely to focus its proxy assets on India and intensify terror attacks/radicalisation/communal riots and other forms of sabotage in Kashmir as well as other states of India.
Reportedly, 150-300 Kashmiris who fled Kashmir in the 90s and 2000s have fought alongside the Taliban, on the assurance of the latter, helping them in Kashmir. According to the author’s informed interlocutors, some of the prominent Kashmiris commanders active in Afghan theatre are Nasarallah Hasan, who reportedly has robust ties with Sirajuddin Haqqani, Ayub Bangroo, and Majid Bangroo. Deobandi-leaning terrorist groups like HuJi (Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami), JeM and HuM (Harkat-ul-Mujahidin) have generational ties with the Taliban. Most of their leaders, including Masood Azhar, Sadatullah, and Maulana Fazlur Rahman Khalil, began their careers in anti-Soviet Jihad. Also, they come from Deobandi fortresses of Binoria and Haqqania madrasa, also the intellectual nurseries of the Taliban. Reportedly, 10,000 JeM and LeT fighters fought alongside the Taliban in the battles against the Afghan forces and Americans. Taliban is likely to reward them by rendering them support in Kashmir.
In the Taliban regime, Afghanistan is likely to become ‘Jihad central,’ in the words of India’s former R&AW chief Vikram Sood. Jihadist groups of all flavors are likely to flourish under the protective umbrella of ISI. Among them, Al Qaeda and ISKP will pose a serious threat to India’s national security. AQIS, AQ’s South-Asian affiliate, has been attempting to find a foothold in India. In the past, its affiliated groups like Indian Mujahidin and SIMI carried a series of terror attacks before the Indian agencies dismantled their modules. In his video message (July, 2019) on Kashmir, AQ chief, Ayman al Zawahiri displayed his keen interest in expanding in Kashmir.
Further, many top-level leaders of ISKP have Lashkar background and are from Kashmir, substantial proof of its linkages with the ISI. ISKP also has robust ties with the Haqqanis, a ‘veritable arm’ of ISI. ISKP has targeted Indian interests in Afghanistan. They are likely to ramp up their activities in India, and it will not be confined to Kashmir. IS’ khilafat model, proving the possibility of realization of the sharia-ruled state, attracted Indians to IS, who, for long, kept their distance from AQ. In 2016, the ISI facilitated ISKP’s recruitment in India; as a result, about 100 individuals from India’s southern state Kerala, the new hub of Islamist radicalization, joined ISKP. Under the Taliban’s regime, this trend may witness an upward trajectory. Also, ISKP’s brand may lure Indians from other states to join Jihad in Kashmir. This is worrisome because so far, non-Kashmiri Indian Muslims have stayed away from Islamist insurgency in Kashmir. Also, India’s communally polarised socio-political milieu adds fuel to the fire and provides a fertile ground for ISKP and AQ’s expansion.
Turkey’s presence in Afghanistan can also be problematic for India. Lately, after the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status, Erdogan voiced strong protest against India. Since 2016, Turkey has also expanded its outreach among Indian Muslims, mostly with the Islamist tone and tenor for gaining support for Erdogan. Turkish president Erdogan has made soft-power inroads in Kashmir. Turkey’s presence in Afghanistan raises strong possibilities of SADAT, Erdogan’s private army, known for training jihadists in Syria and Libya, training Kashmiri militants. Turkey helping terrorist groups with advanced drone technology, used in smuggling weapons and infiltration, is also an alarming but realistic possibility.
India also needs to worry about the 600,000 assault rifles and pistols left by Americans. Kashmiri militants have been facing massive weapons shortages for the last five-six years. M4 Carbines, pistols, RPGs, Pika guns, and missiles are likely to be used by terrorists in Kashmir. Taliban’s rise to power will also give a fillip to drugs smuggling for terror financing. Drug addiction is already a significant challenge in India’s Punjab and Kashmir.
Another factor that may embolden Pakistan is that now FATF pressure appears to be increasingly ineffective. Since Pakistan has emerged as a central player with leverage and penetration to manage unstable Afghanistan, with both the US and China dependent on Pakistan, Pakistan is least likely to face problems in receiving aid money and face diplomatic humiliation in global forums like UNSC and FATF. As a result, Pakistan is much less likely to bother about the FATF. Also, after the US withdrawal, there has been a sharp decline in its credibility as a reliable ally. Hence, the Pak-China combine may attempt to test India’s patience. After the Balakot airstrikes, Pakistan’s nuclear blackmail was shattered, making Pakistan apprehensive of India’s retaliation in future terror attacks. However, after the Taliban conquest and worsening India-China ties (Galwan clash), Pakistan believes India is vulnerable. Hence, Pakistan may test India’s red-lines through a major terror strike. Besides, Xi Jinping facing serious leadership challenges in the CCP may open up the Ladakh front to make quick territorial gains. To divert India’s resources, Beijing may ask Pakistan to boil LoC, organize terror strikes and street anarchy in Kashmir, rendering the Indian forces’ movement difficult.
A section of Indian Muslims, including some prominent intellectual and journalistic voices, perceive the Taliban as freedom fighters. For radical extremists, the Taliban’s win is the victory of Islamic forces against infidels. The establishment of the sharia-state in Afghanistan and IS’ caliphate (destroyed now) has presented a successful model of sharia state for the radical elements. Taliban’s strengthening will intensify jihadist radicalization in India, in general. Though India’s Deoband is cross with Pakistan’s Deoband, i.e., Taliban and JeM’s religious ideology, there are pockets of sympathy. JeM will try to expand and capture recruits from those Deobandi pockets of sympathy spread across the country. Additionally, the radicalization of Indian Muslims will lead to more social frictions and violent communal riots, resulting in more acrimony and terrorist recruitment. Taliban’s sharia state model will also strengthen radicalisation trends in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, and the Maldives. Reportedly, some youth crossed into India from Bangladesh to join the Taliban. Lastly, if radical Islamist spreads to Central Asia, Pakistan will get strategic depth there also, again a loss for India.
(Abhinav Pandya is the founder and CEO of Usanas Foundation, an India-based geopolitical and security affairs think-tank. The article has been published with permission from Usanas Foundation)
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