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In the Taliban Threat Hanging Over Kashmir, the Real Trouble Is Pakistan

The real worry is that Pakistan may take advantage of Afghan territory to shore up militancy in Kashmir.

Published
Opinion
9 min read
In the Taliban Threat Hanging Over Kashmir, the Real Trouble Is Pakistan
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Taliban’s swift victory in Afghanistan has defied all previous analysis about the group. Even as US intelligence reports were predicting that it would take months for the Taliban to fully take over, it only took a few days.

Simultaneously, the rapid march of the Taliban to power has rekindled apprehensions about its possible spillover beyond Afghanistan borders and into Kashmir. More precise nature of the worry is not that Taliban mercenaries will fight their way into Kashmir, but that Pakistan may leverage its influence over the group and take advantage of Afghan territory, where the US sway no longer prevails, and redirect some of the resources under its control to shore up militancy in Kashmir.

Earlier this month, as India celebrated its Independence Day, Kashmiris, it seemed, were gritting their teeth with impotent rage as thousands of teachers and students reluctantly arrived at rain-swept school gardens and playgrounds to participate in the flag-hoisting ceremony. Previously, such ceremonies would be perfunctory affairs bereft of significant enthusiasm.

Additionally, many important landmarks in the city were also bedecked with the Indian tricolour. For a number of locals, the displays reeked of a conquistadorial fervour.

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A Wave of Jubilation, Resentment

As news about the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan streamed on mobile phone screens, a wave of jubilation swept through the Valley. Locals are gripped by a sense of euphoria that Talibani fighters will next come to Kashmir to deliver them from the besiegement that has intensified after the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution.

People in Kashmir are completely alienated today and whatever constituency the government had in Kashmir, that, too, has been dismantled by Modi through his adventurism in 2019
Sheikh Showkat, a Kashmiri academic and political analyst

“The government has been unable to restore the confidence. This alienation manifests in so many ways, one of which is the elation that people feel when there are adverse situations for India, whether on the Chinese border or in Afghanistan.”

A slew of administrative steps by the government after the repeal of Kashmir’s special status, even as it places a chokehold on every medium of dissent and opposition, have escalated the anger and feeling of bitterness in Kashmir.

The domicile law that rolls out new residency permits, the media policy that penalises “anti-national” reporting, and land laws that will attract non-Kashmiri real estate buyers have already bred a lot of resentment. In addition to that, the delimitation, which will redraw electoral boundaries, the reduction of quota of local officers going into all-India civil service, the abridgement of powers of the Chief Minister, and more recently, the decision to deny passport and sack employees with adverse CID reports, have cemented the feeling that Narendra Modi is determined to disempower Kashmiri Muslims politically.

The fresh wave of resentment is also catalysing into support for violent groups. A recent Concerned Citizens’ Group Report found that the “people of Kashmir are unhappy with the political and economic shape the Union Territory is taking, have lost all hope in the democratic process and are becoming more inclined towards militancy.”

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Can Hardened Militants Enter Kashmir?

Earlier this year, Yelena Biberman, a fellow at Modern War Institute (MWI), a research centre at the United States Military Academy dedicated to the study of war and warfare, in her report concluded that “battle-hardened Afghan and international jihadists can relocate to Kashmir”.

However, a top Home Ministry official told The Quint that such predictions are far from accurate. “There is some euphoria in Kashmir as well as in the rest of the country. But at this moment, we are not anticipating any credible threat. None of the foreign terrorists that we have seen in Kashmir was actually Afghan. They were mostly either from other parts of Pakistan or Pakistani-occupied Kashmir.”

The Indian High Commission, London, in 1996 disclosed that between 1990 and 1995, the Indian government identified 297 “foreign mercenaries” arrested or killed, of which 213 were from Pakistan and 84 from Afghanistan.

These concerns are also being overlaid by other forms of discourse pertaining to the perceived “Talibanisation” of Kashmir. Recently, a commentator on Twitter declared that Kashmir will “become Afghanistan” should India decide to withdraw its forces from the region.

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This belief is also rooted more in misperception than in reality. Taliban’s harsh interpretation of Sharia, the Islamic civil law, comes not from a diligent understanding of Islamic faith but the group’s political imperatives that demand a totalitarian control over Afghan territory, as it sought to supplant and liberate the country from the rule of deeply resented and unpopular Mujahideen warlords.

As the illustrious scholar and journalist Ahmed Rashid writes, the Taliban’s interpretation of jihad was an anomaly in Afghanistan. Sunni-Hanafism, with its contemplative mystic traditions, was deeply embedded in Afghanistan’s social fabric for most of the 20th century. In 1925, King Amanullah introduced reforms and merged Sharia with the secular civil legal code.

In fact, Sufi tariqahs or orders of Naqshbandiyah and Qadariyah schools commanded enormous influence and patronage. But the families and personages affiliated with these schools, capable of thwarting the influence of the radical ideology that the Mujahideens espoused, were sidelined by the combined Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)- Inter-Services Intelligence(ISI) nexus during the early 1980s.

Even the harsh punishments that the Taliban meted out to women, heretics, blasphemers and adulterers reflect adherence to Pashtunwali, a conservative tribal code that binds ethnic Pashtun groups, from where most of the Taliban recruits are drawn.

As Rashid writes, the Taliban took Deobandi precepts “to an extreme which the original Deobandis would have never recognised”. It is impossible, therefore, that such an ideology will find traction in Kashmir as easily as is suggested.

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Nostalgia for the ‘90s

“Taliban victory has sparked a sort of nostalgia for the 1990s, where foreign fighters believed to be Afghans would offer stiff resistance to Indian forces,” said a student from Pulwama who did not want to be identified. “When I speak to my friends, relatives and acquaintances, I feel that there’s really a lot of anticipation about the Taliban here.”

Kashmiri folklore about the 1990s features one Haroon Ahmed, a Pashtun mercenary from Peshawar known by his nom de guerre ‘Mast Gul’, who was sent by the ISI to boost the prospects of the Hizbul Mujahideen as the agency sought to undermine the Independence-oriented Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF).

The first phase of the Kashmir insurgency was led by JKLF’s ‘four horsemen’ — Hameed Sheikh, Ashfaq Majeed, Javed Mir and Yasin Malik — all of whom, in one way or another, participated in the 1987 Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly election.

The JKLF also commanded considerable support from the civil society of Kashmir. Doctors, engineers, intellectuals and laypeople joined its ranks.

Initially, the local guerrillas far outnumbered those who would sneak in from across the border. For instance, in 1991, the number of local militants killed in fighting with Indian forces was estimated to be 844. Of these, only two were non-locals, according to official figures of that time.

In early February 1990, writes Robert G Wirsing, a political scientist, a meeting was held in Islamabad, with Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in the Chair and the Chief of Army Staff, General Aslam Beg, with the President and Prime Minister of Pakistan-administered Kashmir in attendance. “They decided they had to curb the Azaadi forces, meaning they would not equip them and not send them into the Valley.” This was the time when Pakistan ISI’s clout had swollen enormously because the US made it the sole implementing agency of its proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

It was an “army within an army” that enjoyed an outsized “partnership with the CIA with periodic access to the world’s most sophisticated technology and intelligence collection systems. The service had welcomed Pakistan legions of volunteers from across the Islamic world, fighters who were willing to pursue Pakistan’s foreign policy not only in Afghanistan but also across its eastern borders in Kashmir,” journalist Steve Coll writes in Ghost Wars.

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A Two-Way Exchange

That’s how foreign fighters entered Kashmir. In their book, The Meadow, authors Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark offer a detailed account of how Gul stockpiled a revered medieval shrine of Sheikh Nur-ud-din Wali in Budgam district with munitions to bring “about a battle in this holiest of cities that would make the entire ummah [Muslim world] rise up in hatred”.

On 10 May, 1995, two explosions rang out and the wooden hermitage went up in flames.

The exchange of armed volunteers wasn’t just one way. In the mid-1990s, Aijaz Ahangar from Srinagar’s Nawa Kadal area was released from the Srinagar central jail. He travelled to Bangladesh and from there to Pakistan, and eventually Afghanistan.

Ahangar’s father-in-law, Abdul Ghani Dar aka Ghani Ghazali, was instrumental in forming the Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen (TuM), which supplied foreign recruits into Kashmir. Ghazali was a withering octogenarian cleric who preached the ahl-e-hadith doctrine in Kashmir, when he was killed inside a mosque in Srinagar’s Maisuma last year. His 15-year-old grandson Abdullah was among the al-Qaeda militants killed in a US drone strike in July 2017.

Ahangar, who was arrested in Afghanistan last year, is believed to have consorted with al-Qaeda briefly before joining the Islamic State-Khorasan Province. No wonder then that his TuM also became a springboard for the launch of Islamic State Jammu and Kashmir (ISJK). In fact, most cadres who piloted the rise of ISJK in Kashmir were formerly associated with TuM. Those include Dawood Sofi, Mugees Mir, Ashraf Itoo and Aadil Mir, all of whom were killed in 2017 and 2018.

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Aashiq Khan from Basant Bagh Srinagar was a ninth-grade student in 1986 when he tiptoed his way to Afghanistan through Pakistan. Fighting against the Soviets alongside him was Irfan Kathwari (19), son of a Kashmiri-American business tycoon. Kathwari left his studies midway through at King Faisal University in Islamabad and crossed into Afghanistan in a Toyota pick-up.

Three more youth, Abdullah Bangroo, Maqbool Ilahi and Ghaffar Bhat, who found themselves emotionally tormented during the febrile years of the 1980s, characterised by political coups, endless curfews, rigged polls and an iron-fist rule in Kashmir, crossed over to Pakistan in 1988 for arms training but could not return to Kashmir as Bhutto closed the camps in wake of the fall of Zia’s regime.

Instead, they were joined by two more Kashmiris, Ayub Bangroo and Ghulam Gojri and are believed to have journeyed to Jalalabad, where they fraternised with members of Hizb-e-Islami, one of the ragtag Islamist groups supported by Pakistan against Soviets.

Aijaz Malla from Patushahi village in north Kashmir’s Bandipora was killed by US forces in 2007 in Afghanistan. He had left home in 2001 at the age of 11 and became the first Kashmiri to fight a Taliban-led jihad in Afghanistan.

Bhat, in an interview to the media in 2015, claimed that an estimated 500 Kashmiri volunteers were fighting on behalf of Mujahideen during the anti-Soviet war. However, in 1989, the Jammu & Kashmir police could identify at least 20 youth who died battling Soviets in Afghanistan.

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But Terrorism Isn't About Just Sentiment

There are worries that if the Taliban’s recapture of Afghanistan creates thriving conditions for many outfits to re-emerge, some Kashmir youth may become encouraged to reprise the role of their forebears in the 1990s, or that Pakistan may allow foreign mercenaries to cross into Kashmir.

This year, however, only 10 per cent of militants killed in Kashmir were foreigners. The figure was 15 per cent in 2020 and 19 per cent in 2019.

A senior officer in the J&K police told The Quint that, unlike in the 1990s, in today’s scenario, information about foreign militants is often more forthcoming than about the local ones. “No doubt FTs (foreign terrorists) have a level of potency because of their training, but it is also true that Kashmiri informers have many times brought FTs to us on a platter,” the officer said. “Local militants have a certain advantage in the sense that their support system sometimes tends to be comparatively stronger.”

Scholars also agree that there has been a change of situation.

Post 9/11, the global attitude towards non-state actors is completely different.
Noor Ahmed Baba, a distinguished Kashmiri political scientist

“Pakistan for its own interests is curbing the activities of many of these groups operating in Kashmir. But there are apprehensions concerning the larger strategic equation, which has changed in favour of Pakistan.”

Experts believe that Pakistan was not in the position to dramatically escalate the militancy in Kashmir. “Taliban has never shown interest in Kashmir,” said Ajai Sahni, Executive Director of the Institute for Conflict Management, Delhi. “The principal threat has always arisen through Pakistan or groups mediated by Pakistan. But my speculation is that the pressure is going to dramatically increase. As far as the motivation to groups within Kashmir is concerned, it’s important to understand that terrorism is not about sentiment. You need many other enablers and they don’t exist in Kashmir in the manner they did in the past.”

(Shakir Mir is a freelance journalist who has reported for the TOI and The Wire, among other publications. He tweets at @shakirmir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same. )

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read and Breaking News at the Quint, browse for more from voices and opinion

Topics:  Kashmir   Pakistan   Taliban 

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