Will Afghanistan situation cast a shadow on Kashmir?
Recent reports suggest that Pakistan-based terror outfits Jaish and Lashkar have relocated their bases to Afghanistan
Jammu and Kashmir is again top of the mind among security experts. This time the cause for concern is nothing ‘internal’, but rather the fast-paced geo-political developments taking place hundreds of miles away, in Afghanistan.
India has always stressed, on global platforms, that a stable Afghanistan is crucial for regional peace. Now, with the radical Taliban in the driving seat, supported unabashedly by Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI, India’s security concerns have risen manifold.
The big question is: Will the Taliban resurrection in Afghanistan cast its shadow on the hard earned peace and development in Jammu and Kashmir?
Following the military pullout of the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Taliban surprised everyone with its swift and brutal takeover of Afghan territories and the seat of power, Kabul.
Top diplomats and defence experts have since raised concerns that this could impact the security situation in J&K, owing to the Taliban’s close ties with ISI and regional terror outfits.
In a clear indicator of its mindset, soon after wresting control of Afghanistan, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen told BBC on September 2: “As Muslims, we also have a right to raise our voice for Muslims in Kashmir, India or any other country.”
Prior to Taliban’s remarks, Al Qaeda had congratulated the group for its Kabul victory. Virtually in the same breath, the terror group called for the “liberation” of Kashmir, Somalia, Yemen, and other “Islamic lands”.
It’s important to note that the first thing the Taliban did after taking over was to release all terrorists from prisons including those from the ‘Islamic State’ (IS), Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed.
Spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs Arindam Bagchi stated clearly last week that India's immediate focus in Afghanistan is to ensure that Afghan soil is not used for terrorist activities against it.
“We were concerned about how terrorist activity from Afghanistan could overflow into India,” Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat said at an event in Delhi, adding that contingency plans were already in place.
Pakistan’s close ties with all radical, terror groups
Pakistan’s friendship with the Taliban, perhaps an open secret earlier, became official when PM Imran Khan endorsed the Taliban takeover, saying the Afghans had "broken the shackles of slavery".
A leader of Pakistan’s ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, Neelam Irshad Sheikh, was quoted as saying the Taliban would help the country in ‘liberating’ Kashmir from India.
In a voice message, Syed Salahuddin, head of another Pak-backed terror group Hizb-ul Mujahiddin, called the Taliban victory "extraordinary and historical", and added that he expected them to aid Kashmir's “holy warriors” in “defeating” India. Salahuddin is based in Pakistan-occupied Jammu Kashmir.
For a financially crippled Pakistan, a conventional war with India is too costly an option. India’s military might is also far superior. Hence, given Pakistan’s way of thinking, its only recourse against India is a proxy war through an array of terror groups. The manner in which both the US and China have been using Pakistan for their separate strategic interests in the region, has given a sense of power to the otherwise failed state. And by bleeding India through ‘a thousand cuts’, Pakistan hopes to establish itself as a ‘powerful’ entity in the region.
Will Afghanistan be the new terror hub?
The Taliban, Al Qaeda, Haqqani network and terror groups such as Jaish, Lashkar and IS-Khorasan Province share a complicated, dynamic relationship. And the land of Afghanistan appears set to turn into their new hub.
In the words of Ali Mohammad Ali, a former Afghan security official, “Afghanistan has now become the Las Vegas of terrorists, of the radicals and of the extremists. People all over the world, radicals and extremists, are chanting, celebrating the Taliban victory. This is paving the way for other extremists to come to Afghanistan.”
Sirajuddin Haqqani, the new acting interior minister of Afghanistan, runs the Haqqani network that was responsible for a large number of attacks on Indian assets, including our embassy in Kabul.
The Taliban and the Haqqani network, a terror group based in Pakistan, are essentially one and the same, reports New York Times quoting terrorism experts. Sirajuddin Haqqani has been the deputy emir of the Taliban since 2015. In turn, the Haqqanis are close, operationally and ideologically, to Al Qaeda, the NYT report says.
“The Taliban, Haqqani network, and Al Qaeda function as a triumvirate,” NYT quotes Colin P. Clarke, a counterterrorism analyst based in New York. These three entities are inextricably linked, Clarke said, and in fact, have grown closer over the past decade.
Recent reports suggest that Pakistan-based terror outfits Jaish and Lashkar have relocated their bases to Afghanistan to work with the ‘friendly’ Taliban regime.
"Pakistan's ISI may ask the Taliban to divert some of its terrorists to Jammu & Kashmir to revive terror operations," former Jammu & Kashmir Director General of Police (DGP) SP Vaid said in an interview to India Today recently.
"Pakistan will now shift terror training camps of Jaish and Lashkar from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to Afghanistan to avoid international scrutiny. Anti-India terror groups would get safe havens in Afghanistan," the former police chief said. Another 9/11 attack could be planned from the war-torn country, he warned.
"We need to be very cautious. We may have to deal with the alliance of China, Pakistan and the Taliban," Vaid said in the interview.
Pak stamp on Taliban ‘government formation’
Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, son of Taliban's first leader and founder Mullah Omar who masterminded the IC-814 hijacking of 1999, is now Afghanistan's defence minister under the Taliban rule.
The 1999 hijacking was plotted to pressurize India to release arrested terrorists – Jaish chief Maulana Masood Azhar, leader of defunct terror group Al Umar Mujahideen, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, and British-born Al-Qaeda leader Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh. The hijacking operation was backed by ISI.
The appointment of Yaqoob and others such as Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Hassan Akhund, listed as terrorists by the US and United Nations respectively, shows the influence and stamp of the Haqqani network. The Haqqani network is known for its brutal attacks plus technical skills such as putting together improvised explosive devices and rocket construction. If it continues to enjoy power in the Taliban regime, Pakistan may use it to its advantage against India.
Pakistan reopens airfields near Kashmir valley, southern Afghanistan
According to an India Today report, Pakistan has activated its airfield in Balochistan near Afghanistan. There has been a significant uptick in aerial activity around the Pakistan-Afghanistan border as Pakistani agencies are directly involved in deploying men and material there, the report indicates.
A number of other air bases in Rawalkot and Kotli (Pakistan occupied areas of J&K) have also been activated by Pakistani agencies, who are deploying air defence assets there.
Indian agencies are continuously monitoring Pakistani activities via radars and other systems round the clock.
Indian intelligence agencies are also keeping track of Pakistan Air Force activities on its eastern front, where the Shamsi Airfield in Afghanistan has reportedly been reactivated to support Taliban operations.
The China factor
China’s clandestine role in the Taliban resurrection also needs to be studied. Its obvious geo-political game is to wield an overarching influence over the Hindu Kush region, engulfing Afghanistan, through its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Beijing has officially termed the establishment of the new interim government as a "necessary step to restore order" in Afghanistan, and has pledged 200 million yuan ($31m, £22m) worth of aid to the nation, including food supplies and coronavirus vaccines.
While announcing the aid measures in a meeting on Wednesday, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi urged several of Afghanistan's neighbours – Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – to cooperate in helping Afghanistan.
On the other hand, Taliban officials have described China as Afghanistan's most important partner and pinned hopes on Chinese investment and support to rebuild the war-torn country.
Gen Rawat, while referring to the changing world global geopolitical scenario at an event on Wednesday said: “We are seeing some kind of a jointmanship between the Sinic and Islamic civilisations. You can see China now making friends with Iran, they are moving towards Turkey… And they will step into Afghanistan in the years to come…. Is that going to lead to a clash of civilizations with the Western civilization?” The world is in “turmoil”, he said.
Pakistan is a “proxy" of China and will continue its “proxy war" against India in Jammu and Kashmir, Gen. Rawat pointed out, adding that it is now attempting to create trouble in Punjab and some other parts of the country as well.
Terror footprints in Kashmir
Reports suggest Kashmir is again witnessing a surge in foreign terrorists.
There are 40-50 foreign and 11 local terrorists active in north Kashmir bordering Pakistan occupied areas, according to a report in The Hindu. This would be the first time in a decade that foreign terrorists outnumber local ones. It is also noteworthy that terror activities seem to have shifted from south to north Kashmir.
News agency IANS has reported intel inputs that ISI has been pushing members of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) into Pakistan-occupied Jammu Kashmir (PoJK) with an aim to carry out a big strike in J&K. These ISKP terrorists were recently released from Afghan jails.
ISKP was created six years ago by disaffected Pakistani Taliban.
ISKP terrorists are reportedly already positioned at various terror launch pads along the Line of Control. Intel inputs indicate the presence of Pashtun-speaking terrorists in PoJK camps – another pointer to the presence of ISKP men in the terror launch pads in areas bordering Jammu and Kashmir.
While ISKP is seen as a bitter rival of the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network in Afghanistan, Pakistan is the common thread supporting all these radical groups.
World community concerned
India has shared its concerns over Pakistan's links with the Taliban and terror groups operating in Afghanistan with the international leadership, including CIA chief William Burns, head of the UK's Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) Richard Moore and Secretary of the Security Council of Russia Nikolai Patrushev during their separate visits here over the last few days.
Notably, Indian officials and the NSAs of the three countries were on the same page on issues such as the need for the Taliban to adhere to promises, the presence of international terror groups in Afghanistan and threats from terrorism to Central Asia and India. It was agreed that Islamic radicalisation and extremism, the flow of weapons to terrorist groups and smuggling across Afghan borders and chances of the war-torn country becoming a hub of opium production and trafficking was a major concern.
Russian ambassador Nikolay Kudashev, who spoke to reporters on the margins of an event at the Russian embassy, said Russia is closely cooperating with India to counter the danger of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan. Any flare-up of the civilian conflict would result in terrorism spilling over across the region, he said.
Most recently, US Congressman Michael Waltz said a resurgent Taliban means an escalation of terror-related violence in the Union Territory of J&K. In an interview with India Today TV, Michael Waltz said with the Taliban in power in Afghanistan, “there will be Al Qaeda 3.0. The Taliban-Lashkar-e-Taiba links will create serious terror issues in Kashmir.”
“Pakistan supports these terror groups -- the Haqqanis, LeT and the Taliban. Pakistan should be held accountable,” he said.
The union territory of Jammu and Kashmir has just begun to look forward to long-lasting peace and to reap the benefit of developmental initiatives. It is crucial at this juncture to keep it safe from any kind of disruptions.
Reiterating India’s position at a special session of the UN Human Rights Council on the situation in Afghanistan, Indian ambassador to the UN in Geneva Indra Mani Pandey said: "We hope that the situation in Afghanistan does not pose a challenge to its neighbours and its territory is not used by terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, to threaten any other country."
He said India's "millennia-old" friendship with Afghanistan rests on the strong pillars of people to people relationships and that it has always stood for a peaceful, prosperous and progressive Afghanistan.