As one who has been tracking the Taliban from its birth in 1994, I find it very difficult to agree with the rosy analysis based on Zabihulla Mujahid’s recent statement that the Taliban would not interfere in Kashmir.
On 8 August, the other Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, was interviewed by senior BBC journalist Lyse Doucet who asked him how he could justify bomb attacks in Kabul a day ago, injuring over 95 persons when they were almost signing an agreement. His cynical reply, indicating Taliban’s forked tongue, was that it was “collateral damage” during protests against the “Illegal” Ghani regime.
Taliban originated as Pakistan’s mercenaries with a religious façade. Sometime in the second half of 1994, I was talking to senior envoy of Afghan Jamiat-e-Islami leader Ahmed Shah Masood to learn why a sudden flow of young Talibs from Pakistan to Afghanistan had started. He said that it was Benazir Bhutto’s creation and not ISI’s. She wanted an independent outfit to pressurise Afghanistan as she had no confidence in ISI.
In October 1994 we managed to intercept President Farooq Leghari’s talk with Naseerullah Babar, Benazir’s confidante and interior minister, congratulating him on his successful trip with young Talibs for opening up the Afghan highways from the warlords. Hein G Kiessling’s authoritative history of ISI gives more details. I had reviewed it in November 2016 for an Indian publication. Afghan warlords had stopped truck convoys carrying Asif Zardari’s bulk cotton purchases from Turkmenistan in the summer of1994. Babar turned to Mullah Omar for manpower to get reliable escorts. He also persuaded Pervez Musharraf, then DGMO, to hand over 18,000 AK-47s from their Spin Boldak depot to the Talibs. That was the origin of the Taliban. The conversation we overheard was after Babar’s successful trip on 29 October 1994 to Ashgabat and back.
There is a mistaken impression in India that the Taliban comprises only Afghan Pashtuns. Khalilullah Safi, founding member of Afghan Peace Studies Organisation (APSO) says thousands of Pakistani jihadis joined Taliban during Afghan Wars under assumed names. He quotes the case of Maulana Mohammed Arshad, a prominent Harkat-ul-Mujahideen commander joining Afghan resistance as “Abu Dujana”.
This trend became stronger after the 1996 capture of Kabul when the Deobandi and Barelvi followers found raison d’etre to join jihad for achieving an “Islamic Emirate” as envisaged by Mullah Omar. “An important fact in this regard is that Pakistani mujahideen were in need of a rear front in case of Kashmir”. Safi says that Taliban entirely depends on Pakistan for security, command and control, recruitment, training, fund collection, logistics, propaganda and hospital facilities.
I would strongly believe that the “rear front” has come now after the crackdown. US Marine Corps General Kenneth McKenzie had also told the Senate Armed Services Committee in December 2018 that Pakistan continues to use Afghan Taliban as a “hedge” against India.
Bill Roggio, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and editor of FDD’s Long War Journal says that Taliban obtains modern weapons from multiple sources like raids or defections on/from Afghan army and police, gifted or purchased from Pakistan, Russia and Iran. In the past, U.S. had taken this up with Russia and Iran, quoting the deaths of 2,300 U.S. soldiers during the last 18 years, 55 per cent with IEDs. Both Russia and Iran had defended their sales, justifying threats from Islamic State in Afghanistan.
Another trend has been flagged by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point in December 2018 on Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK) threats from Afghanistan. ISK uses eleven ‘high end’ or ‘low end’ partners in AF-Pak region. It was responsible for 211 attacks, resulting in 1,511 deaths in Afghanistan between January 2014 and July 2018. In Pakistan it organised 83 attacks, causing 706 deaths. Ten journalists were killed in Afghanistan in April 2018. It also organised the second-deadliest attack in Pakistan’s history by bombing an election rally in Balochistan, killing 149 in July 2018.
The biggest danger to us is the lateral migration of extremists from older outfits like Pak-aided Kashmir-centric groups towards al-Qaeda and ISK due to our effective counter-terrorist action against known militants thereby causing a vacuum in the Valley. This has always happened elsewhere in the world. Islamic State (IS) rose in Iraq-Syria after al-Qaeda was weakened. Jihadis know no other occupation except terrorism. Thus, we cannot determine the identity of such groups by merely examining conventional markers. I have noticed such mistakes in our intelligence reports leaked to media. As a result, our former Home Minister had wrongly announced on March 16, 2018, that IS would have no impact on India.
In fact, the migration from Taliban to ISK has already started. This is a serious threat to us in Kashmir irrespective of what Pakistan might do. The ISK considers Kashmir as a ‘Vilayat’ and would take advantage of the present widespread unrest in the Valley after our crackdown. A report on August 8 by Stefanie Glinski, well known photo journalist for the Guardian (UK), said that 10 per cent of the Afghan Taliban cadre would defect to ISK if they sign a peace deal with the United States. She quotes Lt Gen Abdul Hadi Khalid, former interior vice minister, now with the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, that ISK has an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 fighters, one fourth of them foreigners.
Another danger is the reported Iranian attempts in sensitive Kargil area, targeting Shias to combat the Wahabi- Salafist influence. U.S. analysts say that this has already started in Giljit-Baltistan. I also saw a report in an Israeli paper recently that they are trying to influence Kargil. In fact, this report said that Iran had recruited some Shia youth from Kargil to fight for the pro-Assad coalition in Syria. We should not allow Kashmir to become a battleground for pro-Saudi and pro-Iran groups, like Iraq or Syria.
All I can say is that our intelligence and security agencies have a very onerous task ahead in Kashmir in the days to come.
(The writer is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat and member of the high-level two-man committee which inquired into the systemic failures during 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. Views expressed in this article are personal.)