Let there be no doubt that the absolute defeat of two superpowers in Afghanistan in a conflict spread over 42 years — 1979 to 2021— will reinvigorate radical Islam all over the world. The Taliban’s victory reinforces the theory that the Islamic tenet of divine Jihad only requires belief, perseverance and patience to succeed. Triumphalism prevailing in the minds of the common Muslim people all over the world will give it further impetus in the form of funds and recruits.
India, despite 17.22 crore Muslims (2011 census), is considered as Dar al Harb — a non–Muslim nation — by radical Islamists. The ongoing Pakistan-sponsored proxy war/insurgency in Muslim-dominated areas of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and perceived persecution of Muslims in rest of the country, makes India a natural target for radical Islam.
In my view, the threat of resurgent radical Islam to India, particularly in J&K, is exaggerated. However, we should be prepared for a hybrid conflict likely to be waged by a refocused Pakistan and China in J&K and Ladakh.
Likely approach of Taliban
The success of the Mujahideen using the Jihad model in Afghanistan — 1979 to 1989 — inspired Pakistan to replicate it in J&K beginning 1989. The bloodiest phase of the insurgency was from 1993 to 2003 when first the Mujahideen and then between 1996 and 2001 the Taliban were ruling Afghanistan. During this period, “foreign terrorists” started operating in J&K in sizeable numbers. There were speculative reports of Afghan terrorists operating in J&K in large numbers, primarily members of the Hezb-e-Islami party of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. These reports were never substantiated. The government has never officially given out the nationalities of “foreign terrorists” except those from Pakistan. In my view, the term “Afghan terrorists” was used synonymously with “terrorists with Afghan experience”. Most foreign terrorists operating in J&K were/are from Pakistan’s Punjab.
Taliban are Afghanistan–centric and have rarely ventured out of Afghanistan to fight for radical Islam. Currently, the Taliban is seeking international legitimacy and has made tall declarations of not acting as a base to export terrorism. It will take a long time for Afghanistan to stabilise politically and economically to have effective governance . As a State, in the foreseeable future, the Taliban is unlikely to export or support Islamic ideology driven terrorism to other countries using the Talibs. Even if it does so at a later stage, it will be done in a covert/deniable and sophisticated manner. With international recognition and aid, the Taliban is unlikely to remain beholden to Pakistan. Its sovereignty and Pashtun nationalism will not allow it to fight Pakistan’s wars.
However, the Taliban has a large number of allied co-terrorist fighters of all hues – al-Qaeda, ISIS-Khorasan Province/Daesh, Lashkar-e-Taiba (Let), Jaish-e-Mohammed (Jem), Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), East Turkestan Liberation Organization (Uyghurs), and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, among others, over whom it has no control. These terrorists, including extreme elements of the Taliban, know only one thing: to wage Jihad to impose Dar al-Islam. They switch loyalties with impunity for ideological or personal reasons. A large number of TTP cadres had joined ISIS-KP when their leadership began negotiating with Pakistan.
Charged with the Afghan experience, it is likely that the LeT and JeM cadres along with elements from other terrorist groupings, including the extreme Taliban, will be used by the ISI to resurrect the insurgency in J&K. They are likely to be better trained and better armed with sophisticated weaponry left behind by the US.
Options before Pakistan
Pakistan knows the limits of its proxy war in J&K. India is a nuclear power and militarily far superior to Pakistan. Pakistan has failed to break India’s will by tiring it out. If it raises the ante in J&K to threaten the integrity of India, it would lead to a war for Pakistan to lose. Nuclear weapons also foreclose the option of collusive China–Pakistan war to usurp J&K.
Pakistan’s economic revival is contingent on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes through the Indian territory of Gilgit-Baltistan, illegally occupied by Pakistan. The CPEC is also the flagship project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Baloch resistance , TTP and Gilgit-Baltistan United Front have been targeting the Chinese citizens working in the CPEC. If Pakistan raises the ante in J&K, India can do a quid pro quo in Pakistan, particularly with respect to the CPEC. Apart from ideology, money remains a motivator for terrorists. All terrorist groupings in Afghanistan can also be used against Pakistan.
It boils down to two options for Pakistan. Wage a hybrid war — proxy war plus conventional border skirmishing in collusion with China — in J&K and Ladakh to bleed India by a 1,000 cuts. Alternatively, pursue peace through bilateral or trilateral, dialogue to work out a “standstill agreement” with the Line of Control and the Line of Actual Control becoming de facto borders, if not International Boundaries.
There is no comparison between Afghanistan and J&K. The Taliban in Afghanistan were fighting a foreign occupier and an unpopular puppet government. The US and Afghan forces violated all tenets of counter insurgency (CI). The borders were not sealed and a grid of posts/bases capable of reacting in real time was never established allowing the Taliban to control large swathes of territory.
The Indian Army runs a model people-friendly CI campaign. Optimum counter-infiltration deployment along the LoC has kept the borders sealed — a model Pakistan is attempting to emulate along the Durand Line. There is an effective CI grid of Company Operating Bases that can act/react in quick time. Special Forces cater for voids and difficult areas. Strategic Surgical Air/Special Forces Strikes can be executed on as required basis. We have adequate capability to cater for the conventional threat as part of the hybrid war along the LoC/LAC.
While the military strategy has been and will be successful, our political strategy is below par. Revocation of Article 370 and experiments of democracy through panchayats and district councils have failed to win the hearts and minds of the people of J&K. The Prime Minister’s initiative to reach out to mainstream political parties has been half-hearted. Restoration of statehood has remained a “political promise”. The government must remember that the road to Srinagar — hearts and minds of the people — runs from Delhi and not from Islamabad or Kabul.
The bigger worry of the government is not the threat of reinvigorated proxy war in J&K, but the fissures developing in the minds of the large Muslim community because of them being targeted by lumpen ideology driven elements of the majority community. That these elements enjoy political/State patronage only substantiates the persecution theory of radical Islam. The overdrive of the pro-Right wing media and politicians on contrived linkages between Indian Muslims and the Taliban have further queered the pitch. Pakistan and radical Islam are bound to exploit the situation.
A beginning has been made by establishing overt diplomatic contact with the Taliban albeit at its request. Further engagement and recognition subject to forming an inclusive government, not providing bases to terrorists and adherence to human rights coupled with our soft power will keep both radical Islam and Pakistan at bay.
Diplomatically, we must not shy away from a trilateral engagement with Pakistan and China to bring about peace in J&K and Ladakh.
India’s secular Constitution resolutely upheld by its governments and the higher courts, and the idea of India as a multi-religious, multi- ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-cultural inclusive society firmly embedded in the minds of the people, has safeguarded us from external and internal ideology driven threats. Our economic stability and apolitical/secular, and powerful armed forces have neutralised direct threats. Our model for dealing with separatism/insurgencies driven by ethnic, religious and ideological factors, is envy of the whole world. So long as India adheres to these ideals, radical Islam will pose no threat.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)