The return of the Taliban could rekindle militancy in Kashmir

India Kashmir Attack Eyes wide open: Indian Army soldiers check for explosives during a search operation at Domana army camp in Jammu | AP

WITH THE TALIBAN seizing power in Afghanistan, security officials in India are assessing its possible impact on Kashmir.

Much like what happened after the Soviet pull-out from Afghanistan in the late 1980s, the US withdrawal and rise of the Taliban could rekindle militancy in Kashmir, especially when India's focus has shifted from Pakistan to China.

Contrary to popular perception, say former militant commanders in Kashmir, the seeds of militancy in the region were sown much before the alleged rigging of the 1987 assembly elections. The National Conference, with the backing of the Congress government at the Centre, had allegedly fixed the elections to prevent the Muslim United Front, a coalition of different groups with separatist leanings, from coming to power.

“The rigging created the right conditions to recruit people into militancy,” said a former militant commander. “Armed struggle in Kashmir was the idea of [Pakistan president] General Zia-ul-Haq.” He said Zia believed the success of the mujahideen against the Soviets could be replicated in Kashmir.

When Jamaat-e-Islami chief Saddudin Tarbali visited Pakistan in 1983, Zia had told him that they were finishing the job in Afghanistan and would focus on Kashmir, said the commander. “Tarbali told him that the Jamaat was a socio-religious organisation, and that it couldn’t take the responsibility,” he said. Ultimately, the pro-independence Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front was chosen for the job.

Another militant commander, now in his 60s, said that many young men who joined militancy—including JKLF leader Yasin Malik—were supporters of the MUF. In the 1987 elections, militants like Ashfaq Majeed Wani, Hamid Sheikh, Javed Mir and Malik had campaigned for Mohammed Yusuf Shah, who “lost” and later became Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin.

After the elections, Wani, Sheikh, Mir and Malik were jailed. Support for them and their cause grew, and militancy erupted in the valley. Another former militant commander, who made several trips to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in the 1990s, said JKLF's pro-independence agenda allowed plausible deniability. “General Zia was an Islamist to the core and the Afghan mujahideen held him in high esteem,” he said. “He had planned to send the battle-hardened mujahideen to Kashmir after the withdrawal of the Red Army from Afghanistan. But the plan died with Zia when his plane exploded mid-air on August 17, 1988—over a month after JKLF had carried out its first bomb blasts in Srinagar.”

A former JKLF commander said after the blasts in Srinagar, they fled to Muzaffarabad (in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir) to evade arrest. “Then Benazir Bhutto became prime minister, training camps were closed, and we were detained,” he said. He added that if Zia had not died, perhaps the story of Kashmir militancy would have been different.

After the ouster of the Taliban from power in 2001, Pakistan had to reportedly deploy more than 1.5 lakh troops on the border with Afghanistan to prevent Baloch separatists and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) from launching attacks in Pakistan. Two decades later, with the Taliban back in power and desperate for recognition, Pakistan and China will likely use their leverage and Chinese investment in Afghanistan to rein in the militants from attacking the projects under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in Pakistan. If that happens, Pakistan could divert a large number of its troops and equipment from the Durand Line to the Line of Control.

India, having already committed a portion of its military resources to counter the growing threat from China, could be found wanting on the north-western border. Moreover, the situation could lead to increased infiltration into Kashmir.

Security analysts believe the Taliban's victory will embolden militant groups fighting in Kashmir, especially the Jaish-e-Mohammad, which follows the Deobandi school of thought like the Taliban. In the past three years, Indian forces have killed at least 630 militants in encounters in Kashmir. Most of these were local boys who lacked training and equipment. However, an influx of highly trained foreign militants could create serious problems for India.