The American exit from Afghanistan, turned into a scuttle eventually. It sent shivers of anticipation through J&K, and anxious queries through the rest of the country. Some wondered if the Taliban would soon turn up at Kashmir’s frontier, others imagined a re-ignition of the militant spirit within.
It is a tenuous link between the Taliban and Kashmiri militancy. At the height of their power in the late nineties the Taliban seem to have done no more than permit training camps in their territory or facilitate the exchange of Omar Sheikh and Masood Azhar during the hijack in 1999. The few Afghan fighters in Kashmir of the nineties were from the pre-Taliban period when there was a civil war in Afghanistan and the Pakistan was pushing unwanted international mujahids across the LoC.
There isn’t any doubt that the Taliban success this time around, like the last time, owes much to Pakistan. Post 9/11 when American attacked the Al Qaeda and Taliban, Pakistan gave up Al Qaeda and other foreigners while protecting Afghan Talibani leaders. It sheltered and sustained them and probably helped them in the last stages of their eventual victory.
One imagines that Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan can be viewed from two perspectives. The major and more important part must be the view from its domestic perspective which is also Pakistan’s India perspective, the Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan and the concept of strategic depth. The second is international – facilitating contacts of other countries with Taliban leaders, helping China attain its goals, creating trade routes through Central Asia, the TAPI gas pipeline, and so on.
It was in 1990, after an army exercise called Zarb e Momin, that General Mirza Aslam Beg enunciated publicly, the concept of Pakistan Army’s strategic depth in Afghanistan against India. Though discredited, this murky idea has not entirely gone away. Did it mean that Afghanistan provided space for retreat for Pakistan’s army, if under pressure from India in a war, conceding space in Punjab to fight from the mountain fastness of the Khyber? If not, what?
Perhaps the idea was to use the battle hardened mujahideen, then under control of the Pakistan and newly victorious against the Soviet Union, to wrench Kashmir from India. If so, it did not work very well then. The few Mujahideen types who did infiltrate into India were either eliminated or returned to Pakistan, disillusioned perhaps by the circumstances of the conflict here and the nature of the fighting.
There were no battles being fought in Kashmir. Then, as now, militancy manifested in sporadic and isolated attacks on individual positions that were quickly terminated with the elimination of the attackers. Only a handful of incidents can be recalled that lasted more than two days. In the years following the emergence of the Taliban, which coincided mostly with Farooq Abdullah’s tenure as Chief Minister not once was a Talibani fingerprint detected in any of the militant attacks.
Which brings us to the expectation this time around of Talibani intervention in Kashmir. We were informed by the Taliban’s Qatar representatives that their government has no interest in matters outside Afghanistan’s frontiers. Assurances have been held out to China that the East Turkistan Islamic Movement will find no purchase under a Taliban government. The Indian ambassador to Qatar who met Mullah Baradar at the latter’s request was similarly assured that a Taliban government had no interest in Kashmir.
Are these reports credible? Have the Taliban mutated into a gentler version as some commentators have opined? Is Taliban 2.0 a moderate agent compared to the wild men that ran Afghanistan under Mullah Omar? Or is the Qatar group the Sinn Fein aspect of Taliban as former Pakistani Senator Afrasiab Khatak would have us believe? Mr. Khatak believes that the Talibani diplomats in Qatar are only a front and the Taliban have not changed at all.
Going by the names of the new ministers announced by the Taliban spokesman, he is right. The ISI chief Faiz Hameed visited Kabul briefly and seems to have ensured placement of Taliban hardliners in key positions, including the Defence and Interior Ministries. Earlier Mullah Baradar was being touted as the new head of government – now it is Mullah Hasan, who destroyed the Bamian Buddhas. The Haqqani brothers also seem placed ideally to do Pakistan’s bidding.
The question that concerns us, here in Kashmir, is – will the Taliban try to liberate Kashmir from India, as one enthusiastic lady member of the Imran Khan’s party breathlessly anticipated on a Pakistani TV channel. Surely, if the Taliban are agents of Pakistan and victorious because of that country then the least they can do is undertake this little job for their patrons.
Indian commentators have such apprehensions too – The Taliban bogey extends well beyond the borders of Afghanistan. Some in Kashmir have had similar expectations, or at least hopes. How realistic is the prospect of Taliban cadres armed with the latest American weaponry confronting the Indian army at Uri or Gulmarg or Poonch?
Such a likelihood seems remote.
The Taliban are going to be domestically occupied for a long time. They will need foreign assistance to run the State; such assistance if available at all, would be jeopardized by adventurism abroad. A Taliban army would have to cross the breadth of Pakistan to appear at the Kashmir frontier. That would create jeopardy for Pakistan.
As we have seen in recent times Pakistan’s army is disinclined to get into extended exchanges across the border with India and the Line of Actual Control. The tendency of this Indian government is to retaliate massively to provocation from across the border. The time for proxies, or ‘non-state actors’ to undertake missions on behalf of Pakistans has gone. If small batches of Taliban do perchance appear, they would do more damage to Pakistan than to India.
Kashmiris are caught between a rock and a hard place. They have run out of options except strictly legal ones. Room for manoeuvre is limited if it exists at all. How Kashmir reached this stage, particularly over the last few years is a story as much of political mismanagement as of unreal expectations. One fact is clear enough. The Taliban are not part of a solution, and it is no use invoking them as one former Chief Minister has been prone to doing.
Pakistani hubris in its Afghani achievement must be tempered with various fears that follow in its wake. As we now know the Taliban is no longer a monolith. Its factions include the ‘diplomats’ like Mullah Baradar and Stanakzai, who negotiated for years at Qatar, the Kandhari core and the Haqqani faction that Pakistan support. For the present Pakistan has installed its preferred lot and wants the rest of the world to recognize and assist them.
The Taliban government needs both money and food, neither of which Pakistan can supply. Russia which was partly aligned with Pakistan over Afghanistan cannot help the way the US and Europe once did, and China has refused so far to get even its feet wet. An offer of 31 million dollars of aid is not even a nibble for the Taliban.
The Americans and Europeans decline to help the Taliban unless their government reframe their HR and gender policies to satisfy the West. The Taliban Govt. installed by Lt. Gen Faiz Hameed has shown no interest yet in doing so - Or eschewing support for the Uzbekistan Islamic Movement, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, Al Qaeda or to the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan. China will not be happy, nor Russia, Uzbekistan or Tajikistan with the direction the Taliban government is taking.
If in the previous 20 years, Pakistan has worked to ensure that Afghanistan returned to its control after the American withdrawal, it must now work for many years to consolidate and stabilize its strategic depth in Afghanistan, in which it will not succeed if the financial and geo-strategic arrangements possible are acceptable to the US, China, and Russia.
The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan did not convert into a withdrawal of India from Kashmir, as will not the American withdrawal. The Taliban will not involve themselves in Kashmir any more than they did in the past. Nor will Pakistan find an ally willing to look away if it tries to follow up Taliban success in Afghanistan increased religious or political violence in Kashmir.
It is not unreasonable to suggest that the Taliban will not be a party of consequence in Kashmir’s foreseeable future.