The fast–tracking of US–Taliban talks, and the following meeting between Trump and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan cannot be sold as one of the metrics behind the abolishment of Article 370.
5 August 2019 will go down as a consequential moment in the history of independent India as the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, backed by a massive mandate of the people, erased Kashmir’s special status privileges. What this means for the future of the erstwhile Jammu & Kashmir state, the security of its borders, people and the general political paradigm of the region is yet to be deciphered.
The government had plummeted Kashmir into an orchestrated lockdown for days, leading up to removing Article 370 by creating false security threat perceptions to divert attention, switching off all modes of communications from the internet to land line telephones and putting local political leaders under house arrest.
Amidst all this, peace talks being held in Doha, capital city of Qatar in the Middle East between the United States and the Taliban managed to play what seems to be a significant role for the Indian government to act quickly on their intentions in Kashmir. As per a report in The Hindustan Times, the chief of R&AW, India’s external intelligence agency, met Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month to inform him that the government may have a window of one month to orchestrate such a plan in Kashmir as the US and Taliban come close to striking a compromise over the Afghan war, now in its eighteenth year of failure. A day after the deed was done, America’s special representative on Afghanistan peace talks Zalmay Khalilzad landed in Delhi.
The outcome of a US–Taliban compromise has potentially immense ramifications for Indian security. The possibility of the Taliban being mainstreamed into Afghan politics, allowing them to take a seat in the country’s parliament in Kabul, the same city they have invaded many times, and the same parliament house that India gifted to the Afghan people as a sign of friendship and democracy will house terrorists as leaders.
The Taliban still see their removal from power by the US after 9/11 as a humiliation, and are unlikely to adhere to any idealistic ‘peace’ deal or an intra-Afghan dialogue with the US and Kabul which will keep them as a diluted, controlled force within the Afghan political system. More than anything else, this would not work as over most land the Taliban in fact exercise more power than the Afghan government. The group with its support system in Pakistan, in all likeliness after a US withdrawal, will work overtime to undermine any residual America-backed system in Kabul and attempt to sabotage and regain the control it had lost to the US itself. The Trump administration, now thinking about the 2020 elections and perhaps more importantly Trump’s own legacy, will be able to sell this as a campaign promise made prior to 2016, and not give too much attention to disintegration of the security situation and democratic processes in the state thereafter.
On 10 July, Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in a message released online asked mujahideens in Kashmir to deliver “unrelenting blows” to the Indian Army, while also chastising Pakistan for not doing enough. The United Nations Security Council Al Qaeda Sanctions Committee (UNSCASC) report released this month noted that Al Qaeda has remained a “resilient” force, progressing and developing under the safety of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and also working closely with the likes of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), getting direct access to Kashmir with the help of Pakistan Army and the ISI.
Online, the news of the ‘reorganisation’ of Kashmir has spread steadily amidst jihadist groups on Telegram and other platforms, however perhaps not as fast or virulently as one would expect, specifically after Zawahiri’s recent message. Interestingly, due to the internet blockade most of this information is actually not shared by Kashmiris but Muslims from other regions, including those supporting ISIS. It is important to remember that till now, transnational jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS have had minimal impact within the Kashmir theatre, with their own ideologues admitting that the space in the conflict is divided between the kufars or non-believers in shape of the Indian Army and the nationalists and patriots, the Pakistan backed terror groups such as LeT. This space can now change significantly. The narratives in favour of militancy largely based around the land of Kashmir can now move towards even more ideological and religious reasoning, giving the likes of Al Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) which got a new leadership after Zakir Musa’s death earlier this year in May. While security forces usually know the whereabouts of these militants, killing them is often a decision more about timing than opportunity, in order to make sure repercussion and societal impact is minimal and controlled. A larger move towards protecting the ‘ummah’ if the sentiment of losing another perceived land of Muslims will give much more strength to the likes of Al Qaeda in the Valley.
Why Al Qaeda, and not ISIS? This is where it gets interesting. While ISIS remains the biggest jihadist ‘brand’, despite its loss of the khilafat in Syria, Al Qaeda still remains the strongest and most grounded terror group, with more stable architecture, hierarchy, aims and ecosystem. In fact, from safe havens in Afghanistan, it may see Kashmir as an ideal ground to increase its relevance by gaining the trust of the young diaspora of the region. Backed by the Taliban, which backs Al Qaeda, such an adventure in Kashmir against the Indian state may not be a difficult sell anymore.
The fast-tracking of US–Taliban talks, and the following meeting between Trump and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan cannot be sold as one of the metrics behind the abolishment of Article 370 and the redrawing of the now erstwhile Jammu & Kashmir state. India has championed the Afghan cause for years, but did so from a safe distance, being largely non-committal to directly help its security and failing to build limited but well-designed hard-power capacity to protect its interests. It relied on the US to win the war in Afghanistan, and it relied on the US to do its national-security job as well.
If Afghanistan was indeed a fear factor behind the decision to rush into this decision, that is more reflective of a systemic failure and myopic strategies of India on the Afghan crisis more than the fact that the Taliban is today in a strong position to handover a victor’s decree to the US.
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Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...Read More +