With Taliban’s rise, India sees renewed threat in Kashmir

SRINAGAR: India’s leaders are anxiously watching the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, fearing that it will benefit Pakistan and feed a long-simmering freedom campaign in occupied Kashmir, where fighters already have a strong foothold.

Neighbours India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir and both countries rule parts of the Himalayan region but claim it in full.

Indian officials worry that Afghanistan under the Taliban could be a base for organising fighters in Kashmir, many of whom wish to join Pakistan, in the struggle against the New Delhi occupation.

Jump on the propaganda bandwagon it helped pioneer, New Delhi has declared the Taliban Pakistan’s “proxy terrorist” group and supported Afghanistan’s US-installed government before it was overthrown in August.

Syed Salahuddin, the leader of an alliance of a freedom group, called the Taliban’s victory “extraordinary and historical” in a voice message shared across social media days after the fall of Kabul.

Salahuddin, who is based in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, said he expected the Afghan group to aid Kashmir cause. “Same way, in the near future, India too will be defeated by Kashmir’s holy warriors,” he added.

In the last few years, anger in Kashmir has deepened after the Indian government — led by a right-wing Hindu nationalist party — stripped the Muslim-majority region of its semiautonomous status.

Indian officials with direct knowledge of strategic planning for the region say that the Taliban’s rise could draw more recruits and weapons for Kashmiri fighters coming from the world over. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity keeping with government regulations.

“Pakistan’s geopolitical stature has risen with the coming of Taliban and this will result in hardening of its position on Kashmir,” explained Pravin Sawhney, a military expert and editor of FORCE, a monthly magazine focused on India’s national security.

Spy chief Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed travelled in early September to Kabul amid speculation that he was there to help in the formation of the new Taliban government.

Around the same time, India’s foreign secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, dashed to Washington where he said the United States and his country were “closely watching Pakistan’s actions in Afghanistan.”

Ahead of the final US withdrawal, India was one of the first countries to evacuate its diplomats after Taliban fighters entered Kabul on August 15, fearing for the safety of its staff.

Indian officials maintain that proscribed groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba could use Afghanistan as an operating base and training ground.

“We do have concerns about the free ingress that these two terrorist groups have had in Afghanistan,” India’s top diplomat Shringla said when in Washington.

“The role of Pakistan has to be seen in that context,” he added.

Pakistan also accuses India of fomenting violence within its own borders. Islamabad has maintained Indian intelligence agents were operating out of Afghanistan and using global terrorist groups like the Balochistan Liberation Army to carry out attacks.

India was the region’s largest provider of development aid to Afghanistan’s US-backed government, investing around $3 billion in two decades. Even though it had no military boots on the ground, India trained the Afghanistan army and police and supplied military equipment — something which could not keep it from melting in the face of rapid Taliban advances.

With no diplomatic presence left in Kabul, India held its first official meeting with a Taliban representative in Qatar on August 31.

New Delhi said it raised its “concern that Afghanistan’s soil should not be used for anti-Indian activities and terrorism in any manner.”

Indian policymakers and experts say they see no guarantees that Afghanistan won’t become a haven for militants.

“Afghanistan may be poised to become a bottomless hole for all shades of radical, extremist and jihadi outfits somewhat similar to Iraq and Syria, only closer to India,” speculated Gautam Mukhopadhaya, who was India’s ambassador in Kabul between 2010 to 2013.

He added the Taliban victory could have an “inspirational effect” not only for Kashmir’s fighters but wherever religiously-driven groups operate in the broader region.

In 1989, partly inspired by the defeat of Soviet troops at the hands of Afghan guerrillas, Kashmir erupted into a full-blown armed rebellion against Indian control. Many Kashmiri rebels were trained in Afghanistan in the years before.

People of Kashmir continue to support the goal for a united Kashmir that would either be independent or ruled by Pakistan. In recent years, tens of thousands of locals have defied police restrictions and participated in street protests, as well as the funerals of freedom leaders.

After Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi changed Kashmir’s special status in 2019, the crackdown on dissent and civil liberties in the territory intensified. Hundreds of resistance activists remain in Indian jails.

Experts say such a stifling environment partly feeds insurgency, opening up the space for more pro-freedom groups.

The Taliban has indicated it wants India to continue with its developmental projects in Afghanistan, but the group has also made statements challenging New Delhi.

Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman recently told the BBC that the group had a right to “raise our voice for Muslims in Kashmir, India or any other country.”

Those who have fought against India in Kashmir see renewed hope.

Ahmed, a former fighter who guided a few Afghans across the mountains into Kashmir in the 1990s, recalled them as “good fighters” who “motivated and trained” young men to join the armed struggle.

Two decades on, Ahmed, who gave only his middle name for fear of retribution from Indian authorities, said he anticipated local militants, facing a shortage of weapons, would receive the “latest arms” from Afghanistan.

“Their victory has instilled a tremendous hope. It’s a shot in the arm, at a time when we are not even allowed to speak openly,” he said.

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