Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
There is apprehension based more on conjecture than reason that foreign terrorist elements such as the ISIS, Al Qaida and Taliban will enter Kashmir in the near future to support a people’s struggle and give the proxy hybrid conflict in Kashmir the label of a war for caliphate. ISIS is assessed to potentially do the same in garb of Islamic State in Kashmir (ISIK) to give a local motivation. I have often argued against this assessment and perception and continue to believe that currently the feasibility of assembling more foreign fighters or locals under support of these organizations in Kashmir remains far from possible.
A review of the capabilities and overall intent of the above foreign and transnational terrorist organizations, along with the situation in Kashmir will lead us to a rationale understanding of what their future role could be in Kashmir. The start point remains Pakistan’s original intent of extending the hand of transnational Islamic extremism to Pakistan once it realized way back in 1991 that a local insurgent type of movement in J&K was unlikely to pay dividend and assist it in wresting Kashmir from India. It then had umpteen resources in the form of foreign jihadi fighters from the Afghan war against the Soviet Union, who were in a true sense, non-state actors willing to act as mercenaries. By 1996 that pipeline of foreign fighters dried up as hundreds were neutralized by the superior capability of the Indian Army and other security forces. It is then that Pakistan commenced the induction of hard core Pakistani terrorists taking Lashkar e Taiyaba (LeT) and later Jaish e Mohammad (JeM) under its wings.
The first of these foreign terrorist groups is the Taliban, deeply mired currently in controlling 52 percent of the territory of Afghanistan and battling the 300,000 strong Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police for more territory. It has held its own with regard to negotiations with the US and has not accepted the government of President Ashraf Ghani as a stakeholder in the talks freshly underway in Qatar. While ripple effects of the events of Afghanistan will always travel to Kashmir the Taliban is in no position to leapfrog Pakistan and enter Kashmir to fight for caliphate. In fact caliphate does not form a part of Taliban’s agenda and it probably has never displayed such an ambition. It could eye such an expansion only once it is stabilized to a greater extent which is yet far. Whether it will come to the Pakistan deep state’s assistance to create greater turbulence in Kashmir is questionable because it will have to contend with the LeT’s primacy in this theatre; the LeT is unlikely to yield that space since it has stuck to its territory and role within Pakistan too.
The Al Qaeda overplayed its act with 9/11. Although it turned the world on its head it could never repeat anything even near to 9/11 in sheer magnitude. The US campaign against the Al Qaida may not have vanquished it completely but marginalized it so markedly that it’s a shadow of its past and especially after the killing of its leader. From 2004 we have been frequently hearing about the potential entry of Al Qaida in Kashmir but except for some weak and apparently self-created terrorist entities no such campaign has seriously manifested. The Al Qaida is conceptually not into employing terror as a military weapon but rather as a political one thus seeking big time acts and would prefer not to meddle with an organization such as the Indian Army. Its psychological messaging will continue for long to display credentials and larger than life image.
The ISIS has certain characteristics. It likes to bandwagon with existing terror groups taking them under its wings. From this analogy it should have shifted its core focus to Nigeria/Mali and Somalia/Kenya to join hands and reinforce the Boko Haram and Al Shabab. However, these organizations have by now gained fair primacy and would not like to play second fiddle any longer. Second ISIS believes in the power of money and seeks lucrative areas where finances can be generated for an intense and long fight with the establishment while expanding its base. It does not have the capability in the networked state that it exists in, to fight in multiple directions and domains and would prefer to focus on objectives which will give it longevity through generation of funds and capture of territory. With existing options it would rather attempt bases in Afghanistan and move north to the Central Asian Republics where some weak governments exist, resources are plentiful in countries such as Turkmenistan (sixth largest gas reserves in the world) and the feasibility of garnering funds from the lucrative drug trade and sale of gas is always possible. Moving to Kashmir will mean spreading itself thin and fighting the experienced Indian Army with little guarantee of success. Besides all this ISIS is no friend of Pakistan and the latter would rather not risk strengthening the ISIS hold close to its own territories or within.
With the external analysis pointing against the short term intent of any of these entities the local situation in Kashmir needs to be examined for the existence of any such advantages which will play their way. While Pakistan may be desperate to rejuvenate terror in Kashmir it knows that control over that terror is also essential. Besides that after the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A the Indian Government has displayed a new resolve to fight terror not only in the kinetic domain but also a whole range of other domains which form a part of the hybrid grid. The financial conduits have been successfully neutralized to some extent and the actions are ongoing; without money nothing can go beyond the transactional. Ideologically while Pakistan may have succeeded in embedding a degree of radical ideology, by no means is this so rampant that the local population will in any way welcome the ISIS in the form of ISIK. An odd group did make attempts to emerge as ISIS proxies but were quickly neutralized. The emergence and display of ISIS symbols and flags was more an attempt at diversion and instigation of Indian intelligence agencies and security forces. There have been no spectacular results gained by these attempts. The experience of the Kashmiri people with foreign fighters has been none too pleasant. The latter’s display of crude and indisciplined behavior against women and households is well embedded in memory to prevent any mass support that any campaign would desire.
Having argued against the feasibility of any entry of transnational foreign terrorist forces into Kashmir it is also incumbent on my part to warn that disaffection and alienation in Kashmir runs high against everything Indian. To ensure that conditions are not created for the encouragement to foreign forces it is mandatory that an outreach to sooth sentiments and dilute resentment are made early. A political outreach by Delhi’s political community appears the best bet for early inroads into Kashmir’s negative sentiment.
(The author spoke on this subject at the just concluded Military Literature Festival at Chandigarh)
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)