The one thing I learnt of terrorist organisations through many years of study on paper and ground is their penchant for the big message, the unexpected and the out-of-proportion effect. Foreign terrorists in their heyday in Kashmir would always do a rogue act to announce their arrival in a given area. The Nandimarg, Wandhama and the Chittisinghpura massacres bear testimony to this. The Pulwama attack on 14 February 2019 was similarly planned to revive a dying movement and make it relevant. The Islamic State (IS) started the run of big terror acts in Europe within a short time of the commencement of the migrations from Syria and North Africa. Recent migration in great numbers has taken place as part of the airlift from Kabul to the US, Canada and Europe; many would be unverified individuals forcing long detentions for verification, protests by human rights organisations and release of many unverified cases. So is it long before we may witness something big, anywhere in the world from any of the plethora of terrorist organisations located in Afghanistan? There is further rationale for this belief.
Ever since the defeat of the IS at Mosul and Raqqa, we have not witnessed major organised terror acts by it except the Sri Lanka Easter tragedy of 21 April 2019, and some events in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This period of relative peace outside this region brought a perception that the global war on terror was all but over, having succeeded in quelling worldwide terror. However, the age-old adage—‘absence of violence is not peace’—something I keep reminding people in J&K, always remains a threat in the background and it applies worldwide. Terror organisations have immense stamina and patience. They can remain in suspension for years as long as sleeper cells remain undercover and maintain the networks. It then takes only a short period to revive and today’s electronic connectivity facilitates this further.
So the chaos of present-day Afghanistan presents the ideal opportunity for all terror organisations to re-energise, re-network and revive. Hence we are witnessing the Al Qaida appearing and riding on the Taliban success, urging that jihad be extended to Kashmir to liberate it from Indian hold. IS Khorasan (IS-K), the affiliate of ISIS formed by breakaway elements of the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), is seeking to upend all: the Taliban, Al Qaida and many Pakistani groups. It remains in close sync with TTP. Pakistani terror groups Lashkar e Taiyabba (LeT) and Jaish e Mohammad (JeM) have enhanced their significance by contributing fighters to assist the Taliban under sponsorship of the ISI. JeM chief Masood Azhar is reported to be in Afghanistan and in parleys with their top hierarchy to make early inroads into the power networks. It’s an environment that gives all the ingredients necessary for running a terror campaign. The cause and ideology remain the dominance of Political Islam with diverse ways of belief. Finances are largely available from narcotics circuits that are now under very little control. Human resources are aplenty and with Political Islam reviving as an inspirational calling, these could increase exponentially. The real windfall has come in the form of military hardware, especially the modern assault rifles, six lakhs of them. The helicopters and aircraft (at least one is a flier), Humvees, and even artillery pieces may be used by the Taliban, but the majority of the assault rifles are likely to find their way into the illegal arms trade becoming a source of income for the group. Night-vision devices, sniper rifles and 20,000 grenades add their bit to the arsenal. With the attention of the Taliban on government formation, security of Kabul, projection of an attitude of reasonableness and fighting the Panjsher resistance, there is enough space for other terrorists to thrive and revive away from Taliban focus.
The Taliban itself may wish to abjure from terror activity for some time until a modicum of stability is achieved. It would realise that the reason that drew the Americans to Afghanistan was the usage of Afghan soil to plan and commit attacks on the US homeland. It would only be pragmatic if it also realised that the only reason which can again draw back American military intervention, even just aerial bombing, is a repeat of that threat from Afghan soil. The Americans are not keen to return in any hurry but if their homeland security is challenged, none can hold them back from deploying aerial resources for a sustained campaign to bomb Afghanistan under the Taliban back to the stone age.
The Taliban may tread carefully, but will Pakistan do the same? Its grand strategy was drawn up in 1977-80, to employ and control the forces of Political Islam, converge them onto common objectives, assume flag-bearership of the Islamic world and use all these to eventually wrest J&K from India. Has this strategy been laid to rest or allowed to fade with US presence in Afghanistan and the successful handling of J&K by India? It is highly unlikely for two reasons. The US withdrawal was ever imminent since 2012 and Pakistan had the patience to see it through. Second, Pakistan’s deep state has a strong conviction that notwithstanding the situation in J&K appearing to be in full control of India, the reality is that several triggers appropriately played can once again inflame the region in the passion of separatism. That is the power of networks that Pakistan’s ISI probably believes in. Sleeper agents in J&K embedded along with surrendered terrorists not under anybody’s control, rabble-rousers in the form of a committed clergy and social media usage through the ISPR’s professional propaganda can help revival. However, this time, money is reasonably out of reach, local recruitment is not so easy, infiltration is well under control and the UT government is attempting to message positively. The long campaign to place the Tricolour at important landmarks, sing the national anthem and celebrate Independence Day has been a tearaway success. While the task of reversal may be difficult, it is not impossible either. Europe and the US may not have terrorists sponsored by nations targeting their security. In India, we will need to remain conscious of the fact that not only do we face terrorists of different hues, not just in J&K but elsewhere, we also have a full nation and perhaps more, along with sponsored terrorists, trying to revive the proxy war. The DG ISI’s early visit to Kabul is not for Taliban interests but more for Pakistan’s interests and we know where these lie.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd), Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir (email@example.com)