By Mohammad Tahir
The official data indicates that not many Afghans had entered the Kashmir insurgency in the early 1990s. Data on foreign militants who have been arrested or killed during the years when the Taliban was ruling Afghanistan (1996-2001) is hard to come by. The South Asian Terrorism Portal (SATP) website used to feature a separate dataset on foreign militants in Kashmir, but that information is no longer available on the website, for unknown reasons.
Most commentators and analysts, therefore, have been using quantifiers instead of specifying the exact numbers or giving rough estimates. For example, journalist Barkha Dutt, in her recent Hindustan Times column (20 Aug) writes: “In the late 1990s and the early part of the 2000s, there was a graveyard in Srinagar, where only foreign terrorists were brought to be buried. As a reporter, I recall seeing the bodies of men from as far as Sudan; there were also a considerable number of infiltrators killed in military action who had come from Afghanistan.” Lack (or disappearance) of data is one of the reasons why it is difficult to sift facts from the propaganda. Exaggerating number of foreign fighters suited a certain narrative that sought to elide over the indigeneity of the Kashmir insurgency.
The Taliban captured Kabul and consolidated its power over Afghanistan in September 1996. That year, according to SATP, 2903 persons were killed in conflict-related incidents in Kashmir. If we assume that the Taliban takeover had a spillover in Kashmir, then the conflict-related fatalities must increase for the next few years because spillover often happens in the immediate aftermath of a momentous event. However, the data shows a slight variation in yearly fatalities in Kashmir for the initial two years of the Taliban rule (1997, 1998). During these two years, a total of 4633 persons were killed in Kashmir, including 694 security personnel and 2222 insurgents. Comparatively, during the two years preceding the Taliban rule (1995, 1994), 5695 persons were killed in Kashmir, including 533 security personnel and 2995 insurgents. While the fatalities among the security forces had seen an uptick following the Taliban takeover, the insurgent (and overall) fatalities witnessed a downward trend. How is one to explain this data in relation to the claim that the Taliban takeover in 1996 had a spillover in Kashmir? Based on the parameters chosen (fatalities of security personnel or overall fatalities) the data can be interpreted either way.
Some analysts have correlated the increased conflict-related fatalities after 1989 to the advent of foreign fighters in Kashmir, but one of the main reasons for high fatalities among security personnel was that India’s counter-insurgency grid was relatively weaker in the early phase of insurgency and the guerrillas had an upper hand. But since then, the situation has changed a lot. Indian security forces have developed a strong counter-insurgency grid within Kashmir and after the 2003 ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan sealed and fortified the Line of Control with new technology under the project Comprehensive Integrated Border Management System.
What is Likely?
The US exit from Afghanistan has forced strategic recalibration among great powers. Russia and China have warmed up to the Taliban. The UK has also indicated willingness to work with the new regime based on certain conditions. While India has adopted a wait-and-watch policy, its media (at vast IT cell) has geared up propaganda war on the Panjshir, much to the chagrin of the Taliban. But the Taliban seems to appreciate the game of international politics and diplomacy, and accordingly, the group seeks recognition and legitimacy by making carefully crafted statements through its PR machinery.
On 28 Aug 2021, the Taliban’s head of political office, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, said in a televised statement broadcasted by the Independent Urdu: “India is an important country of this region. We want to have good trade and economic ties with them like in the past… We give importance to our political relations and want them resumed.” This and other similar statements made by Taliban leaders indicate that the Taliban is seeking to engage India to gain recognition from the regional power.
If the Taliban is behaving more pragmatically during its second stint, then it is unlikely that the group will try to infiltrate into Kashmir. However, it would be difficult for a fledgling state to control its borders. So, despite the assurances to India, the Taliban won’t be able to control its militant allies who are focused on Kashmir. While the fortified LOC and heavy military presence will thwart the large infiltration attempts, there is a surplus of weapons with the Taliban and other groups operating in the Afghan theatre which could find their way into Kashmir. In the past four years, security forces in Kashmir have recovered newer weapons from slain militants, such as US-made M4 Carbine, armor-piercing steel bullets, sniper rifles, and Chinese grenades. Recovery of this foreign weaponry indicates that the armed groups operating in Kashmir have secret channels to import weapons from across the LOC. But the supply of these weapons is not going to translate into bolstering the insurgency.
The Taliban victory over the sole superpower will have a more symbolic impact, infusing hopeful optimism among the dissenting population in Kashmir. On 21 August, PDP leader, Mehbooba Mufti, already tried to cash in on this narrative by warning New Delhi that the patience of Kashmiris is wearing thin and if it continues with its oppressive policies against Kashmiris then a similar fate awaits it. She made references to Afghanistan because it is politically resonant.