On November 6, 2001, just weeks after 9/11, bin Laden met a journalist and, when asked how could he justify the death of so many civilians, he replied “America and its allies are massacring us in Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir, and Iraq. The Muslims have the right to attack America in reprisal.” In the following years, one of Bin Laden’s aides wrote a letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then al-Qaida commander in Iraq, complaining about the indiscriminate killings of Arabs which had tarnished al-Qaeda’s legitimacy in the Arab world. This was the initial stage of al-Qaida’s decline and with CIA’s relentless hunt of its members, extinguished bin Laden's desire to avenge the deaths and mistreatment of Kashmiris. However, it is definitely not just the extremists who strongly sympathize with Kashmiris. Self-determination struggle in Kashmir and Palestine remains an impassioned sentiment among Muslims throughout the world and it further traverses across the liberal masses in both East and West including India. If not many envisaged a full intensity war breakout as once happened in Bosnia Herzegovina between Muslim Bosniaks and Orthodox Serbs, a lot many did expect a grim violent phase prior to any final status determination of Kashmir.
The thought finally begun to take a shape when on 5th August, BJP-led Indian government pushed into Kashmir with massive deployment out of the blues. It repealed the special status of Jammu and Kashmir by abrogating Article 370 of the Indian Constitution which had bestowed the valley with autonomy and a separate Constitution to govern the affairs of the state. This step was pre-meditated as it was a rallying cry for BJP party during its election campaign, but what actually precipitated this hasty measure was the United States' dialogue with Pakistan for setting a conducive stage in Afghanistan for its troops withdrawal. Pakistani PM, exploiting the opportunity, had solicited Trump to intervene in the settlement of Kashmir issue, a view that Trump welcomed with alacrity and even added that Modi has also asked the same from him, though this claim was aggressively refuted by India later on.
The valley at present is under complete lockdown so ripples are yet to be felt, but one nation which has been seriously jeopardized due to this brazen short-sighted step is Afghanistan. The nation hinges on the hope of negotiation between the Afghan government and the Taliban which will only take place once the US-Taliban negotiations are successfully concluded. While the US and Taliban are engaging to secure their individual interests, the Afghan government and civilians have remained merely a spectator until now. In the last few months, attacks inside Afghanistan has significantly increased and Taliban is winning more and more grounds which has resulted into mounting civilian casualties and even, to some extent, morale breakdown of Afghan local police in many provinces. If the struggle continues to mount in the future between the two warring sides, the country will surely be devoured into a period of instability. Unfortunately, it is neither side but Islamic State- Khorasan and other extremists in the country who will decisively gain from it. Moreover, the situation unfolding in Kashmir has further endangered the country as it will significantly empower these Salafist hardliners active inside its territory and the border regions, both in the sense of their ideology and growth.
“The professor radicalized and recruited students”
Since 2014, one after another subsequent Daesh- Khorasan (IS-K) top leadership has been taken out by the US in targeted strikes. Initially, the Taliban had also acted in concert with the group to conduct attacks, so the Daesh- Khorasan had strong morale. But lately, there has been a great fissure and clashes between two are reported very often. It would be destructively unwise for the Taliban to cooperate with Daesh- Khorasan as it yearns to establish itself as the government and would be seeking international legitimacy if negotiation bears any fruit in the future. However, midst all these setbacks, Daesh- Khorasan has proved to be resilient and the number of attacks orchestrated by it has mounted sharply since last year. Benefitting from surmounting unemployment, rampant corruption, and defection of fighters from the Taliban, the group has widened its reach. In July, a Kabul University professor and a few graduates were arrested by Afghan intelligence on the charge of having close ties to Daesh- Khorasan. They were systematically radicalizing the youths and recruiting them as fighters for the extremist group. Many fundamentalist networks have routinely radicalized Afghan youths at educational institutions and recruited them as militants. Evidently, a significant range of drivers which are required for mass radicalization of a segment of population is ubiquitous throughout Afghanistan, even after so-called progress made in the last two decades. In this scenario, one may clearly discern what impact Indian BJP-led government's Kashmir move will have in the country and in general, in the region.
“They won’t dare a war with us”
It is extremely certain that the Indian government, in the age of psychological warfare and lone wolves attacks, has a parochial sense of calculating risks and it remains extremely fixated on boasting about a single surgical-strike across the border and the previously won wars against Pakistan. The reality of 21st-century warfare remains merely a spectacle for the Indian audience who have, on their smartphones, seen dystopian-like stretch of land in Syria replete with completely pulverized buildings with shells lying in the middle of the roads. They rejoice in the fact that India has the capacity to dismantle and strike back in case of any incursion by Pakistan and, on this basis, conclude that it is just the Kashmir territories which have to be managed against any threat to army personnel deployed there. If they attempt to reason any further, the thoughts most likely dwell upon safeguarding Indian states from another 26/11 which still haunts the nation. Nevertheless, the Indian Army definitely has the strategic wisdom to deliberate over threats far beyond the traditional ones, and they indubitably possess the capability to throttle such “bad surprises”. However, it is not the Indian Army that decided this unilateral advance inside Kashmir but the BJP-led Indian government which, by this untimely step, has perilously jeopardized the entire region in the time when a crisis in Afghanistan is lurking just beneath the horizon. Indian government should have considered the risks this unilateral move has brought into Afghanistan. The nation, post foreign troops reduction, would be left mostly to its own forces to dismantle Daesh- Khorasan which now has Kashmir as its pretext to draw more financial support from the core leadership in the Middle East, which at present is desperately struggling to find a new durable justification after delusion of Caliphate has shattered. At this crucial juncture, the Afghanistan government could have channelized all its effort, political and military, to gain leverage over the Taliban during peace talks. Unfortunately, now it may have to bifurcate its military efforts towards the border regions where these extremists will attempt harder than ever to gain hold since they eye at retribution for Kashmir. The threat does not come from the Taliban which has grown mature and now prefers to act with “statesmanship”. It is no more Mullah Omar’s vantage point who even refused to meet a non-Muslim and had no knowledge of the world outside except what he heard on radios. From the Taliban's recent statements, it can be discerned that they have prepared themselves well for establishing relations with other nations. The real menace is the Islamic State and al-Qaida hardliners who are motivated by ideology, not for any political gains, which is a secondary aspiration.
“The silent majority is with us”
It is agreed among all the parties that Kashmir issue should not be dragged in the Afghan peace process. Moreover, Kashmir necessarily has nothing to do with Afghanistan except the fact that Pakistan, as it flounders helplessly among the diplomatic channels in the wake of Kashmir issue, may attempt to exploit the rising threat of Daesh- Khorasan in Afghanistan as only tactics to soothe its grievances. However, the dynamics of Pakistan's support for militants to counter Indian influence in Kashmir is much more complex than what many analysts generally perceive. The portrayal of ISI as the ultimate master of those radicalizing camps and Jihadis deceives us of another reality which defines Pakistan's nexus to radicalism. A grim manifestation that pulls the curtain behind which this reality lies in the Siege of Lal Masjid. In July 2007, due to growing 'moral corruption', the students of a mosque-based madrassa in Islamabad had started threatening the music stores for selling movies and pop videos, and very soon these highly motivated radicalized students further abducted policemen and foreigners. In the wake of these affairs, a violent assault followed between the soldiers and jihadi students, resulting in more than 150 deaths and almost half of the number were captured by the end of the ten days siege. More interesting is the fact that female students at the siege also seemed highly motivated and vowed to die rather than give up. This violent episode was not designed by some jihadi commander sitting deep inside the border territory and passing orders on the wireless. Instead, the students were mobilized and acted under the tutelage of the chief cleric of the mosque, Maulana Abdul Aziz, who used to deliver igniting sermons in support of global jihad. The most interesting fact is that this mosque was nestled at a short distance from ISI Directorate. In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Maulana Abdul Aziz was quoted as saying, “The silent majority is with us. These are people who love us, not just in Pakistan but around the world.” The same man, in the wake of Kashmir issue, has recently declared that Jihad is mandatory in Kashmir.
This and many similar events in Pakistan lay bare the fact that the portrayal of ISI as having a monopoly over the radical jihadi circles is dubious. Those who control these groups dwell in the middle of the bustling cities, and if the government deviates or proves to be unable to act according to their beliefs, these people remind the government of it through violent ways. An inference could be drawn from this analysis that even if the government and, to some extent ISI, avoids using the radical circles in its fight over Kashmir due to the current global scrutiny over Pakistan, these freelance radical leaders and clerics will not hesitate from exploiting their influence over radical extremists to make India “bleed”. Inevitably, it is not primarily India but Afghanistan which we be at the receiving end, since the ultimate leadership i.e. Daesh- Khorasan will draw on this opportunity to strengthen its legitimacy by projecting itself as the ideological vanguard of Jihad against India, and, in general, against the governments which serve the interests of “infidels”.
The inception of al-Qaida was pillared on the war against the US and its allies; the group envisaged that weaker Arab world could fall into its hands once it manages to cripple Western economies. Today it is struggling to survive due to the consistent heavy blows dealt with its top and middle leadership by the US since 9/11. However, Daesh ideological foundation rested on toppling the near enemies who are takfirs, eliminating Shias and other religious sects, and ultimately established an exclusively Sunni paradisiacal state. But today, it, too, has run into an ideological devoid, since the image it once carried as a media-savvy messianic kind of transnational political entity has diminished almost completely. It now remains an ignominiously defeated group which has been singularly defeated by the Peshmergas, Syrian Army, and Popular Mobilization Forces, with tactical aerial support from the US-led coalition force in Iraq and Russia in Syria. It splatters today in small pockets of Iraq and Syria, randomly conducting attacks while it is being chased to its death by these forces. Both Islamic State, including its regional Daesh- Khorasan, and al-Qaida, are at present struggling for the legitimacy and a solid appeal to revive themselves to attract the potential regional and western recruits.
Certainly, their calls have been heard as Kashmir has availed them with a solid pretext to base its command, or to say, rejuvenate themselves in the region. Only recently, al-Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri appeared in a propaganda video through its media wing as-Sahab, urging Mujaheedins to inflict “unrelenting blows” on Indian Army and bleed the economy to make India suffer. The Kashmir move by India has surely given a fillip to these two organizations primarily, and the time could not have been more favorable since instability in Afghanistan post-withdrawal opens an arena for them to gain grounds while the Afghan government and Taliban's attentions shift toward the struggle for power. Previously, drawing recruits from this region had limited prospect as the militants nearly always consisted of Pakistanis, Afghans, Uzbeks, some Chechens and, of course, Arabs, who are ever-willing to die for the cause of Jihad. But today, polarization of Muslims in India by the right-wing groups, cloistering of Uighurs in re-education camps in China, and treatment of Rohingyas in Myanmar resulting in bustling refugee camps in Bangladesh, offers an ever-wider avenue for al-Qaida and Daesh- Khorasan, thanks to their digital campaigns, to radicalize and maneuver Muslims for recruitment. But with the Indian advances in Kashmir, the trouble exacerbates for Afghanistan because if it slips into a period of instability then Daesh- Khorasan will surely establish itself as a fundamentalist force to reckon with since Kashmir issue has emboldened and wielded the group enormous ideological advantage than ever. It continues to draw consistent support from Daesh leadership in the Middle-East, and as al-Qaida desperately wants to resurrect itself, they may join hands in Afghanistan and border territories; what further guarantees their cooperation is the shared vision to save the Muslim land of Kashmir from “infidel Indian occupation”, or at least to exploit the lurking instability in Afghanistan on this pretext.
While many have the tendency to discard this as paranoia, as many did in the US intelligence community prior to 9/11, but Daesh- Khorasan and al-Qaida, once again, has at its disposal an extremely fertile set up in Afghanistan. It will be in the best of their, Afghan government and Taliban, interests to negotiate a peace deal while trying to avoid any enduring clashes and confrontation between them. It is a time-tested formula, as happened in Iraq & Syria since 2014, that isolated forces cannot intensively tackle a group like Islamic State which even today, after losing its territories, carry out assassinations, ambushes, and suicide attacks almost frequently. Reports are once again pouring in regarding ‘solidification’ of the group in Iraq and a possible ‘resurgence’ in Syria. If peace is reached in Afghanistan, both sides must primarily concentrate on completely disrupting the IS network, which, with Taliban having a kind of 'expertise' in the geographical knowledge of these provinces, would definitely meet a certain level of success. Moreover, they should also decide wisely about India's role in the peace process at present, since the current Indian government has among the broader Muslim population, including Arabs, an image of anti-Islam right-wing government. In its wake, many news agencies in the Middle-East have strongly condemned Indian for its move over Kashmir and have accused the Indian government of acting in compliance with the policies that Israel pursues in Gaza and West Bank. It can give further leverage to al-Qaida and Daesh- Khorasan to radicalize and amass youths as fighters, as many will definitely come under the grip of anti-India sentiments. The fact cannot be discounted that Indian goodwill concerning Afghanistan has always remained of enduring friendship and humanitarian-based. India should definitely protect the goodwill it has accumulated over the years in Afghanistan with its generous efforts to help the nation advance towards modernity and democracy. However, the time demands a limited Indian involvement in Afghanistan peace process, since the BJP-led Indian government has tarnished the legacy which India had preserved until yesterday by its passive backing of anti-Muslim sentiments.
Aditya Raj is an India-based independent researcher. He has previously worked at Afghanistan Embassy in New Delhi. He has graduated with a law degree from a National Law University in India.