Thursday, July 25, 2024

Evolving Jihadist Landscape: Implications for India

by General Bikram Singh, Former Chief of Army Staff

General Bikram Singh (r.)

Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan has raised security concerns in the region. The people of Afghanistan have been robbed of the freedom they enjoyed for 20 years; they have also been pushed back into the medieval period, where human rights are blatantly disregarded, the women face discrimination, and the sword reigns supreme. Given Pakistan’s myopic and devious game plan, the AfPak region is condemned to sink further into an abyss of violence and lawlessness. In the long term, Pakistan will be a victim of its misdeeds. The spillover of highly radicalized, battle-hardened and bloodthirsty terrorists into Pakistan is bound to give its security forces sleepless nights.

Expecting the Taliban to honour the commitment made during the negotiations at Doha on not allowing any group to use Afghanistan soil for terrorist activities would be optimistic. Taliban would like to keep the flock together to maintain the requisite combat power in a highly complex jihadist landscape. Among other contours, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State are competing for global jihadist leadership. To strengthen their rank and file, they have been wooing disgruntled cadres from other groups. Antagonizing any allied terrorist outfit by imposing restrictions would be a counterproductive move as it could goad the hardliners to switch sides and join the Islamic State. Therefore, the Taliban is likely to maintain an ambiguous stance, obfuscate facts and indulge in rhetoric, which helps bide time, facilitates obtaining maximum foreign aid and ensures the terrorist outfits, including Al Qaeda, remain aligned to their cause. For the consumption of the international community, it would continue to pass orders as it did in February 2021 on restrictions but will stay well short of any tangible steps.

The influence of Al Qaeda, which has enjoyed historical links with the Taliban since the 1990s, has increased with the developments in Afghanistan. Despite the US operations to target its leadership, finances and communications, it is back on the scene as a much stronger jihadist faction with greater agility and resilience. It may be recalled that this group had planned and executed the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, from the sanctuary provided by the Taliban. Since then, the ties between the two groups have strengthened based on the congruity of their ideologies and interests. Al Qaeda affiliates, including the Somalia-based Al Shabaab, North Africa-based Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), were among the first to hail the Taliban’s triumph. Even this year’s ‘9/11 attack’ celebrations by the terrorist faction were far more boisterous and jointly publicized on social media.

To countervail Islamic State, the Taliban requires the support of Al-Qaeda and other allied terrorist groups. Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), the Afghanistan chapter of the Islamic State, formed by the breakaway faction of Pakistani Taliban, is a ruthless outfit with an uncompromising stance on Islamic laws. In 2015, it had pledged its allegiance to the former IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The group has been responsible for some of the most heinous attacks on Shiite Muslims and those it considers heretical. For example, the twin suicide bombings at Kabul airport on August 26, 2021, were masterminded by this group in which reportedly, over a hundred people, including 13 US soldiers, were killed.

While various think tanks have quoted different figures regarding the total number of Taliban militants, the net assessment carried out by the Terrorism Centre at West Point estimated the core fighters to be around 60,000. Additionally, it concluded that about 90,000 members of local militias and thousands of overground workers, including the support elements, formed part of the Taliban’s asymmetric warfighting capability. In this, the number of foreign fighters is estimated to be around 10,000. Some of the prominent groups operating in Afghanistan in addition to the Al Qaeda and ISKP are the Haqqani network, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). The Pakistan Army and ISI have nurtured the last two outfits as their strategic assets to bleed India. Since 1990, most of the major terrorist attacks in India have been undertaken by these groups.

The Taliban was formed in 1987 under Hafiz Saeed, with funds provided by Osama bin Laden. It aspires to establish an Islamic Caliphate in South Asia, and therefore, its operations, besides Afghanistan and India, have also been in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Some of its significant operations in India include the December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament, September 2002 attack on the Akshardham Temple in Gujarat and the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai that killed 164 killed and 308 wounded. Similarly, JeM’s stated mission is to annexe Kashmir and govern Pakistan according to Shariah law. Its founder Masood Azhar, the former general secretary of Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, was arrested in 1994 in South Kashmir and released in December 1999 to free the hostages of the hijacked Indian Airlines Flight 814. Its significant operations in the last five years have been the January 2016 attack at the Pathankot Air Force Station, the September 2016 attack at URI on a Brigade headquarters and the Pulwama attack on the CRPF convoy in February 2019, which given the heavy losses, breached the threshold of tolerance and resulted in India employing its Air Force to destroy the significant terror training camp of the outfit at Balakot in Pakistan. The strikes delivered the much needed strategic message that India would retaliate with punitive measures if provoked.

While ‘waiting and watching the developments in Afghanistan, which would steer our future strategy, prudence suggests that we start preparing for every possible contingency concerning our homeland security and overseas assets. JeM and LeT, the India centric groups duly supplemented by Taliban and Al Qaeda cadres and equipped with the state of the art American arsenal, will be employed by the Pakistan Army in its asymmetric warfare against India. Knowing full well that India would hit back ferociously if provoked by a significant incident, it will restrict the operations in J&K to the tactical level and launch high profile attacks in areas that blur attribution. It could also employ pyro-terrorism techniques and drones to inflict damage on our critical national assets.

In addition to an upsurge in the proxy war in J&K, Pakistan could make efforts to revitalize the insurgencies in the North-Eastern states and the areas of the red corridor. In other parts of our country, it could exploit the fault lines in our social fabric to perpetrate violence. It would activate the ISI sleeper cells in our neighbouring countries, especially Nepal and Bangladesh, to facilitate operations. Moreover, employing psychological and perception management operations, Pakistan will continue with its subversion drive aimed at some sections of our population.

We should also be prepared for a rise in activities that help sustain terrorism like gun-running, drug trafficking, smuggling, and pumping counterfeit currency notes in our Border States and coastal areas. Norco-terrorism is an integral part of Pakistan’s asymmetric warfighting strategy. As per the EU Reporter, a Brussels based European multimedia news platform, 80% of the drugs that enter India are from Pakistan. Even though the recent consignment of around 3,000 kilograms of heroin seized on September 13, 2021, at Mundra port in Gujarat originated from Afghanistan and was routed via Iran’s port, probe agencies have also pointed to Pakistan’s complicity.

Our overall Afghanistan strategy should be independently evolved and should not be influenced by the US stance towards the Taliban. The policymakers need to remember that no matter how favourably we are placed towards Taliban ruled Afghanistan, the terrorists from the AfPak region will continue to wage jihad against us. They have been nurtured to despise India. Therefore, the homeland security architecture should be revisited regularly to ensure we are fully geared to prevent and disrupt terrorist attacks against our people and infrastructure. It calls for real-time intelligence generation capability based on the state of the art technology and human intelligence along with the highest levels of interagency cooperation and accounta


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