The Taliban are coming! Should we run scared?

A reality check from the past to the present may be necessary to correctly assess this threat.

One thing Pakistan is adept at is the 24x7 attempts it makes at trying to psych India into believing that it has the fullest capability and many options of running its “war by a thousand cuts” doctrine effectively in Jammu and Kashmir and the rest of India. No doubt indicators thrown at us cannot be taken lightly, but each time Pakistan has been bested. The latest is the “scare” of the Taliban Afghan fighters entering into the fray; a threat we are hearing for the umpteenth time after 1996 when they were last effectively shown the door by the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) of the Indian Army and many other units. If Pakistan does attempt this to regain some of the space it has lost in Kashmir’s bleak security environment, it will be an act of sheer desperation. Media reports indicate that over a hundred Afghan fighters are concentrated at terror launch pads along the Line of Control, awaiting the green signal to enter through infiltration and give a fillip to the dying embers of militancy in J&K. It is also learnt that Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammed cadres are attempting to penetrate Rajasthan and Gujarat with the aim of causing such acts as to instigate communal violence in India, all ostensibly to keep the focus of the international community on J&K and message the Kashmiris that the Islamic Ummah is with them. A reality check from the past to the present may be necessary to correctly assess this threat.

In 1989-91, Pakistan exploited a situation of India’s then strategic weakness to instigate an armed rebellion by local Kashmiris. The LoC at that time was guarded just sufficiently to secure our posts and maintain its sanctity. It did not cater for mass infiltration and exfiltration, which the local Kashmiris resorted to under the mistaken idea of “Kashmir banega Pakistan”. The local militancy lost stamina by 1991, giving way to Pakistan’s change of strategy with the induction of trans-national jihadi mercenaries from Afghanistan, who were suddenly unemployed after the Soviet withdrawal. The experienced fighters were shocked to see the skills of the Indian Army units composed of men from diverse regions — Adivasi tribals, Sikhs, Nagas, Assamese, Garhwalis, Gurkhas and so many more. Not only Afghans but fighters from Chechnya, Algeria, Egypt and a host of other Middle East countries stood out in Kashmir’s landscape, preventing them from being able to ethnically merge with the locals. They were restricted to hideouts more in jungle terrain and less in safe houses in the turbulent towns, and their ability to remain mobile and transient was severely restricted because of their accent and countenance. The pipeline of these fighters dried up in 1996, forcing Pakistan to commence inducting more local Pakistanis as part of the LeT and other groups; the JeM also comprising Pakistanis became prominent once it was established by Masood Azhar in 2000. Pakistanis merge more easily and speak Urdu, although without the Kashmiri accent, but yet it is easier for them to operate in Kashmir. There have been instances of some Pakistani LeT terrorist leaders lasting as long as 10 years in a particular part of Kashmir.

The Indian Army’s RR force came into being in 1991. Initially just a conglomeration of troops, it received a fillip once it got reorganised on a regimental basis and came into its own around 1994. Initially, 36 units were raised, but 27 more were added in 2001. The counter-terror grid has been populated by the RR and the J&K police’s Special Operations Group (SOG); a few regular reserve formations supplement the effort. With the situation in the Jammu division having stabilised to a very great extent, additional units of the RR have been redeployed in Kashmir. The security landscape of the Valley’s hinterland is unrecognisable from what existed in the heyday of the foreign fighters in the mid-1990s. The intelligence grid too is far tighter, and the flow of information is reflective from the number of contacts during the 30 months of Operation All Out. The Afghan fighters and their ilk who came in the 1990s refused to take orders from local Kashmiris and were noisy, loutish and ill-disciplined, taking Kashmiri hospitality for granted and the availability of women as their right. This led to considerable discord, which the J&K police and the intelligence agencies exploited and the RR relished the armed contacts they regularly had.

The other grid in the security environment of J&K is in the field of counter-infiltration. When the foreign fighters arrived in the 1990s, they were guided by locals through nooks and crannies. Those are now well identified by the Indian Army’s deep deployment, which is supported by electronic surveillance with a delay factor provided by the LoC fence. The latter is much more technical and the response procedures all far more systematic. The grid is robust enough to have forced infiltration efforts to the International Boundary (IB), where the BSF is far more effective with its own technicalisation. Leakages do and will take place. In 2015-16, the spurt of terror attacks in the Jhelum Valley and areas closer to the LoC indicated that terrorist groups reaching the hinterland intact was becoming much more difficult. The establishments closer to the LoC are far more robust in security after the Uri attack of September 2016.

Media reports indicate that Border Action Teams (BATs) of the Pakistan Army, comprising SSG and well-trained terrorists (with possibly some Afghan fighters included in such groups), could target the LoC posts and patrols. Vulnerability in this domain remains high due to the terrain and logistics constraints, but the Indian Army has undertaken its own counter actions as deterrence. The higher vulnerability lies in areas outside J&K, in towns and cities closer to the IB in Rajasthan and Gujarat, plus the possibility of some penetration of the security grid along the vast western coastline. The public needs to be made aware of the Pakistani design, to prevent any communal backlash in the event of any negative incident.

Pakistan’s desperate response to remain relevant and force international attention to J&K and South Asia to draw advantage is likely, without being mindful of the fact it could also draw an Indian military response far larger than what it appreciates. It is in no position to engage in conventional conflict with India and banks on a nuclear deterrence that it thinks only it possesses. Defence minister Rajnath Singh’s warning about the possible revision of “no first use” as a part of Indian nuclear doctrine could not have come at a more opportune moment.

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