Fareed Khan / AP
SRINAGAR, India (AP) – Indian leaders watch with anxiety the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, fearing it will benefit their bitter rival, Pakistan, and fuel a long-simmering insurgency in the disputed region from Kashmir, where activists have already gained a foothold.
Lt. Gen. Deependra Singh Hooda, former military commander of northern India between 2014 and 2016, said militant groups based across the Pakistani border “would certainly try to push men” into Kashmir, after the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Hooda added that it was too early to predict whether an influx of fighters into Kashmir would be “in numbers that would destabilize the security situation” and push the region into a military confrontation.
Neighbors India and Pakistan have fought two wars in Kashmir, and the two countries rule parts of the Himalayan region, but claim it in full.
Indian officials fear that Afghanistan under the Taliban may be a base for organizing Islamist militants in Kashmir, many of whom are allies with Pakistan in their fight against New Delhi.
New Delhi called the Pakistani Taliban a “proxy terrorist group” and backed the US-backed Afghan government before it was toppled in August.
Syed Salahuddin, the leader of an alliance of Kashmiri rebel groups, called the Taliban’s victory “extraordinary and historic” in a voice message shared on social media days after the fall of Kabul. Salahuddin, who is based in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, said he expected the Afghan group to help the rebels in Kashmir.
“Likewise, in the near future, India will also be defeated by the holy warriors of Kashmir,” he added.
In recent years, anger in Kashmir has escalated after the Indian government – led by a right-wing Hindu nationalist party – stripped the predominantly Muslim region of its semi-autonomous status.
Indian officials with first-hand knowledge of strategic planning for the region say the rise of the Taliban could attract more recruits and weapons for Kashmiri fighters coming from the Pakistani side. Officials spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with government regulations.
“Pakistan’s geopolitical stature has increased with the arrival of the Taliban and this will lead to a hardening of its position on Kashmir,” said Pravin Sawhney, military expert and editor-in-chief of FORCE, a monthly magazine focused on national security in India.
Powerful Pakistani spy chief Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed visited Kabul in early September amid speculation he was there to help form the new Taliban government.
At around the same time, Indian Foreign Minister Harsh Vardhan Shringla rushed to Washington where he said the United States and his country were “closely monitoring Pakistan’s actions in Afghanistan.”
Before the final US withdrawal, India was one of the first countries to evacuate its diplomats after Taliban fighters entered Kabul on August 15, fearing for the safety of its staff.
Indian officials argue that Pakistan-based militant groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba, both suspected of aiding the Taliban campaign against the United States, could use Afghanistan as a base. operations and training ground.
In 2019, Jaish-e-Mohammad took credit for the deadliest bombing in the Kashmir uprising – an explosion that killed 40 Indian soldiers and brought the two nuclear-armed neighbors to the brink of war .
“We are concerned about the free entry of these two terrorist groups into Afghanistan,” senior Indian diplomat Shringla told Washington.
“Pakistan’s role must be seen in this context,” he added.
Pakistan also accuses India of fomenting violence within its own borders. Islamabad said Indian intelligence operatives were operating from Afghanistan and using anti-Pakistani groups like the Balochistan Liberation Army to carry out attacks.
India was the region’s largest provider of development assistance to the US-backed Afghan government, investing around $ 3 billion. Although it did not have military boots on the ground, India trained the Afghan army and police and provided military equipment – while Pakistan maintained ties with the Taliban.
With no diplomatic presence in Kabul, India held its first official meeting with a representative of the Taliban in Qatar on August 31.
New Delhi said it had expressed “concern that Afghan soil should not be used for anti-Indian activities and terrorism under any circumstances.”
Indian policymakers and experts say they see no guarantee that Afghanistan will not become a haven for militants.
“Afghanistan could be on the verge of becoming a bottomless hole for all nuances of radical, extremist and jihadist groups somewhat similar to Iraq and Syria, but closer to India,” Gautam said Mukhopadhaya, who served as Indian Ambassador to Kabul between 2010 and 2013.
He added that the Taliban’s victory could have an “inspirational effect” not only for the rebels in Kashmir, but wherever religious groups operate in the wider region.
In 1989, partly inspired by the defeat of Soviet troops at the hands of Afghan guerrillas, Kashmir erupted into a veritable armed rebellion against Indian control. Many Kashmiri rebels have been trained in Afghanistan in previous years.
Most Muslim Kashmiris continue to support the rebels’ goals for a united Kashmir that is either independent or ruled by Pakistan. In recent years, tens of thousands of Kashmiris have defied police restrictions and participated in street protests, as well as funerals of rebel leaders, including activists based in Pakistan.
After Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi changed Kashmir’s special status in 2019, the crackdown on dissent and civil liberties in the territory intensified. Hundreds of resistance activists remain in Indian prisons.
Experts say such a stifling environment is in part fueling the insurgency, opening up space for foreign militant groups.
The Taliban have indicated that they want India to continue its development plans in Afghanistan, but the group has also made statements defying New Delhi.
Suhail Shaheen, a spokesperson for the Taliban recently told the BBC that the group has the right “to speak out for Muslims in Kashmir, India or any other country.”
Those who fought against India in Kashmir see renewed hope.
Ahmed, a former Kashmiri rebel who guided a few Afghan militants across the mountains to Kashmir in the 1990s, recalled them as “good fighters” who “motivated and trained” young men to join the armed struggle.
Two decades later, Ahmed, who only gave his middle name for fear of reprisals from Indian authorities, said he expected local activists, facing a shortage of weapons, would receive the “last guns.” ‘Afghanistan.
“Their victory has instilled immense hope. It is a bullet in the arm, at a time when we are not even allowed to speak openly,” he said.