With its re-emergence to power in 2021, the Taliban has given out multiple statements on India, and Kashmir. It has reiterated that it wouldn’t target any country (including India); have no links with LeT or other militant organisations; wouldn’t interfere in the Kashmir issue; and would prefer India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir dispute peacefully. However, it also reasserted that it would raise its voice and stand in solidarity with fellow Muslims in Kashmir. While the Taliban’s contemporary rhetoric on Kashmir has remained the same, the ideological factors and interests shall determine its actual policy.
Terror Outfits, Ideology, and Interests
The Taliban share deep relations with al-Qaeda, and all its franchises, especially the Al-Qaeda Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Some scholars even observe that it is difficult to differentiate the members of AQIS from that of the Taliban.Al-Qaeda and AQIS have long set their eyes on Kashmir as the centre of their jihad in South Asia. They have even suggested outfits like Tehreek-e Taliban (TTP) to stop inciting violence in Pakistan, and shift their focus on India. However, much of its rhetoric is visible only in propaganda, and not in action. Despite their sharpened and increasing propaganda against Kashmir, AQIS and its affiliate Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind have failed to sustain themselves in Kashmir.
It is here that the Taliban’s policy will prove crucial for al-Qaeda. True, al-Qaeda’s existence in Afghanistan will not be as useful to the Taliban’s military might as it was during their fight against the West. From hosting bin Laden to sheltering al-Zawahiri in Kabul, the Taliban’s sympathy for al-Qaeda and its jihadist ideology has remained consistent. Interests-wise, al-Qaeda’s overt existence on Afghan soil may jeopardise the Taliban’s ambitions of seeking international legitimacy.
However, covert support to the organisation may enable the Taliban to stay connected with the rest of the jihadi world, and reap material and ideological benefits. This seems to be an easy alternative for the Taliban if it fails to gain international legitimacy. Given these ideological and organisational stakes, the Taliban will hesitate to completely prevent al-Qaeda from using Afghan soil for its activities (including against Kashmir).
The Taliban might also find fewer military advantages from sheltering the JeM. Ideologically, however, the Taliban’s sympathy is much deeper for fellow-Deobandi organisations. In the past, Deobandi organisations that targeted Kashmir, like Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Harkat-ul-Jehadi Islam, and Harkat-ul-Ansar sought a safe haven and operational space in Afghanistan. The Taliban played a crucial role in the formation of Masood Azhar’s JeM too. Pakistan’s use of Deobandi organisations in Kashmir has only continued to incentivise the Taliban to shelter them on Afghan soil and leverage them to bargain with Pakistan.Despite several elements of JeM distancing themselves from Pakistan, and the Pakistani state trying to portray the same, JeM enjoys significant interlinkages between ISI, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda. Thus, ideological and organisational interests favour the Taliban to continue letting the JeM use Afghan soil for the operations. This will continue to be the case regardless of Masood Azhar’s presence in either Afghanistan or Pakistan. Essentially, JeM maintains eight camps in Afghanistan’s Nangahar—three of which are under the direct control of the Taliban.
LeT, however, enjoys limited operational capabilities, and presence in Afghanistan. It increased its presence in Afghanistan only in 2006 — supplementing the Taliban’s capability to fight the West. It facilitated, recruited, and sheltered members from the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other Deobandi organisations, and has occasionally supplemented them with manpower. However, despite this limited co-operation, LeT is looked upon with scepticism by several Deobandi outfits. This is for two reasons: ideological contradictions between the LeT’s Ahl-i-Hadith ideology and Deobandism; and LeT’s closeness to the ISI and acting as its proxy on several occasions. Relatively, the Taliban, thus, has a less ideological interest in letting LeT operate from Afghan soil, but the LeT’s proximity to the ISI ensures some bargaining and leveraging power to the Taliban. That is why LeT also operates in Afghanistan, albeit in a limited fashion.
India-Pakistan FactorHowever, these interests will also likely be impacted by the Taliban’s India and Pakistan policy and vice-versa. The Taliban and Pakistan have had a complex relationship, despite the former seeking safe haven and assistance from Islamabad. The relationship has grown more complicated with the Taliban trying to seek domestic legitimacy and more autonomy by using anti-Pakistan rhetoric. The Taliban have also not yet accepted the Durand line and have continued to clash with the Pakistani forces on several occasions. In addition, its sympathy and harbouring of TTP have also increased tensions between both countries. That being said, the ISI still has some leverage within the organisation, and Kashmir is witnessing an increase in the inflow of advanced military equipment and weapons from Afghanistan.
On the other hand, the Taliban have tried to shun their over-reliance on Pakistan by engaging with India. The Taliban has invited India to further its military ties and investments, and guaranteed not to harbour any terrorist organisation that can target India. In this regard, India has offered food and humanitarian assistance to the Taliban, and has also re-opened its mission in Kabul — largely to avoid another 90s-like situation in Kashmir.
Overall, the Taliban is attempting to weaken ISI’s influence within the organisation, and this will likely moderate its extent of support to terror outfits targeting Kashmir. However, considering its interests and ideology, the Taliban will likely harbour both anti-Indian and anti-Pakistani outfits. This will help it seek concessions and leverages from both sides. Yet, how the Taliban will tilt in its balance on Kashmir will largely depend on how India and Pakistan can accommodate the Taliban’s interests, and vice-versa.
As the Taliban completes more than one year of governing Afghanistan, it is clear that the organisation of today is no different to that of the 90s. Restrictions on women are imposed, terrorist organisations have continued to seek safe haven, and targeted killings go on. In this context, it is crucial to revisit the Taliban’s promises and policy concerning Kashmir.
The Taliban’s contemporary rhetoric on Kashmir has stayed the same since they first came to power in the 90s. However, indifferent to the rhetoric, its actual policy has been defined by two factors: ideology, and interests. Both of these factors still favour the Taliban to shelter terror organisations that target Kashmir. But, there remains a possibility of change — based on the Taliban’s evolving relations with Pakistan, and India’s willingness to accommodate the Taliban.
Rhetoric And Beyond
The Taliban’s Kashmir policy has largely remained the same since it initially came to power in 1996. Till 2001, the Taliban maintained the rhetoric of not interfering in India’s domestic matters and Kashmir, and promoting a good relationship with India. In reality, however, a large part of its policy was shaped by its ideology and interests.