Sinister Design

Rumours about Taliban coming to India may not be all that innocuous. It could be part of a design by Pakistan-based outfits like Lashkar-e-Taiba to trigger fear psychosis in India
Rakhi Chakrabarty Delhi

Not very long ago, the Indian media was abuzz with the news: the Taliban are crossing over into India. Such reports sent the security establishment into a tizzy. Close on the heels of such reports, came an official denial.

On April 14, Army chief, General Deepak Kapoor, rubbished those reports. He said there was "no trace of Taliban in Jammu and Kashmir". However, he did mention the presence of "other elements like LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba) and JeM (Jaish-e-Mohammed)".

Apparently, Pashtun voices were heard in radio intercepts picked up by Indian security agencies. That fuelled speculation about the Talibans coming into India. The origin of these rumours may not be all that innocuous. "It could have been planted to trigger a fear psychosis in India," a senior officer told Hardnews.

Interestingly, infiltration in Jammu and Kashmir this year has started earlier than previous years. Usually, militants from across the border attempt infiltration when the snow starts melting around April. This time, there are two significant differences. One, the infiltration bids started in March even though mountain passes or nullahs remained snow-covered eight to 12 feet. Two, the militants are trying to sneak in through the Line of Control (LoC) and the India-Pakistan border in J&K in bigger groups of 30-40. Earlier, they came in smaller groups.

Significantly, often, the Pakistani troops gave infiltrators cover fire to help them cross over into India, said army sources. Last year, there have been 34 ceasefire violations by Pakistan along the LoC. This year's early infiltration attempts have caught the security agencies by surprise. The number of infiltration attempts this March is about three times more than that during March 2008.

The infiltrators are well-equipped with snow-gear, ice-cutters, GPS devices, satellite phones and heavily armed with sophisticated weapons as seen in Kupwara. Their white parka jackets served as a camouflage making it difficult for security forces to spot them in the backdrop of snow."They are better equipped this year to navigate and negotiate snowed passes," said a senior police officer.

A large group of 25 militants was intercepted at Kupwara on March 20. The Indian army's stand-off with the group lasted for five days. In one of the fiercest gun battles in recent times here, 18 terrorists were killed. The army lost eight men, including one officer.

The militants seem a highly determined lot ready to take on the security forces right at the LoC. They are well-trained to fight in dense forest areas and inhospitable terrain and equipped to hold off the army for days together. Why are the militants so desperate, knowing very well that this is a journey of no-return? "Militants who manage to cross over into India are either killed or are forced to remain in hiding. They can hardly ever return," a senior army officer handling conflict in J&K since several years told Hardnews.

Is it general elections in India that the militant outfits are targeting? Security agencies are yet to find cogent reasons for these desperate attempts. "It's not just the elections. They have long-term plans. They could be used to dump arms and ammunition in J&K," said Major General (retd) Afsir Karim, a defence analyst.

One plausible reason for early infiltration bids is the weather. This year, summer has come early to the Valley. According to a J&K police source, 100-odd militants have been able to enter the state. At Gurez, for instance, around 20 terrorists managed to infiltrate. Of them, two were killed and one was captured alive.

Intelligence agencies don't rule out that elections could be a target for the infiltrators who belong to outfits like the LeT, JeM and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM). It could also be a means to reassert their might in J&K. Last year, assembly elections in the state went off peacefully. No political leader was killed. Security forces won praise for their role in ensuring peaceful polls, something unusual in J&K. "Election campaign preceding the first two phases of the ongoing Lok Sabha polls in J&K have been quite incident-free," said a senior J&K police officer. Compare this to 2002, when 48 political persons, including a minister, were killed during election campaign.

"Last year, the militants suffered serious losses in the state. The level of violence unleashed by the operatives was less owing to constant pressure by security forces. Their top commandos were killed and their cadres were demoralised," said a senior officer.

Also, after the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan 'reportedly cracked down' on LeT. Its founder, Hafiz Saeed, was put under 'house arrest' after international pressure mounted on Pakistan. So, the militant outfits are looking for a morale booster. Through these push-ins, they could be signaling that they are still going strong and their agenda in J&K remains unaltered. Security agencies rule out the presence of Taliban, at least for now. "The Taliban doesn't have the capacity to operate in India," said Karim. They need to have a Muslim majority population to impose Sharia. So, India is not conducive to them, felt Karim.

The Taliban can only come in if the Pakistan army or the ISI coaxes outfits like the LeT, with expressed agenda in J&K, to take them along. That is unlikely for various reasons. One, the LeT wouldn't want to share their area of operation with the Taliban.

More importantly, Pakistan army is distraught on its home front in the face of the Taliban onslaught. After areas in FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Area), the Taliban led their charge into the adjoining North West Frontier Province and took over Buner. It's clear they are expanding their area of operation.

At the same time, escalation in the intensity of infiltration this year could well be a strategic move by Pakistan: to suck India into the Afghanistan-Pakistan cauldron and link Kashmir with the Af-Pak counter-terrorism strategy.

Obviously, India is averse to this. The American Af-Pak strategy is tailored to accommodate Pakistan's interests and constraints. Predictably, Pakistan has stressed that resolution of the "Kashmir dispute" will help it counter terrorism in Afghanistan and its own tribal areas better. The implicit reasoning of Islamabad: with Kashmir resolved, its army and ISI would no longer need to nurture militant outfits like the LeT or JeM. They could then concentrate their resources in putting their western border in order and fight the Taliban.

In essence, Pakistan is likely to use the spectre of Taliban to extract gains on the Kashmir front. For this, they will use the US to exert pressure on India. Already, a section in the US wants India to join forces in its execution of the Af-Pak strategy. Then, India can fight the American war in Afghanistan. And, when the US pulls out, India can replace it. That would help the US cut down on its defence expenditure and further its business interests, for instance, the business of defence equipment or lucrative contracts to build infrastructure in Afghanistan. Like in Iraq, reconstruction of infrastructure in Afghanistan is a multi-billion dollar business. The US and its allies in the West wouldn't let go of a profitable share in the pie.

In the process, what the US is overlooking, perhaps deliberately, is the State-sponsored terrorism by Pakistan in Kashmir (also in Mumbai, for instance) through outfits like the LeT and JeM operating from Pakistani soil. In its avowed war to stamp out terror, the US is consciously overlooking sponsored terror by its main ally, Pakistan.

It's common knowledge that the Taliban has allowed training camps and indoctrination units for non-Afghans in areas under its control. It provides logistical support to outfits like LeT, JeM and HuM. The Taliban militia has close links with them. So, pedaling the rumour mills about an imminent entry of Taliban into India is perceived to be backed by a design from across the border. It is anticipated that Pakistan-based outfits will persist with "calibrated levels of violence" in J&K.

The deep links between the Taliban and the Pakistan army are well-known. According to documents declassified by the US: "Consistent reporting indicates Pakistan provides both military and financial assistance to the Taliban. Islamabad's primary goals are to achieve strategic depth with regard to India, and securing Central Asian trade routes..." (National Security Archive, George Washington University).

On April 22, in an appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, did say that the Pakistani government is "basically abdicating to the Taliban" by agreeing to the imposition of Islamic law in parts of the nuclear-armed country. She pointed to the existential threat to Pakistan by "a loosely confederated group of terrorists and others who are seeking the overthrow of the Pakistani State, a nuclear-armed State".

However, the US has not taken any concrete step to force Pakistan to clamp down on terrorists within the country. Rather, the Af-Pak strategy includes aid and cooperation for Pakistan. Besides pledging "military assistance on the tools, training and support that Pakistan needs to root out the terrorists", Obama's Af-Pak policy also promises $7.5 billion non-military aid over five years and creation of opportunity zones in the border region to develop the economy and bring hope to places plagued by violence.

Pakistan has made the right noises including firing a salvo at the US for its drone attacks within its territory, though it is certain that the Pakistani government tacitly allows it. Recently, there were reports that the Pakistan government is looking to purge the ISI. Indian intelligence agencies pooh-poohed the idea. Intelligence agencies are not business propositions that they can be purged by a particular government in power. Former Intelligence Bureau chief, AK Doval, said, "Intelligence gathering is a harmonious and unitarian activity. Purging can be with reference to a few officers for individual turpitude. It certainly does not imply that ISI is changing tacks."

There could be some tactical calibration by the ISI but not policy changes. Unlike India, the Pakistan army exercises complete influence on civilian governments on matters related to Kashmir, India, Afghanistan and nuclear issues. "The ISI works under the regimented regime of the Pakistan army," said Doval.

Intelligence agencies feel the ISI had created a Frankenstein called the Taliban to further its strategic and geo-political agenda in the region. Now, the Frankenstein has turned on its creator.

Initially, the Taliban was primarily pursuing a religious agenda in Pakistan. Now, there has been a tactical and strategic shift in the Taliban agenda. So, they have taken to attacking police targets but are refraining from attacking the army. "In Pakistan, you cannot run a government without the army's help," said an intelligence officer. So, if the Taliban dreams of ruling Pakistan, it can't do so by antagonising the army.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2009