Srinagar: In 1996, when the Taliban took over Afghanistan for the first time, replacing groups of squabbling mujahideen who had in 1989 ended the decade-long Soviet occupation of the country, neither policy makers nor diplomats discussed at length the impact on Kashmir.
But nearly 40% of all violence recorded in Kashmir over the three decades that its separatist movement has continued took place over the five years that the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, according to our analysis of data from the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP).
The 1996-2001 period shows a sharp escalation in violence—Kashmir recorded 2,903 killings in 1996, and 4,011 in 2001, the year the Taliban were ousted following a US-led invasion.
The death toll in Kashmir, including security forces, was 17,373 in that five-year period. Overall, the official figure of killings in Kashmir from the year 1988 to 2021 is 45,171. That means 38.4% of deaths took place between 1996 and 2001.
Of the 23,648 militants killed in Kashmir to date, 8,753 were killed during 1996-2001.
Similarly, of 6,583 security personnel killed until now, 2,891 died during that five-year period. As for civilians, of the 15,172 killed so far, 5,715 died during those five years.
A resurgent Taliban now evokes fears of intensified militancy in conflict-torn Kashmir, renewed efforts by Pakistan-based jihadi groups to send insurgents across the border and also more alienated Kashmiri youth spurred to take up arms.
Some Kashmir observers, including senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, have viewed developments in Afghanistan as pointing to the possibility of a 1996 redux, a return to the the most violent phase of separatism in Kashmir. Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) BJP president Ravinder Raina said India was better prepared than the US to take on the Taliban, should they come to Kashmir.
“When the Taliban was in power in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and some of them came to Kashmir, the entire world saw that Indian Army, paramilitary forces, and bravehearts of J&K Police with the help of the local people eliminated the Taliban, Lashkar and Jaish,” Raina said in a video statement.
The Taliban made their first-ever comments on Kashmir in early September, saying they believe that as Muslims, they “have a right” to raise their voices for Muslims anywhere else in the world, including, specifically, Kashmir.
Kashmir Militancy’s Historical Links With Afghanistan
The 1996-2001 period also witnessed the hijacking of the IC-814 Air India flight, leading to the release of three top militants—Umar Sheikh, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar and Masood Azhar.
Azhar founded the Jaish-e-Mohammad within a year of his release in January 2000.
In May that year, a 17-year-old local recruit to the ranks of militants, Afaq Ahmad Shah, drove an explosives-laden car into the Valley’s Army headquarters, also called the Chinar Corps, in Badami Bagh, a cantonment on the outskirts of Srinagar. Four soldiers were killed.
The Jaish followed it up with an attack on the Jammu & Kashmir Legislative Assembly, killing 38 people. Nine people died in the group’s 13 December 2001 attack on the Parliament complex in New Delhi.
Jaish’s violence had an Afghanistan imprimatur. Azhar himself was a product of the Afghanistan jihad, with ties to Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, who he had worked with in Somalia in 1993, according to The Meadow, a book written by journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark on the 1995 kidnapping of five western tourists in Kashmir by the little known Al-Faran group.
The kidnappers had sought Azhar’s release. Azhar’s idea of jihad was “total war,” according to the book.
A New War
Some in the Indian establishment viewed Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan with nervousness, apprehensive of renewed activity in Pakistan to support Kashmir’s insurgency. They felt a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan was more likely to be a base for Pakistan-affiliated Islamists.
“Taliban has over 30K mercenaries trained in Pak by ISI. In power in Kabul, Taliban leadership will now deploy them ‘elsewhere’ with the help of mentor Pak,” BJP leader Ram Madhav, formerly the party’s pointsman for Kashmir, tweeted in August 2021. He said the government should brace for a grave security challenge, with the Taliban’s immediate threat in the region clearly being for India.
Siddiq Wahid, a historian and former vice chancellor of the Islamic University of Science and Technology in south Kashmir’s Pulwama, said that at the moment, people are “still waiting and watching”. Wahid said that like everybody else, “we are playing a guessing game about what is going to happen”.
Others disagreed. Security expert Ajai Sahni, executive director of Delhi-based think tank Institute for Conflict Management does not believe a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan will change much in Kashmir.
“Any organisation that has to play a role in Kashmir has to be mediated or operated from Pakistan,” said Sahni. “Afghans are not going to come and fight in Kashmir.”
Pakistan would not be inclined to escalate the situation in Kashmir, said Sahni, with its existing difficult geopolitical and internal situation. “The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is there, the economic crisis is there and the fear of international sanctions is there,” he said.
According to Sahni, Pakistan is entering a phase where it would face far greater hostility from Western powers that have no stake in Afghanistan now.
In addition, the blanket deployment of security forces in Kashmir has left little space for militants, “least of all, the foreigners” to operate in the region, said Sahni.
Militants, Foreign Fighters In The Valley
In 1996, when the Taliban conquered Kabul, 6,800 militants were active in the Valley, according to the the only official record that is available about their number through the 1990s. This was revealed by the home ministry in 2014, in response to a question asked by Mehbooba Mufti, then a member of Parliament from South Kashmir
According to police sources in Kashmir, the number of militants in Kashmir in the early 1990s was around 8,000-10,000.
About the number of foreign militants in Kashmir in the 1990s, page 178 of British historian Victoria Schofield’s book Kashmir in Conflict: India, Pakistan and the Unending War said: “Between 1990 and 1995, the Indian government identified 297 ‘foreign mercenaries’ arrested or killed of which 213 were from Pakistan or Azad Kashmir, and 84 from Afghanistan.”
Among the Afghan-origin fighters killed was Akbar Bhai, the bodyguard of warlord and former Afghanistan prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. He operated in the volatile North Kashmir town of Sopore from 1991 and was killed on 7 August 1993.
In 1993, The New York Times reported a security official as saying 200 Afghans were fighting in Kashmir, among 400 foreign fighters. The interrogation of a captured Afghan had indicated that the Afghan fighters were mostly members of the Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami party.
The Taliban’s Fall, Decline In Kashmir Militancy
The Taliban were toppled in October 2021, and the subsequent years witnessed lower militancy-related killings in Kashmir.
According to the SATP, from 4,011 militancy-related fatalities in 2001, the number went down to 744 in 2007. It fell to its lowest in 2012, when 121 fatalities were recorded.
After that, the numbers of killings rose again until 2018, from 172 in 2013 to 452 in 2018. In 2019 and 2020 respectively, 283 and 321 killings took place.
Since January 2021, 163 people have died.
One reason for the reduction in violence through the 2000s was the 2003-2007 peace process between India and Pakistan that brought the two countries closer than ever to resolving the Kashmir issue.
The process revolved around a four-point formula proposed by the then Pakistan president Parvez Musharraf. It envisaged a Kashmir solution without any territorial re-adjustment, a climbdown from Islamabad 's traditional position.
However, in 2007, when the two countries were about to seal the deal, Musharraf’s domestic position weakened and he was forced out of office in January 2008. Later that year, the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack followed, killing 169 people, and bringing to a close all dialogue between the two countries.
India and Pakistan have struggled since then to return to any form of sustained engagement.
After Musharraf too, the graph of violence in Kashmir remained in a freefall for another five years until 2013, when local militancy saw a spurt along with the advent of Burhan Wani, the slain Hizbul Mujahideen commander.
And by 2015, the number of local militants once again overtook that of foreign militants: In 2015, out of 142 active militants in the Kashmir Valley, 88 were locals, and the rest from Pakistan. But after Wani’s killing in July 2016 that triggered an extended six-month period of unrest, the number of local and foreign militants went up from 180 to around 300.
For now, however, Kashmir remains calm, if eerily so. Though militancy is very much alive, it appears to have lost its sting. According to the Army, there are still 200-225 militants active across J&K, a number that has stayed steady since 2015. Recent reports have pointed out the presence of around 40 foreign militants in north Kashmir.
“Taliban have not stood still in history. Initial signals coming out of Afghanistan underline that they have changed,” said Wahid, the historian. He said there are internal disagreements between extremists and moderates, currently making an assessment of their impact on Kashmir difficult.
(Riyaz Wani is an independent journalist based in Srinagar.)