India’s long-standing concerns that a US military withdrawal from Afghanistan could lead to an increase in terrorist activity by the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) received some confirmation with reports of LeT cadre moving into Afghanistan for bases.
There are worrying reports of LeT cadres moving towards Kunar and Nuristan provinces in eastern Afghanistan, looking for bases that would provide them an independent base for training and collection.
Pakistani militant groups carried out a similar strategy of being based in Afghanistan and attacking Indian Kashmir from there when the Taliban government ruled Kabul in the 1980s.
This will be the first time since a US cruise missile attacked four al Qaeda and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen terror training camps in Khost on August 20, 1998 that anti-India groups have again started to take shelter in Afghanistan.
The security ramifications of the US pullout from Afghanistan for India and the region were debated during a brainstorming session at the highest levels of the UPA government last month.
PM Manmohan Singh was particularly concerned about its fallout on the country’s internal security, particularly the situation in Kashmir.
Multi-pronged strategies were worked out to try and firewall India from pan-Islamic jihadists after the pressure from the US’s precision drone attacks and Special Forces raids eases off along the Durand Line.
There was also discussion on how to protect New Delhi’s interests in Kabul.
In October 2010, during his official visit, the then CIA director Leon Panetta had for the first time communicated to New Delhi about the movement of LeT cadres towards southern and eastern Afghanistan.
At that time, the input was noted but not considered actionable due to the lack of any substantive evidence.
India also believed that there were serious ideological differences between LeT and Taliban, with the former ascribing to the Ahle-e-Hadith school of Islam and the latter being Deobandi followers.
There was also the confessions of the LeT terrorist David Coleman Headley, the scout for the 26/11 Mumbai attack, who disclosed that the ISI did not want Hafiz Saeed’s group to be involved in Afghan operations against US troops.
Headley gave specific examples of Syed Abdur Rehman Hashim, the father of the so-called Karachi Project that was aimed at India, and the Khurram brothers, who were thrown out of the LeT after they tried to shift the terrorist organisation’s targets from the Radcliffe Line to those across the Durand.
A part of the internal security establishment still believes there can be no operational unity between LeT, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban due to serious ideological differences between the Punjabi and Afghan groups.
But there is now evidence that some 600 LeT cadres are seeking shelter and setting up bases just across from the Pakistan border, well inside Taliban territory.
After increasing electronic and spatial evidence, India’s counterterror experts believe that pressure from the ISI, combined with generous funding, have led both sides to override their theological differences for the time being.
The assessment of India’s intelligence agencies is that the LeT will once again try to target Kashmir as the US walks out of Afghanistan next year.
“This move will give the Pakistan state much needed deniability from Lashkar strikes in India as well as give strategic option to their handlers to either push towards Kabul in order to destabilise the government in power or hit at India. After the foreign forces have left, these groups will only fight to implement sharia in Afghanistan. India will again become a frontline state,” said a senior official.
New Delhi has already sensitised key players like the US, Afghanistan, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Tajikistan about its concerns.
It has noted with concern how Western powers seem to once again be going soft on Pakistan’s sponsorship of terror groups, presumably in return for support for the attempts at rapprochement between the Taliban and the Hamid Karzai government.
Even though a relative newcomer into the Afghan game, China is also worried about jihadists crossing into its Xinjiang-Uighur region through Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor.
New Delhi has asked Saudi Arabia to make efforts to delegitimise violence in the name of Islam.
“As a custodian of the two Holy Mosques, Saudi Arabian government should make efforts to stop radicalisation of youth through internet and engage them to give the correct interpretation of Islam through either a website or dialogue with the clerics... or else every suicide bomber would continue dreaming about the virgins in heaven,” said a senior official.
Seeing the Saudis as a major influence in the AfPak region, New Delhi is using its new found closeness with Riyadh to pitch for peace in Kabul and weed out radicalisation in the region.
India worries that it will see a return to the state of play before 2001. The US Afghan pullout will take place at the same time as the J&K assembly elections in 2014. With US drone strikes dropping off and US soldiers no longer on the ground, militants could return to their traditional battleground: Kashmir and the Line of Control.
With less than two years to go before the pullout, New Delhi plans to push for a new political initiative in the Valley and has ordered the Indian Army to keep temperatures along the LoC at a low level.