The capture of Kabul by the Taliban on August 15 has turned the course of geopolitics in the region on its head. Meeting after meeting and summit after summit, this issue has been the most flagged. The U.N. Security Council, BRICS, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, U.N. General Assembly, Quad Summit, and a host of other regional groupings and formulations have expressed concern over two issues: First, the possibility of Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for terror groups and, second, the possible spillover of terrorism from the Afghan Taliban to neighboring countries.
A number of similar concerns have been raised in the Indian context too. The targeted killings of 11 civilians in the Kashmir Valley in the past month sparked fear among minorities and migrant laborers and strengthened the voices predicting a return of the 1990s in the valley. The recent visit by Home Minister Amit Shah to Jammu and Kashmir aimed to reassure the people of Kashmir regarding the government’s strong and unconditional support to their security and development.
While concerns about Kashmir may be legitimate, it may be worthwhile to take a step back and put the current situation in context by looking back at the violence of the 1990s.
Political and Economic Dynamics
The 1990s was a fragile decade for India. The Cold War had just ended and the Soviet Union had broken up, leading to the emergence of new countries in Central Asia. With the breakdown of the Soviet Union, India too felt the pain of Russia’s economic hardship, which dried up support from Russia. Crucially, the military support India had received from the Soviet Union was now scattered over a number of countries, leading to a logistical nightmare.
India was also coming through the financial crisis of 1991, which forced unprecedented measures to kick-start economic reforms. The Pokhran nuclear blasts of 1998 invited economic sanctions from the United States and many other developed nations while the Kargil War of 1999 drained the government coffers even further. Earlier, the failed Indian Peace Keeping Force operations in Sri Lanka toward the end of the 1980s and the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 were a none too auspicious start to the 1990s. It may also be recalled that this was the decade that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) first won power, first in 1998, and then again in 1999, but on both occasions, a majority in the parliament was acquired through support from other political parties.
Cut to present times. The BJP has been leading the government with a full majority in the country for the last seven years and has demonstrated strong, decisive leadership. There has been no war imposed on the country and, economically, India is now counted among the top five global economies. A recent global report predicts India will be the world’s third-largest economy by 2030. The United States, Russia, and EU all are closely engaged with India and calls to include India as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council are growing by the day. June 21 is now celebrated globally as International Yoga Day and even conservative countries like Saudi Arabia have embraced yoga. With China being increasingly singled out as a country to be avoided, India is emerging as the favored destination for global manufacturing and FDI.
In other words, India is both politically and economically stronger than it was in the 1990s, and thus better positioned to weather any security threats. And, as we will see below, the threats themselves are also greatly decreased.
Military and Security Dimension
Operation Topaz was launched by General Zia ul Haq of Pakistan in 1989, which sparked off an unprecedented wave of militancy and killings in the Kashmir Valley. The exit of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan freed up Afghan mujahideen, which were strategically used by Pakistan. The Indian Army took time to establish its grid and stabilize its counterterrorism strategy. India had to commence raising the Rashtriya Rifles battalions, which later became the backbone of counterterror operations in Kashmir. Remember, there was no Line of Control fence in the 1990s and so Pakistan-trained terrorists infiltrated in large numbers. The use of Afghan terrorists added a new challenge for the security forces.
The military strategy for effective kinetic operations in the Kashmir Valley stabilized only by the mid- to late 1990s. The insertion of large number of troops in the valley, however, played into the hands of separatist political groups, which played the anti-India card well, resulting in the alienation of a large section of population, especially the youth in Kashmir. Also, the Bofors scandal put a freeze on any major modernization program of the armed forces for years.
Cut to the present times. The LoC fence is in place and very effective at thwarting the infiltration of terrorists from Pakistan. The abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019 and bringing the state directly under the central government has helped improve the security situation as well. Scenes of the Indian flag being hoisted at Lal Chowk Srinagar and the influx of tourists into the valley, along with a large number of developmental works, are having a definite positive effect. Intelligence reports indicate that Kashmiri locals no longer want to shelter or harbor terrorists, as in the past. This may perhaps prove to be the final blow to terrorism in the valley.
The Uri and Balakot surgical strikes too have sent out a clear message that India is no longer willing to tolerate any more blows, without a heavy price to be paid by the perpetrators. After these strikes, Pakistan would think twice before orchestrating another terror major attack on Indian soil. Meanwhile, India also stood up to China’s aggression in the Galwan Valley and refused to back down.
Militarily, India has never been stronger. With the ghost of Bofors buried, major acquisitions like fighter aircraft, aircraft carriers, submarines, battle tank, guns, and howitzers are propelling India into a potent military power. The recent abolition of Ordnance Factory Board and entry of private defense manufacturers may spur greater domestic production, leading to self-reliance in the future.
The Taliban: Then and Now
The Taliban in 1990s were a new force. The group was well controlled by its mentor Pakistan and was willing to impose its authority through the use of terror in the region. The Kandahar hijack of an Air India plane in December 1999 was one such example. The Taliban 2.0, in their current avatar, are likely to act different, having evolved over the past three decades.
Given the economic hardships in Afghanistan and a clear realization that they cannot rule and administer Afghanistan in isolation, the Taliban today are more willing to talk and seek support. Also, the Islamic State is creating trouble in Afghanistan and the Taliban will need assistance to control the rival group. While the Taliban’s relations with Pakistan are as close and cordial as before, the Taliban have stated more than once that India should not fear their rule and that the group wants to cooperate with India and seeks humanitarian aid. The Taliban also realize that India is a much stronger force to contend with than it was in the 1990s.
While India needs to remain vigilant and ready for any potential threat of terror in the Kashmir Valley, an analysis of facts above clearly indicates that a return of the “bad old days” of the 1990s in Kashmir looks far-fetched. The loss of 11 civilian lives and the martyrdom of Indian soldiers in the fight against terrorism over the last month is tragic, but cannot weaken our collective resolve to overcome these setbacks while keeping the nation’s focus on the big picture. In 2021, India is stronger, more resolute, and more decisive than ever before and cannot be intimidated by such threats.