Strategic Perspectives

To Arms! To Arms! The Taliban are Coming!

Author: Lieutenant General GS Katoch, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd)

Period: Jan - Mar 2019

In 1776 an American colonial militia officer, Paul Revere, earned enduring fame[i] by alerting the American colonial militia in New Hampshire that the British army was coming to attack them. Myth says that the words he used to spread the alarm were, “To Arms! To Arms! The Redcoats are coming!”

Presently, the US-Taliban talks—as a consequence of President Trump’s stated desire to get the US out of Afghanistan—are leading to some defence analysts and media pundits in India crying “to arms! to arms! the Taliban are coming”. This alarm implies that a threat is going to materialise for India from the West if and when the Taliban come to power.[ii]   The nature of this threat commonly quoted is the increased presence of Afghan Taliban Jehadis in Kashmir which will worsen the situation.

The latest round of talks at Doha  between the United States and the Taliban ended on 15 March with both sides noting progress and agreeing to meet again later in end March 2019. The Taliban is seeking a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal. In turn the US wants a guarantee that the Taliban will not permit terrorist groups to operate from Afghanistan and that it will agree to power sharing with the Afghan government. These direct talks with the Taliban headed by Zalmay Khalilzad on the US side have started only from Feb 25, 2019. Such talks have a history of long timelines. The Korean Armistice talks took two years from Jul 1951 to Jul 1953 and the Paris peace accord to end the war in Vietnam took a little over four years from 01 Nov 1968 to 27 Jan 1973.

While we in India follow the course of these talks—which could take some time—it may be pertinent to analyse the dangers  in case a Taliban headed government inimical to India emerges in Afghanistan post the US withdrawal when and if it takes place. A guarantee that Afghan soil will not be used for attacks against the US and the International order is something the US will have to think long and hard on. It remains to be seen whether a Taliban ruled Afghanistan can enforce such a guarantee—when a far more stable Pakistan, with much more at stake with the US, has also not been able to issue such an assurance to the West. This article opines that there is no need for India to be alarmed about a Taliban ruled Afghanistan. The reasons for this are as under:

  • A Taliban ruled Afghanistan will take long to be a peaceful Afghanistan. The Taliban is a Pashtun predominant organisation. A Pashtun government in Afghanistan can only see peace if it carries its minorities along with it. In its past rule it has not done that, hence there is little to assure that the same will happen in the future. If the Taliban has learnt its lessons and includes the Tajiks, Hazaras and others in its governance then they will act as sobering and restraining factors for any Jihad related adventurism in India.
  • The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from Sep 1996 to Dec 2001. During this period militancy in Kashmir did not rise up appreciably. What increased was the Pakistani firing on the Line of Control and their audacity to carry out the Kargil intrusion because their Western border was safe and they could concentrate on fomenting trouble in Kashmir. A parameter of the intensity of violence, the numbers of militants killed and acts of violence in the Kashmir Valley in the period 1994 to 2005 is given in the chart below.[iii]
1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005
Total Militants Killed 1596 1332 1209 1075 999 1062 1520 2020 1707 1447 976 178
Foreign Militants (FM) Killed  77 77 213 260 406 648 870 1198 1063 1004 374 59
% FMs 4.8% 5% 17.6% 24.1% 40% 61% 57% 59% 62% 69% 38% 33%
Total Incidents of Violence 5851 5023 3437 2940 3073 3073 3091 4536 4038 3401 2565 NA

The author was in J&K for 07 years in the period 1992-2007. Any non-Punjabi speaking militant/ Pashtun militant especially one wearing a Pakol cap was presumed to be from Afghanistan. In case people like Maulana Masood Azhar and Hafeez Saeed had not been known to be Pakistanis to us, anyone seeing their photographs wearing Afghan style turbans or Pakol cap—which they often do— would mistake them for Afghans. Therefore, in retrospect and with the knowledge that there are more Pakistani Pashtun than Afghan Pashtun (32 million Pashtuns in Pakistan versus 14 million in Afghanistan as per the CIA World Factbook), it would be prudent to deduce that a very small fraction of Pashtuns from Afghanistan—mainly the very poor who had been indoctrinated and recruited from refugee camps—came to fight in Kashmir. During the Taliban rule the so called Taliban who came were those Pakistani Pashtuns who in normal course would have gone to fight in Afghanistan, but now were diverted to J&K.

The ‘Foreign militants’ killed in J&K obviously encompasses Pakistanis. The inference is that Taliban rule in Afghanistan freed Pakistani armed groups like the JeM and LeT as well as ISI advisors with the Taliban to bolster terrorism in Kashmir. There is little evidence that Pashtuns from Taliban ruled Afghanistan marched across to Kashmir. There is no dearth of radicalised Pakistani Punjabi’s and Pashtuns from Madrassas in Pakistan eager to earn their livelihood in Kashmir, for Pakistan having to import them from Afghanistan. The only advantage it gives Pakistan is a degree of deniability in its proxy war and a release valve to keep unruly elements away from its own society which is already reeling from the violence of uncontrolled fundamentalist groups. If this was not so then it is difficult to explain why during Taliban rule the number of violent incidents in J&K, at least till 2000, reduced significantly. Conversely, the number of foreign terrorists killed in the Kashmir Valley increased. The foreign terrorists were predominantly Pakistani Punjabi or Pashtun terrorists. Even later on, in the car bomb attack at the Indian embassy in May 2008 at Kabul in which an Indian diplomat and the defence attaché in Kabul were killed, though logistically supported by the Haqqani network, had a LeT suicide bomber trained by the ISI.[iv]

It is clear that Pakistan would aid the Taliban in order to have a government in Afghanistan which is beholden to Pakistan. We presume that this government would support Pakistan in case of a war with India. What is the worst that can happen in case we have a war with Pakistan and Afghanistan has a government friendly to Pakistan?  Does Pakistan need more soldiers to fight a war with India or does it need more money to buy weapons and equipment? It is obvious that Pakistan would want only a secure back or a space to retreat (strategic depth) and not weapons, equipment or soldiers from Afghanistan. The concept of strategic depth in the classical manner makes sense in case Pakistan wants to deploy its nuclear weapons in Afghanistan and use them to target India. Alternatively, in case if India advances deep into Pakistan it gives Pakistan strategic space to step back, regroup and launch a counter-offensive. This is a clear impossibility unless Afghanistan is a vassal state of Pakistan in the manner that the former Soviet Socialist Republics were a part of USSR or it is possible in case Afghanistan and Pakistan are one country, something which is improbable. Lastly a “deep thrust” scenario is unadvisable in a war between two nuclear weapon armed states. Therefore, the ‘strategic depth’ rationale is as irrelevant as the ‘strategic space’ one.

A Taliban ruled Afghanistan is not going to lead to an influx of Afghan nationals volunteering for a Jihad in Kashmir. Pakistan has enough of Punjabi and Pakistani Pastuns willing to die for in Kashmir, for it to require volunteers from Afghanistan.  In fact the Taliban if they come to power will be more preoccupied with subduing elements such as the ISIS-K and Al Qaeda and would have a debilitated country to stabilise.  Everyone fights best when he is defending his home turf. All armies which have fought overseas have not been able to win unless they were vastly superior to their opponent in size and resources. Even if a few Taliban trickle into Kashmir, we should not get concerned that it will make a difference.  Jihad may be a rallying call, but history is witness that nationalism is a greater motivating cause. We have nothing to fear from a Taliban regime in Afghanistan, in fact engaging with such a regime has been always advisable because even in its previous rule the Taliban “was not fundamentally at odds with India or insensitive to Indian interests”.[v] We only need to cater for, and be on guard against Pakistani adventurism.


[i] The fame actually came posthumously through the 1860 poem by Harvard professor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on titled “Paul Revere’s Ride”.

[ii] “Should Taliban take control of Afghanistan, the country needs to be prepared for Pakistan channelling some of the Afghan based terror groups to the Kashmir Valley”. (US-Taliban Peace Talks and the Disquiet, V Mahalingam, 01 Jan 2019). Accessed Mar 15, 2019 from https://idsa.in/idsacomments/us-taliban-peace-talks-and-the-disquiet-vmahalingam-010119 and

“India will be the next target of terror groups like Taliban operating in Afghanistan if they succeeded in capturing power in the war-ravaged country, former National Security Adviser MK Narayanan said here on Monday”. ( India Next on Afghan Taliban’s Radar, daily Pioneer, Jan 21, 2014) . Accessed Mar 23, 2019 from https://www.dailypioneer.com/2014/india/india-next-on-afghan-talibans-radar.html

Amy Kazmin, “Kashmir bombing raises fears of militant shift from Afghanistan”, Financial Times, Feb 20, 2019 . Accessed Mar 19, 2019 from https://www.ft.com/content/756914d6-3421-11e9-bd3a-8b2a211d90d5

[iii] YM Bammi, General, War Against Insurgency and Terrorism in Kashmir, (Dehradun: Natraj Publishers, 2007), 301.

[iv] Avinash Paliwal, My Enemy’s Enemy, (Noida: Harper Collins, 2017), 216.

[v] Ibid.

@ Lt Gen Ghanshyam Singh Katoch, PVSM, AVSM,VSM (Retd) is a Distinguished Fellow at the USI of India. He has commanded a Company, Battalion and Brigade in the Kashmir Valley.

(Article uploaded on 29 Mar, 2019)

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI.


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