India's leaders are anxiously watching the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, fearing that it will benefit their bitter rival Pakistan and feed a long-simmering insurgency in the disputed region of Kashmir, where militants already have a foothold.
Lt. Gen. Deependra Singh Hooda, former military commander for northern India between 2014-2016, said militant groups based across the border in Pakistan would "certainly try and push men" into Kashmir, following the Taliban victory in Afghanistan.
Hooda added it was too early to predict if any influx of fighters into Kashmir would be "in numbers that destabilize the security situation" and push the region into a military confrontation.
Neighbors India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir and both countries rule parts of the Himalayan region, but claim it in full.
Indian officials worry that Afghanistan under the Taliban could be a base for organizing Islamist militants in Kashmir, many of whom are allied with Pakistan in their struggle against New Delhi.
New Delhi has called the Taliban Pakistan's "proxy terrorist" group and supported Afghanistan's U.S.-backed government before it was overthrown in August.
Syed Salahuddin, the leader of an alliance of Kashmiri rebel groups, called the Taliban's victory "extraordinary and historical" in a voice message shared across social media days after the fall of Kabul. Salahuddin, who is based in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, said he expected the Afghan group to aid Kashmir's rebels.
"Same way, in the near future, India too will be defeated by Kashmir's holy warriors," he added.
In the last few years, anger in Kashmir has deepened after the Indian government - led by a right-wing Hindu nationalist party - stripped the Muslim-majority region of its semiautonomous status.
Indian officials with direct knowledge of strategic planning for the region say that the Taliban's rise could draw more recruits and weapons for Kashmiri fighters coming from the Pakistani side. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity keeping with government regulations.
"Pakistan's geopolitical stature has risen with the coming of Taliban and this will result in hardening of its position on Kashmir," explained Pravin Sawhney, a military expert and editor of FORCE, a monthly magazine focused on India's national security.
Pakistan's powerful spy chief Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed traveled in early September to Kabul amid speculation that he was there to help in the formation of the new Taliban government.
Around the same time, India's foreign secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, dashed to Washington where he said the United States and his country were "closely watching Pakistan's actions in Afghanistan."
Ahead of the final U.S. withdrawal, India was one of the first countries to evacuate its diplomats after Taliban fighters entered Kabul on Aug. 15, fearing for the safety for its staff.
Indian officials maintain that Pakistan-based militant groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba, both believed to have helped the Taliban campaign against the U.S., could use Afghanistan as an operating base and training ground.
In 2019, Jaish-e-Mohammad took credit for the deadliest bombing in Kashmir's insurgency - a blast that killed 40 Indian soldiers and brought the two nuclear-armed neighbors to the brink of war.
"We do have concerns about the free ingress that these two terrorist groups have had in Afghanistan," India's top diplomat Shringla said when in Washington.
"The role of Pakistan has to be seen in that context," he added.
Pakistan also accuses India of fomenting violence within its own borders. Islamabad has said Indian intelligence agents were operating out of Afghanistan and using anti-Pakistan groups like the Baluchistan Liberation Army to carry out attacks.
India was the region's largest provider of development aid to Afghanistan's U.S.-backed government, investing around $3 billion. Even though it had no military boots on the ground, India trained Afghan army and police and supplied military equipment - while Pakistan maintained links with the Taliban.
With no diplomatic presence left in Kabul, India held its first official meeting with a Taliban representative in Qatar on Aug. 31.
New Delhi said it raised its "concern that Afghanistan's soil should not be used for anti-Indian activities and terrorism in any manner."
Indian policymakers and experts say they see no guarantees that Afghanistan won't become a haven for militants.
"Afghanistan may be poised to become a bottomless hole for all shades of radical, extremist and jihadi outfits somewhat similar to Iraq and Syria, only closer to India," said Gautam Mukhopadhaya, who was India's ambassador in Kabul between 2010 to 2013.
He added that the Taliban victory could have an "inspirational effect" not only for Kashmir's rebels but wherever religiously-driven groups operate in the broader region.
In 1989, partly inspired by the defeat of Soviet troops at the hands of Afghan guerrillas, Kashmir erupted into a full-blown armed rebellion against Indian control. Many Kashmiri rebels were trained in Afghanistan in the years before.
Most Muslim Kashmiris continue to support rebel goals for a united Kashmir that would either be independent or ruled by Pakistan. In recent years, tens of thousands of Kashmiris have defied police restrictions and participated in street protests, as well as the funerals of rebel leaders, including Pakistan-based militants.
After Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi changed Kashmir's special status in 2019, the crackdown on dissent and civil liberties in the territory intensified. Hundreds of resistance activists remain in Indian jails.
Experts say such a stifling environment partly feeds insurgency, opening up the space for foreign militant groups.
The Taliban has indicated it wants India to continue with its developmental projects in Afghanistan, but the group has also made statements challenging New Delhi.
Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman recently told the BBC that the group had a right to "raise our voice for Muslims in Kashmir, India or any other country."
Those who have fought against India in Kashmir see renewed hope.
Ahmed, a former Kashmiri rebel who guided a few Afghan militants across the mountains into Kashmir in the 1990s, recalled them as "good fighters" who "motivated and trained" young men to join the armed struggle.
Two decades on, Ahmed, who gave only his middle name for fear of retribution from Indian authorities, said he anticipated local militants, facing a shortage of weapons, would receive the "latest arms" from Afghanistan.
"Their victory has instilled a tremendous hope. It's a shot in the arm, at a time when we are not even allowed to speak openly," he said.
From The Associated Press
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