By Ashok Malik*
On August 23 and 24, the National Security Advisers of India and Pakistan will meet in New Delhi. Few if any will hazard a prediction as to the outcome, though it would be prudent to limit expectations. Even so, what can safely be foretold is a media frenzy, non-stop television coverage and Twitter chatter.
The NSA-level talks were announced when the two Prime Ministers met in Ufa, Russia, recently. Governments in India and Pakistan have chosen to interpret the mandate of the upcoming meeting differently. The Pakistanis, particularly the team around Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, said it implied the resumption of the composite dialogue by another name and eventually “all outstanding issues” would be discussed. This was to stave-off criticism at home that the Kashmir dispute had not been mentioned in the joint statement at Ufa.
The Indian side, quizzically, decided not to refute the Pakistani Government’s briefings, arguing off-the-record that it wanted to “keep Nawaz in play” and strengthen the civilian regime vis-à-vis the Army. Many previous Prime Ministers and Governments in Delhi have suffered from the delusion that India has the capacity to bolster a civilian administration in Islamabad against the generals in Rawalpindi. Why somebody as hard-headed as Prime Minsister Narendra Modi seemed to fall for this line, even if temporarily, is not immediately clear.
Nevertheless, the reverie was soon ended by the Pakistani Army, which triggered another round of firing at the border. This diminished any confusion in Delhi and led to an iteration of the idea that India sees the NSA’s conversation as largely limited to terrorism and safeguarding Indians from religious radicalism that can turn violent and spill across the Line of Control or the Radcliffe Line.
In spite of this, the past few days have seen ambiguous messaging from various quarters. A mystifying notion is being spread that the fundamental Islamist challenge to the subcontinent comes from the Islamic State. It is said that the Islamic State is threatening Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and, as such, these countries are equal targets of the militia that has spread mayhem in Syria and Iraq.
Mystifyingly, many seem to have bought into this idea, with the domestic intelligence agencies talking up the Islamic State challenge as they talked up the alleged Al Qaeda threat to the Indian mainland a few years ago.
Papers apparently found in Islamic State hideouts, and probably indicative of outrageous dream scenarios for the Islamic State rather than workbable blueprints, have been cited. Once more, as happens every few years, apocalyptic visions of a final and defining war, of a centuries-old “Khorasan prophecy” and an attack on India (Ghazwa-e-Hind), are being spoken about.
Earlier this century, Ghazwa-e-Hind was meant to be Al Qaeda’s plan for the annihilation and Islamisation of India. Today, it is the Islamic State’s plan for the annihilation and Islamisation of India. One supposes regurgitating old theories is necessary to keep intelligence agency report writers and newspaper columnists busy.
It is worth noting though that diplomatic sources point to no imminent Islamic State threat to India. In fact, even references to the Islamic State gaining ground in Afghanistan are seen as exaggerated. One senior official told this writer that dissident and loose Taliban factions, which may have broken away from a larger group due to turf or treasure, have probably adopted the Islamic State label in Afghanistan. That apart, there have been odd displays of Islamic State flags in the Kashmir valley, largely for the benefit of television cameras. Overall, it is likely, the Islamic State has more Twitter accounts in India than actual lethal fighters
This is not to discount the Islamic State challenge nor to suggest, the Islamic State does not want to vanquish India (or for that matter make deep inroads in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as part of its caliphate project). It is just that aspiration and reality are different. The Islamic State remains a substantially Arabia-based movement for the moment. Before it turns its attention to Afghanistan and the subcontinent, it needs to defeat Iraq’s Shia south and the Shia vastness of Iran. It also needs to capture territory and influence in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Dilli, as they say, durast: Delhi is a long distance.
So where is this Islamic State phobia and this concern of a likely Islamic State invasion coming from? It is telling that the story is emphasised most often by the Pakistanis. It would appear the Inter-Services Intelligence and the Pakistani Army are talking up the Islamic State presence to divert attention from and in a sense even mainstream the Taliban. The fantasy plan of an India-Pakistan joint front against the Islamic State has also emerged from Pakistan Government sources. Some Pakistani analysts have gone to the extent of saying the supposed age-old prophecy of Ghazwa-e-Hind actually promises war against Pakistan as well, as the Hind it refers to is undivided India. Clearly, somebody is trying sell the Modi Government a lemon.
The Islamic State is no friend of India. Having said that, the immediate threat and the danger for the foreseeable future comes from the ISI and its proxy terrorist groups in Pakistan, and from the Rawalpindi/Islamabad-backed attempts by the Taliban to re-establish itself in Afghanistan as the Americans move out. The supposed Islamic State outposts in the Indian region are a red herring.
During his recent visit to Central Asia, Mr Modi discussed the situation in Afghanistan with several of its neighbours. One feedback the Indian delegation received was the Taliban was preparing for a far wider area domination than in the late 1990s. Then, the northern areas of Afghanistan, bordering Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, had been left free for the Taliban’s non-Pashtun rivals to re-group. This time, the Indian Prime Minister was told, the Taliban was planning to begin by consolidating northern Afghanistan.
Obviously, all this is being plotted with the assistance of the military establishment in Pakistan. The Islamic State is clearly not a huge factor, as is being made out for an Indian audience. The Government needs to approach the August 23-24 talks with that realism.
*The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi
Courtesy: The Pioneer, August 7, 2015