As Islamic State Threat Grows, India Isn't Doing Enough

A 32-page recruitment document authored by the so-called Islamic State (IS) calls for the creation of a united Caliphate. Significantly for India, this includes, according to the document, various factions of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The aim, according to the USA TODAY, which in turn obtained the document from the American Media Institute, is simple: a war "in" India. Presumably, this could also be read to mean a war against India. 

In substance, the USA TODAY report tells us little that is new. That the IS were seriously recruiting Afghan Taliban fighters was reported as early as September 2014. In January 2015, David Loyn, the veteran BBC correspondent in Kabul argued that senior Taliban commanders had flipped sides and fought for the IS in Afghanistan. They did so under the banner of an organisation US intelligence officials like to call the Khorasan Group, an older name for Afghanistan. 

Yet, the fact that an IS recruitment document, found in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, underlines war with India as its chief aim is more than significant. This was the key fear for Indian and international intelligence officials tracking Al Qaeda. It was an aim underlined in Al Qaeda recruitment documents found in Osama Bin Laden's last home in Abbottabad. It is telling that many of the recruits in the Khorasan group are from what is left of Al Qaeda in Pakistan. Indeed, that the IS are in the process of hovering-up largely unemployed Al Qaeda fighters desperate for refuge is only a part of the reason that  potentially terrify Indian sleuths. 

On 29 July, Afghan government officials argued that Mullah Mohammad Omar, the spiritual and political leader of the Afghan Taliban was dead. He died in a Pakistani hospital in 2013. The statement about his death was released only a few days after Omar was said to have lent support to the on-going efforts to negotiate a peace agreement between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government. If Omar is in fact dead, it will open possibilities for the IS that are of critical concern for India. 

Taliban commanders, unconvinced by Omar's alleged support for peace talks, remained largely tight-lipped because of his spiritual status. Whether they knew he had been dead since 2013, if confirmed, is beside the point. No commander would dare question Omar's word, as the Taliban movement has been largely built around him since at least 1992. As one such Commander who helped galvanise Taliban forces in the early 1990s told this author in 2012, "Omar is increasingly unpopular, but still a unifying force. He is the Taliban". Although a dreaded movement, there is ample evidence to suggest that the Afghan Taliban was not inherently anti-Indian. The reason was simple. The movements' leaders could not afford to aggravate India, an actor in Afghanistan with close intelligence links to Iran, and a large and noticeable presence across northern and western Afghanistan.  

If Omar is no more, hundreds and thousands of Taliban foot soldiers will no longer feel compelled to adhere to the diktats of political agents thought to have been close him. These soldiers will look for new masters. There is little doubt that they will turn to the IS affiliate Khorasan group. As mentioned above, there is evidence that this has already begun. Further, on June 29, reports surfaced that large parts of the eastern Afghan province of Nangahar had fallen to the IS. This could well be interpreted as only the beginning of something quite different in the politics of Afghanistan. 

The Afghan Taliban under Omar sought to recover power within Afghanistan. The IS, as the recruitment document affirms, seeks war against India and general instability in South Asia. Taliban Commanders once driven by their loyalty to Omar and his want for peace in Afghanistan will quickly shift allegiances to wage jihad against India. It is a simple matter of survival. The IS, it is clear, is hardly content with an Afghan-only solution. Its politics spread across nation-states. Conflict between India and Pakistan would no doubt serve as the prize. 

The government in India appears to have paid little attention to both the threat of the IS as well as their potential to destabilise the region as a whole. In September 2014 in New York, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stridently argued, "all countries that believe in humanity have to come to fight this 21st century challenge." There is little to suggest that his security agencies are adhering to his call. To be sure, this "challenge" cannot be fought or even contained by deploying boots on the ground in recruitment havens like Afghanistan. That would be foolhardy. It needs delicacy and a strategy of action, neither of which seem forthcoming. 

Given the stated aim of the IS to wage war against India by building an army potentially out of disgruntled Taliban fighters and unemployed Al Qaeda members, what needs work and attention is India's Afghan policy. As one former Indian official underlines, it is about time that India embrace negotiations with Taliban representatives willing to talk. If not to win them over then to convince or compel them not to join IS, a force that cannot be reasoned with. It is worth thinking of IS as a larger, richer, and better-organised Al Qaeda that is determined to control territory. If allowed to persist, an IS-Lashkar-e-Taiba alliance would hardly seem unthinkable with well-supplied training grounds right across Pakistan's borders. 

At the same time, IS recruitment is not limited to the AfPak region. One of the first known cells of the IS in India was uncovered in April this year in Madhya Pradesh. At least three members of the Indian Mujahideen have joined IS ranks in Syria and in Iraq. Like in Britain, Germany or many parts of Europe, the IS will use every avenue, opportunity, and ally within India to attract young men and women to the cause of violence rationalised in the language of the preacher. 

This notwithstanding, it is crucial not to oversell the threat of Indian recruits, a point made clear by the Prime Minister. Last year he said that he did not worry about IS activities spreading to India because Muslims in India follow a "nonviolent tradition." This is an obvious point. The centre of gravity for recruitment is not in India. If the recently published IS document makes anything clear it is that the IS too have reconciled to this. What is available to the IS, and what the government seems less clear about is the group's ability to expand its campaign for hate close to India's borders. Such a campaign is easily sold to a large number of armed, hardy and leaderless fighters in the mountainous tracts of Afghanistan. 

To contain this group and its fast expanding membership drive, the government will need to think more clearly about its policies in Afghanistan. India's intelligence agencies perhaps understand this better. Intelligence agencies are, as the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper once said, "all about deceit" and "realising divisions," tools that are essential in containing a movement that cannot be stopped by force. Further, it is worth considering a line of communication with Pakistan. After all, the IS's rapid growth in Afghanistan is bad news for Pakistan, a country that's finding it hard enough to control the Taliban they helped breed. 

In sum, the IS is a reality that neither Pakistan nor India can afford in the region. For this reason alone dialogue is moot.

(Dr. Rudra Chaudhuri is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of War Studies and the India Institute at King's College London.)

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