Kashmir: Pakistan, Spies, and Militancy
The recent success of Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files have sent shockwaves across India and beyond. The film is starting to become an international success too with openings in London and the United Arab Emirates. Singapore has even banned it. The Kashmir conflict is often distorted by radical Islamists across the globe, but the true story of the rise of Islamist militancy and Pakistani state sponsorship must be told.
It’s become increasingly important as the world is now refocusing on the Himalayan region as tensions mount. China is aggressively pushing India and other nations into conflict. Pakistan is also using Kashmir as a centrepiece for its propaganda war against India. There are many narratives and stories that have been forgotten. Hopefully this article can help explain why Kashmir is a prize for certain nations and why peace has been difficult to achieve.
Jammu and the Kashmir valley are an important part of the South Asia puzzle. I’m hopefully going to be able to highlight why this region is growing in importance. It has remained a major global flashpoint since the 1990s. The 90s were a time when India and Pakistan squared off over Kargil, an area dominated by the Siachen glacier. A time when the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Osama bin Laden were working together to develop a new wave of global Islamist militancy.
Gilgit-Baltistan, Aksai Chin, and Ladakh are also being elevated and thrust onto the international stage because of Chinese and Pakistani aggression. It’s a shame because it’s an amazing area with outstanding natural beauty and resources. But the Kashmiri people live under a cloud. A cloud that is likely going to become more violent and chaotic over the next few decades.
China and Pakistan believe they are in ascendency. India wants the Quad Security Dialogue to develop on multiple fronts. A former advisor to the US National Security Council (NSC), Jason Criss Howk told me, “The Quad needs to deal with China’s threat across India’s land border, in addition to cooperating on a range of issues in the Indo-Pacific. At some point, the Quad grouping will have to discuss hard power collaboration and not remain limited to soft power issues. The USA is learning fast from the setback in Afghanistan, as are our partners.” Indian and global security analyst Brahma Chellaney has also echoed Howk’s sentiments, “The Indo-Pacific's four leading democracies can hold as many leaders’ summits as they want, but without a clear strategic vision – and an agenda to match – they will have little impact. The group’s purpose is to act as a bulwark against Chinese expansionism and ensure a stable balance of power.” China’s belligerent behaviour in Ladakh, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, Africa, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan have alarmed the global community, the Quad especially. The much-touted security and economic initiatives connected to the Quad are likely to be put on steroids and fast tracked as a result.
China and Pakistan both believe they will dominate the Himalayan region. China is beginning to flex its muscles across the roof of the world. The Kashmir region has been through a lot of strife and periods of uneasy peace for centuries. It became a major flashpoint with the Mughal invasion and strife under the British Raj. It was pulled apart by Partition.
Due to the release of the acclaimed film The Kashmir Files, a new generation in India is being educated about the evils of Islamist militancy in Kashmir. Pandits and Brahmins have been targeted by radicals working under different guises. The radicals' aim is to try to push them into exile- an ethnic cleansing of Hindus.
At the centre of the film, and the crime against humanity, was the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) and it’s offshoot the National Liberation Army (NLA). The JKLF became a terrorist force in the 1970s. They tried to globalise the Kashmiri conflict with the help of the Pakistani ISI. The JKLF was responsible for kidnappings and hijackings around the world. In the United Kingdom, the JKLF kidnapped and murdered Ravindra Hareshwar Mhatre, an Indian diplomat working in Birmingham and London in 1984. JKLF terrorists dumped his body in an English country lane after panicking over a potential police counterterrorism raid on their safe house.
In this context, I would like to take us back to the Lahore Declaration of 21st February 1999, a bilateral agreement between India and Pakistan to try to solve the problems in Kashmir. It was seen across the world as a major historic breakthrough. In 1998, both countries managed to join the nuclear weapons club. US President Bill Clinton congratulated both Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for their historic courage in maintaining global peace in a nuclear South Asia.
But we know this peace wasn’t to be. The peace agreement was being sabotaged by the ISI and Pakistan’s military high command in Rawalpindi. Pakistan’s national security leaders had also jettisoned the JKLF in favour of their Islamist radical mercenaries that orbited around Afghanistan. This new breed of Pakistani proxies were fanatics. Much more violent and committed than their secular counterparts in the JKLF. The ISI was trying to emulate the success of Operation Cyclone, and the retreat of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, to Kashmir. Hamid Gul, a former ISI director often talked openly about this new radical force that was going to set Kashmir and India ablaze.
The Kargil conflict was designed to undermine the Lahore Declaration by embarrassing the Pakistani and Indian governments working for peace in Kashmir. The ISI decided to infiltrate the Line of Control (LOC) with militants and auxiliaries. Many were first believed to belong to terrorist organisations, however, over proceeding years former directors of the ISI, such as Assad Durrani and Lt Gen Shahid Aziz, have publicly stated that these militants and special operators wore two hats to maintain ‘plausible deniability’ from the ISI. Lt. Gen Shahid Aziz, who headed the ISI’s analytical wing in the 1990s went on to become a leader in Al-Qaeda. Aziz was believed to have been killed in a US-Afghan counterterrorism raid in 2019. Former Pakistani leader General Pervez Musharraf orchestrated the Kargil mess and then used the resulting chaos to put himself in charge of Pakistan.
It’s not surprising that mass casualty terrorist events, such as the storming of the Indian Parliament in 2001 and the Mumbai attacks of 2008, show that the ISI often controls terrorists in real-time. David Coleman Headley, the lead recon scout for the ISI and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) has testified that the ISI and Pakistani Navy frogmen helped plan the terrorist attacks. The United States and NATO also knew this to be true during high-profile terrorist attacks in Afghanistan. ISI officers were providing real-time advice to terrorists. A problem that has still not been resolved after the decades-long US-led Global War on Terrorism.
We are all holding our breaths. Will developments in Afghanistan once again spill out into Kashmir? Abdul Rahmani Rahmani, an Afghan national security expert told me that South Asians are all facing the same threats across the region, “The madrasas, coupled with Pakistani propaganda, play a great role in injecting millions of children with hatred towards non-Muslims, especially Hindu, Jews, & Christians. Unless this phenomenon is addressed by the international community, there is little hope for South Asia’s prosperity and peaceful coexistence. NATO arms in Kashmir are just the start.”
Rahmani’s comments will haunt South Asian security experts. He’s accurate in pointing out that we have already seen NATO weapons making the trip through the Khyber Pass and across the Hindu Kush into Kashmir. In the last few weeks, Indian forces are having to upgrade their body armour to ‘Level 4’ to deal with the fallout from NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Everything in South Asia is connected. Kashmiris need a good life, and a positive future. Whoever provides that will hopefully come out on top. It’s a difficult cycle of radicalism, which is why it is important for humanity to work together to combat this threat and expose it. Kashmiris deserve it. In the war of narratives, the truth is often lost. We can’t let that happen. We certainly can’t let Pakistan and its allies spin false narratives.
This article is taken from a speech Chris Blackburn gave at the European Parliament in Brussels on the Human Rights and Security situation in Kashmir on the 24th of May 2022.
(Chris Blackburn is the Communications Director of the Swiss InterStrategy Group based in Zurich, Switzerland. He is the recipient of a “Friend of Bangladesh” award from the Government of Bangladesh for his work on counterterrorism. Chris is also the head of European Outreach for Global Friends of Afghanistan (GFA), a US based think tank that is working with Afghan figures from around the world.)