Hindu Kush is an 800 km long Central Asian mountain range that rises north eastward from Kabul, which is at 5,900 feet, till it meets the Karakoram Range of the Great Himalayas. Inhabited by a million tribesmen, it separates the valleys of river Amu Darya to its north and Indus to the south. These mountainous areas are mostly barren and sparsely sprinkled with trees and small bushes. Gem-grade emeralds are found in the valley of the Panjsher River north of Kabul. The centre of this region is occupied by the powerful Ahmadzai Wazir and Mahsud tribes, and a few others like the Ghilzais, Durranis (Nozais, Alekozais, Eshaqzais) etc. They are totally independent, and pay neither tax nor owe allegiance to anyone. Only in late 1980s, they changed ‘loyalty’ to the Taliban and Al Qaeda combine that had transformed the region from Hindu Kush to Waziristan region of West Pakistan into a loosely integrated jihadist state.
For centuries Hindu Kush had acted as the great wall between Central Asia and India. Towards the east it merges with Pamir knot from where the mighty Himalayas start and where borders of China, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet. These mountains have historically seen military presence since Alexander the Great. Greek and Indian Kings (Chandragupta Maurya and Kushans) ruled the region for long periods in the first millennium. Of the many origins of the name, most accepted meaning of ‘Hindu Kush’ is from Persian meaning “Kills the Hindu”. Hindu slaves while being transported to Central Asia got killed by harsh weather or were killed by the invaders. Historic documents indicate many million Hindus were killed in the last two thousand years. Mahmud Ghaznawi crossed these mountains and invaded India through Khyber Pass 17 times between 1001 and1030, Muhammad Gauri came in 1175 and 1193, Timur in 1398, and Babur first came in 1505 and again in 1526 to establish the Mughal Empire. Nadir Shah came in 1739 and Ahmad Shah Abdali in 1761. Ever since Alexander the Great came searching for this fabled land, Hindu Kush Mountains have been the Gateway to India.
Region Beyond Any Control
Last two centuries Hindu Kush was the point where British and Russian empires met. British made the artificial ‘Durand Line’ in 1893 to divide the Pashtuns, but due to harsh peculiar terrain and stubborn self-pride of local people, they could not exercise any control. The region has been elusive to even Super Power control ever thereafter. Independent India’s contact with the famous dry fruit and shawl seller ‘Kabuliwala’ was also lost by mid 1960s. This region became part of power play during the cold war. In spite pumping in modern weapons, Soviets failed to exercise control and were forced to leave in the 1980s. Al Qaeda and Taliban used this exit and made it their haven. The government authority is little or non-existent and the areas are ruled mostly by tribal elders. After 9/11 attacks, Al Qaeda became America’s number one enemy and US led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) arrived in Afghanistan and began their campaign against Al Qaeda and Taliban making the area highly militarized. Islamic militant organisations gradually assembled the Mahsud, Wazir and other tribal groups into a loosely integrated confederation, which acknowledged Mullah Omar (the Taliban) and late Osama bin Laden (Al Qaeda) as their spiritual and political ‘Emirs’.
The ISAF forces unleashed airstrikes led by drones to flush out militants. This forced the militants to seek safe homes in adjoining Pakistan. Osama was finally traced to a well-guarded house in military cantonment town of Abbottabad in Pakistan and killed in operation Neptune Spear. ISAF continued to face battle causalities and USA was unable to prop up a strong local leadership in spite extended military operations. There was strong domestic pressure in all participating countries to withdraw. Meanwhile Pakistan was under pressure from Islamic militants to support their cause. As an offshoot, militancy spread in Pakistan.
Terror Breeding Ground
There is no militant group in the world that does not operate in Hindu Kush. From Uzbeks, Chechens, to Chinese and Turkish militants, everyone is in action and some owe allegiance to no one. Taliban and Al Qaeda have built their state within a state in the Hindu Kush and find a good demographic base to enrol those needed to pursue their political and ideological agenda. They propagate Shariah Laws and maintain the Shoora legal system where beheading is a common punishment. Madrassas are used to indoctrinate the young with their ultra-orthodox version of Islam and graduate brainwashed motivated fundamentalists. Suicide bombers are their main weapons. Pashtun nomads and Gujars dominate the area. Pashtun chieftains run the writ and a quasi-government structure.
The US engineered collapse of powerful regimes of Sadaam in Iraq and Gaddafi in Libya left a large highly trained force on the loose. This combined with US support to the rebels in Syria created a powerful militant entity called the Islamic State (IS). They became more powerful than Al Qaeda and others. Premature withdrawal of US forces from Iraq created a vacuum that IS occupied. Subsequently USA had to return to defeat IS at great cost to life and exchequer. As US prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan, many global players with strategic interests are trying to establish/strengthen their foothold in the region. Also the region has become a sourcing ground for Islamic State recruits. Explosive laden suicide trucks are used to create holes in mud-brick walls of prisons, to free prospective recruits.
Dominance of Hindu Kush
Anyone who dominates the strategic Hindu Kush region and controls its opium-dollars and illegal small arms industry will have significant influence over Islamic world and the terrorism that emanates from its fundamental groups. They would also control the strategic land routes connecting major Asian players China, India, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the rest of Middle East. If the militants were to find a stronghold and anchor in the region, it would have serious ramifications for India which is considered a soft target for spread of ideology. Interestingly, the region has become secure base for producing propaganda documentary films, iPod files and cell phone videos for jihadists. This state within the state is often referred to as ‘Jihadistan’.
In 2006 President Pervez Musharraf ordered the Pak Army’s XI Corps and elite Special Services Group into the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) to root out the Taliban and Al Qaeda once and for all from Pakistani soil adjoining the Hindu Kush area. The effort was a dismal failure, and cost the army over 600 lives. Pakistan Army has been unleashing a massive assault in North Waziristan and FATA areas to regain control from militants albeit at cost of more own lives.
Strength in Depth
Pak Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has invested heavily in the local warlords. They see a friendly Afghanistan as strength in depth against India. This desperate desire for depth has been questioned by some Pakistani strategists because it is resulting in playing into the hands of terrorists and has consequential internal terror effects in Pakistan. Taliban and Al Qaeda have de-facto set up home, with virtual impunity, in what many call chaotic Pakistan. USA was initially wooing Iran and even going soft on its nuclear ambitions in view of altered dynamics in the region, but that did not work and once again there are antagonistic relations between the two. China wants to have closer military ties with Iran, and have been offering defence equipments. Iran has been concerned about Pakistan and have often attacked their military outposts to prevent terrorist infiltration. India too is pumping in development aid to Afghanistan and Tajikistan to strengthen presence to reduce Pakistani leverage, and also invested in Chabahar port and road infrastructure to Central Asia. China is extending road and rail links and oil pipelines to the region for strategic reasons through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China is also looking at the huge untapped mineral resources and rare earths. Chinese influence in the region would help them prevent spread of Islamic militancy into their Muslim dominated Xinjiang province. Stability of the region is in China’s interest. Also Russia and China would like to keep US out of their backyard. While Pakistan is busy playing a double game, keeping both sides in good humour, Indian policy in the region has been somewhat ambivalent. It hopes one day US will realise that India is its natural ally in war against jihadi terrorism. U.S. Think tanks have been cautioning against hurried ISAF withdrawal from the region lest we create another Iraq like situation. The best approach for India is to befriend the locals through development and military training aid. Simultaneously India needs to keep ears to the ground and anticipate a terrorism onslaught as ISAF withdraws. It is time the world realises that Hindu Kush has been the epicentre of world terror and other illicit activities and it can’t be left to fundamentalists in Pakistan to re-kindle the terror fire. Narco based agriculture economy and illicit fund transfers from supportive regimes have to stop. While Pakistan is fast becoming a failed state due to bad strategic planning, and it fights to retain its sovereignty, India has to use its renewed friendship with the West and emerging power status and equations to arm-twist the world to clear the Hindu-Kush region as the terror factory of the world.
This Article was written for Defence and Security Alert (DSA) and has since been updated
Picture Credit: Image Credit: japanesemythology.wordpress.com