The Fallout of an Afghan Civil War on Kashmir
With counter-terrorism as excuse, a heavy handed Indian response can be expected
Afghanistan is heading into a civil war. The Taliban and the Afghan government have not resumed their talks process started last September in Doha, even as they square off on the ground, with the Taliban controlling the countryside and the government losing five cities so far.
At an open session of the Security Council called at the behest of the Afghan government and facilitated by India, which holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council through August, a consensus could be observed with all members against an Emirate emerging in Afghanistan.
Even so, as of now it appears that the pessimistic possibility, of the two sides contending militarily till winters set in and dampen military moves, is in the offing.
Setting aside verbal professions to the contrary, it is not self-evident that the relevant actors find the impending civil war unwelcome. Strategic calculations may well prevent a meeting of minds on how to avoid a civil war, and in case it occurs, how to bring it to a close.
An internationalised non-international armed conflict lends itself as a setting for proxy war. In addition to the two parties, the government and the major insurgent group, the Taliban, ethnic militias have formed at several locations to fill the vacuum created by the dissipating Afghan national security forces. Reports have it that all sides have external actors supportive of them militarily.
The Americans are assisting the Afghan air force and are conducting air strikes of their own. Pakistani elements of the Jaish and Lashkar are reportedly participating in Taliban offensives, with the Afghan government claiming that tens of thousands of fighters have entered Afghanistan from Pakistan.
India is backing the government as part of its strategic partnership commitment dating back a decade. India and Iran may reprise their earlier support for the Northern Alliance in backing these militias.
For India, keeping Pakistan tied down in Afghanistan in a proxy war will help keep Pakistan off Kashmir. Thwarted from gaining strategic depth in Afghanistan and from limiting Indian influence there, Pakistan may revive its proxy war in Kashmir.
In such a case the escalation dynamic may kick in. Whereas Indian support for the Afghan government is legitimate, escalation may be clandestine, with intelligence operations from Afghanistan into Pakistan, such as Indian support as alleged by Pakistan for the Tehrik-e-Taliban. Pakistan for its part may up the ante by backing terrorism in India’s hinterland.
India’s conventional deterrence against Pakistan’s subconventional challenge has been diluted of late. India’s pivot to the China front has led to the transfer of some of its Pakistan-centric strike corps assets to the mountain strike corps poised against China. Its ongoing commitment on the China front will prevent it from resorting to retribution in the form of surgical strikes, for fear that escalation might prove diversionary from the China front.
India has also thinned out its paramilitary, the Rashtriya Rifles, from Kashmir by deploying up to a division’s worth in Ladakh this year. This may incentivise Pakistani adventurism, though the multi-tiered counter-infiltration grid has not been affected. Activation of the LC by Pakistan would enable it to thrust Afghan civil war hardened Pakistani infiltrators.
With counter-terrorism as excuse, a heavy handed Indian response can be expected in the Valley. There has been increasing reliance on the police and central armed police since the neutralising of Article 370. No known doctrine informs the functioning of these uniformed forces, and reporting as they do to the ministry of home, accountability may be at a premium.
Strategically, India can ill afford an active Pakistan front, since it is staring down China for now. Yet the government is liable to prioritise its own parochial interests based on the election cycle. Therefore the question to answer is whether an uptick in militancy and its counter in Kashmir is in the political interest of the government, looking as it is to elections soon in Uttar Pradesh and national elections thereafter.
Arguably, a stand-off with Pakistan is better for the opportunity it affords for polarisation and electoral gains thereby.
Pakistan’s relative reticence in its proxy war over the last few years owes much to the continuing scrutiny of the financial task force, but also because Pakistan has been busy with returning the Taliban to a controlling position in Kabul. If this objective is placed out of reach by India’s support for the Afghan opposition, then Pakistan may revert to its traditional preoccupation, Kashmir, with a vengeance.
Both sides have stepped back from the promise of initiatives of earlier this year such as the resumption of ceasefire on the LC, indicating that they are not averse to a strategic contest in Afghanistan. Preventing such a contingency will require such calculations by the two sides to be dispelled, a tall order.
India needs reminding that while the talks process with China has enabled stability on the Line of Actual Control, the threat remains. A weakened conventional deterrent against Pakistan precludes any election-influencing resort to surgical strikes, as these would be politically risky.
A restive Kashmir will negate the Indian position that its initiative related to Article 370 has returned to normalcy. As for Pakistan, it needs no reminding that a return to the terror situation of the early last decade is hardly in its broader national interest.
Avoiding civil war in Afghanistan is a first, essential step. The US having bailed out, the onus is on the regional powers, Russia and China, to step up and fill the breach by bringing about a regional solution to a regional problem.
This is easier said. The hasty manner of the US exit suggests it is keen to leave a ‘mess’ behind for its antagonists – Russia, Iran and China – to contend with. India’s having kept Pakistan out of the Security Council meeting on Afghanistan may prompt Pakistan, and its benefactor China, to keep India out of the Troika-plus grouping in the lead on Afghanistan.
Even as the two sides slug it out on the ground for a position of advantage at Doha, the international community must get its act together. While India must help the Afghan government whittle the Taliban’s military momentum by provisioning political support, military equipment and discreet military advice, alongside it must upgrade its outreach to the Taliban from an intelligence-led to a diplomatic one.
Pakistan for its part may need to apply the brakes on its protégé, the Taliban, lest its very success backfire into international opprobrium.
Both India and Pakistan need to find a way back to where they started off the year with. Their intelligence contacts need to be speedily revived and a joint diplomatic support to the Doha mediation offered. This is the best way the two can prevent an otherwise upcoming civil war in Afghanistan, an imperative if the two sides are to fulfill their much vaunted claims on behalf of Kashmiris.
Ali Ahmed, a former infantryman, academic and UN official, blogs on security affairs at ali-writings.blogspot.in
Cover Photograph: Kunduz Afghanistan, the Taliban press on. Associated Press