The Kashmir insurgency became a lethal proxy war after the ISI sent Afghans into the valley in 1992. It will do so again once they control Afghanistan.
In January 2012, I said in a lecture on the South Asian security scenario in Berlin that the ongoing negotiations in Doha between the United States and the Taliban would give a huge boost to terror activities in Kashmir.
My audience was dumbfounded. Even the suggestion that such talks were going on seemed outrageous.
It has taken a long time but now that those talks have led to a get-the-West-out-of-Afghanistan deal, signed last Saturday, India has much cause to worry. The proxy war in Kashmir took a quantum leap after Afghans and Pakistanis entered the arena in late 1992.
I have given a blow-by-blow account in The Story of Kashmir of how the Pakistani spy agency ISI sent the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba and the largely Afghan Harkat-ul Mujahideen into “the Kashmir jihad” soon after the Mujahideen led by Burhanuddin Rabbani and Gulbuddin Hikmatyar captured Kabul in April 1992. That was the key turning point.
Lashkar and Harkat were at the forefront of the proxy war in Kashmir from 1995, more so from 1997. The horrendous death tolls in the following years attested to the lethal capacities of the Pathan and other fighters of those groups.
On the other hand, we hear occasional talk of Indian plans to take over parts of Jammu and Kashmir under Pakistan. Either way then, a colossal spike in violence around Kashmir would seem to lie ahead.
The US rushed into the deal just a month after a high-value US target – the CIA official responsible for killing Iran’s Major General Soleimani in Baghdad on January 3 this year – was reported to have been brought down in Afghanistan.
Some Iranian media have claimed that Iran brought down the aircraft the CIA official was on – and there is talk of a Taliban leader having visited Teheran for talks. If all this is true, it could betoken a Pak-Afghan-Iranian line-up that could prove extremely powerful in the region, and dangerous for India.
To be sure, rapprochement between Iran and the Taliban seems a far stretch, given the genocidal violence between the Taliban and pro-Iran Shia communities in northwestern Afghanistan a couple of decades ago. But then, it is a no more preposterous idea than US-Taliban talks must have seemed to my German audience eight years ago.
Iran’s anger over an attack on a Shia mosque in Delhi’s Jaffrabad late last month could also be strategically damaging for India – most notably in the extensive and strategically vital Kargil district. Most of that district’s dominant Shia community hold Iran’s supreme Ayatollah in very high regard.
A surrender document
The US began talks with Shaikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi, who acted as interlocutor for the Taliban, in Doha early in Barack Obama’s presidency to seek a way out of the mess in Afghanistan. The US had become frustrated by the ineffectiveness and corruption of the government there, the continuing clout of Taliban groups on the ground, and the duplicity of Pakistan, the US’s key ally for its Afghan operations.
Those early talks were already a bad omen for India, for Al Qaradawi had called the Kashmir struggle “a proper jihad against the Indian army”.
As it turned out, the talks made slow progress.
No wonder! The Taliban focused simply on the total withdrawal of foreign forces, viewing the engagement as a US surrender.
Indeed, the agreement signed last weekend, and described in a Time headline as "disgraceful", reads like a poorly disguised face-saver for withdrawal. The US has committed to "withdraw from Afghanistan all military forces of the United States, its allies, and Coalition partners, including all non-diplomatic civilian personnel, private security contractors, trainers, advisors, and supporting services personnel”, by May Day next year.
The US is to get the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners. In return, the Taliban are to release 1,000 prisoners. Apart from promises of non-aggression “against the US and its allies” (from a set of outfits the agreement repeatedly calls the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, but simultaneously declares, as repeatedly, as “not recognized by the United States as a state”), the deal gives the US nothing.
It’s bizarre! If the US acknowledges the Taliban as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in the text of a deal it signs, what does not recognising it mean? If the US signed the deal as a sovereign nation state, the Taliban must be implicitly recognised as being in sovereign control too. After all, it specifically commits in the deal that it "will not provide visas, passports, travel permits, or other legal documents to those who pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies".’
If the text is a clown act, the deal is a non-starter. The Afghan government, which had no part in the deal, immediately declared that it would not release the Taliban prisoners. For its part, the Taliban declared an end to its ceasefire a day and a half after signing the deal. It evidently wants to push the very unstable government out, or at least put it on such a weak footing that it becomes a pushover as soon as US troops are out.
Trump’s electoral calculations
US President Donald Trump wanted the deal in time for his election campaign this autumn. He wants to tell US voters he brought their troops home from a costly, bogged-down war. Indeed, the deal vouchsafes that the US will reduce its forces to 8,600 by mid-July.
Yet, if the US hoped this deal would give them a window of "peace" to withdraw gracefully, there is every sign that they are not getting it. Instead, the next few months may be very messy. That might allow Pakistan to leverage its influence over the Taliban to get Trump to back its removal from the FATF grey list. This may even be a reason why the Taliban has resumed violence.
India is in a sticky spot from just about every angle. Now that the Afghan government has been thrown to the wolves, the families of top Afghan officers may likely seek refuge here. Surveys have shown that Afghans like India better than any other country on Earth. If the top officers also come, they might want to run a government-in-exile.
That would make India far more a target than giving refuge to the Dalai Lama did. In any case, the image of India as a site of violence against Muslims will turn it into a target of the Taliban, once it secures control over Afghanistan. The ISI would be very happy to facilitate moves against India.
Indian policymakers would be wise to prepare for a tough patch.