When the United States President Donald Trump first announced plans for the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the question of the implications for Kashmir became a potentially “major headache” for India. Given favorable conditions, any success of a militant movement against a strong military power has the potential to reinvigorate a similar movement elsewhere. Three decades ago, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan helped the anti-India militant movement in Kashmir gain strength. While the United States-Taliban peace talks for a possible withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan remain underway, the outcome of these negotiations is being closely monitored in India.
In December last year, the former Director General of the Jammu and Kashmir Police, K. Rajendra, highlighted these apprehensions over the U.S. withdrawal by saying “it is a matter of time that we will be feeling its implications in the Valley.” He also called for a “surrender policy” to be adopted by the government of India, wherein surrendered militants are provided with gainful employment and discouraged from returning to violence. Heeding this suggestion, the current government in Jammu and Kashmir has already announced changes to the surrender policy, allowing surrendered militants to be eligible for a fixed deposit of approximately USD $7,000-8,500 and to enroll in programs to seek self-employment.
But how serious are the implications of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan on India? The debates in India may overestimate the danger, as a deeper analysis shows that India should be concerned about implications of withdrawal on the regional balance of power rather than on the strength of the Kashmir insurgency.
History Repeating Itself?
The beginning of an anti-India insurgency in Kashmir coincided with the end of the Cold War and the departure of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. The Afghan mujahideen, aided by the United States and trained by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), were winning battle after battle against the Red Army—when the Soviet forces were completely defeated, the militant energies of the mujahideen were rerouted to Kashmir. This was an era when the call for jihad did not mean an establishment of a global Islamic state, but the end of non-Muslim rule over Muslim lands. Kashmir thus emerged as a battleground in the backyard for the mujahideen. Abruptly abandoned by the United States, many of the mujahideen travelled to Kashmir and made parts of the Valley, like Sopore, their own “liberated zone.”
Thirty years later, India fears a repeat of history, which previously came as a tragic jolt to its control over the Valley. India fears that an influx of militants from Afghanistan may expose the enforced normalcy on the ground in Kashmir as a farce. It is in this light that India, for the first time, has softened its stand on the Taliban and sent a non-official delegation to participate in the talks held in Moscow in November last year. The Moscow format was an interesting spectacle since it involved the former foes—Russia and the Taliban—sitting shoulder to shoulder.
TheRole of Taliban
Negotiations that favor the Taliban and not the Afghan government are an embarrassment to India and may be seen as a victory for Pakistan, who has always believed the Taliban is the future. As the seventeen-year-war comes to an end, the loss to India is only at a strategic level, as New Delhi’s efforts to rebuild the country and its constant support to the Afghan regime appear to have yielded very little in terms of a say in the post-war government of Afghanistan.
Does the Taliban’s ascendance into a possible power-sharing arrangement in the Afghan government present any dangers to India in Kashmir? In one word: no.
Does the Taliban’s ascendance into a possible power-sharing arrangement in the Afghan government present any dangers to India in Kashmir? In one word: no. The United States has agreed to the crucial Taliban demand on the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. In return, the Taliban are expected to oppose and deny a foothold to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on Afghan soil. Some members of the Taliban have acknowledged their mistake in hosting Al-Qaeda after 9/11, and will be reluctant to be soft on either group for fear of disturbing the international community.
It is also likely that the Taliban will not be interested in Kashmir at a time when they have forces like ISIS and Al-Qaeda to deal with at home. The size of ISIS in Afghanistan – a group consisting of defected members of the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban that found its foothold in the country in 2015 –is not exactly known, but estimates place its numbers between 3,000-5,000 fighters. At present, the Taliban will be more interested in regaining the ground lost to ISIS than offering its energies to the Kashmir cause. Additionally, Al-Qaeda has also shown signs of rebuilding and given how their sectarian nature aligns with that of ISIS, either of the two may well subsume the other in future.
The Situation in Kashmir
The situation in Kashmir at present does not favor any outside intervention on the scale it did in early 1990s. The Jammu and Kashmir police report that there are no more than 300 militants active, compared to the thousands in the 1990s. At present, the insurgency does not appear to be damaging enough to draw India to the negotiating table with Pakistan or even the representatives like the Hurriyat conference in Kashmir. India’s counterinsurgency apparatus today is more evolved than that of the 1990s; this has shifted the exchange of violence in Kashmir from between the Indian army and militants to militants and the local police. Outside forces will only be able to make a difference in the intensity of insurgent activity in Kashmir if the groups fighting India at present are able to demonstrate their power potential. Recently, Kashmiri militants have suffered heavy losses after India announced the start of “Operation All-Out” to flush out all militants.
It would serve the interests of Pakistan to adopt a more belligerent approach and, once the post-war Afghanistan achieves a semblance of stability and the Taliban gain control over government, redirect Taliban forces into Kashmir. But the situation in Kashmir and Taliban’s own position does not appear suitable for such an excursion.
The role of Pakistan will be significant in determining if history will repeat itself in Kashmir. Strategically, and given how important Kashmir is to the idea of Pakistan as well as the idea of India, it would serve the interests of Pakistan to adopt a more belligerent approach and, once the post-war Afghanistan achieves a semblance of stability and the Taliban gain control over government, redirect Taliban forces into Kashmir. But the situation in Kashmir and Taliban’s own position does not appear suitable for such an excursion. At present, Islamabad seems to be interested in the promotion of dialogue to resolve the conflict over Kashmir, though Prime Minister Modi thinks it will be a mistake to believe them.
What’s in Store for Kashmir?
While its allies in Afghanistan want unconditional negotiations with the Taliban, India has its own condition of an “end of support to terror activities” to begin a dialogue with Pakistan. However, in Kashmir, India wants to continue with the policy of what this author has elsewhere underlined as the 3M’s: money, muscle, and the mainstream. As the new surrender policy also highlights, the present dispensation in India plans to buy off militants willing to surrender, kill those who do not want to (as evident from the continuing of “Operation All Out”), and promote more people to join what is called the mainstream politics.
To avoid any escalation of violence in Kashmir, and also any foreign intervention, India and Pakistan will need to push forward a peace process and arrive at a negotiated settlement of the Kashmir conflict by unconditionally responding to the peace overtures made by either of the parties. India, however, needs to take a proactive stance in this regard, given how its geopolitical position may potentially start to weaken as a result of Pakistan, post-war Afghanistan, and China coming together.
The author would like to thank his friend, fellow researcher, and wonderful cook Mudasir Amin for his inputs.
Image 1: Jesse Rapczak via Flickr
Image 2: Yawar Nazir via Getty