The South Asian region appears to be at a transformational moment. Not because of the elections in India, but of developments taking place in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which could spill over into India, especially Jammu & Kashmir. Admiral Mike Mullen has put it aptly. The US was not winning the war in Afghanistan. Therefore, it was losing it. Defeat in Afghanistan almost certainly means disaster in Pakistan. That is why even if this week’s report on the arrival of the Taliban in J&K is a false alarm, it is an ominous portent for the future.
This is reflected obliquely in the remarkably accommodative US attitude towards India in relation to Pakistan. Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy for Afghanistan has an explanation, “ For the first time since partition India, Pakistan and the United States face a common threat and a common challenge and we have a common task," that demands that the three countries work together.
But there is another take to this. For most of the past 60 years the US policy was based on seeing Pakistan as the pivot of its South Asian policy. So, all policy was hyphenated—Indo-Pak. With Pakistan melting down, the hyphen itself is fading. The Taliban has already gained ascendancy in Pakistan’s tribal areas. 17 out of 30 administrative divisions of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the North-West Frontier Province are under Taliban control, in six control is contested, and in five there is Taliban influence. Only two—Haripur and Abbotabad, directly north of Islamabad— are controlled by the government.
A map showing the situation in NWFP and FATA. Click here for the original in Bill Roggio's blog
The Pakistani establishment in Islamabad seems determined to dig its heels into the ground. By all accounts the Holbrooke-Mullen visit to Islamabad early this week was a failure. Leaks in the Pakistan media suggest that the its Army is smarting under the mounting pressure from the US for the ISI to snap ties with the Taliban and other militant groups. As the US realises, this is the irreducible minimum needed from the Pakistan Army because the ties themselves suggest that Pakistan views the Taliban as a potential ally, whereas for the US they are the adversary. There can be no joint battle unless these ties are snapped. So far nothing, not even the killing of police personnel in the Pakistani heartland seem to make any difference to Islamabad’s ambiguous attitude towards the religious extremists.
So, the US cannot avoid thinking of the worst case scenario where an Islamic Emirate of Afpak emerges despite its best efforts. The only option then would be to contain this entity and the containment would require the cooperation of Iran, Russia, and India—the coalition that helped the US defeat the Taliban in the first place in 2001. So we are separately also witnessing the changes taking place in US policy in relation to Iran, Russia and China as well. Both Russia and Iran, have reasons to fear a resurgent
Taliban, and both can play an important role in ensuring their defeat by providing the logistics for anti-Taliban forces, be they the US and NATO, or the Northern Alliance. India is an important bastion. It is deeply committed in Afghanistan’s development efforts and is in the geopolitical sense a frontline state against Islamist radicalism in the region.
The situation in Pakistan has a direct relationship to what is happening in J&K. Ever since the India-Pakistan agreement of 2004, the level of violence in the state had declined steadily. Even the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba which has cadres stationed in the forested mountains of north Kashmir and the Pir Panjal, chose to avoid combat. They would surface only infrequently, mainly to mark their presence through some fedayeen attack. But the infiltration pattern this year has changed. Larger groups are challenging the three-tier Indian cordon on the Line of Control. Perhaps these groups are there to disrupt the Lok Sabha elections, or their presence reflects a change in the attitude of the Pakistan army towards the Kashmir issue.
This disquieting development could have an even more serious follow-on if the current march of the Taliban remains uninterrupted. It will reach the borders of J&K within this year itself. Two decades of Islamism and several years of Lashkar-e-Tayyeba propaganda have made the Azad Kashmir region prone to religious extremism any way. The arrival of the Taliban there could have a game changing affect in the battle in the Indian parts of the state.
Tribesmen from the FATA and NWFP triggered the first India-Pakistan war when they invaded J&K in 1947. Pakhtun tribesmen began participating in the current Kashmir war in 1992, after the pro-Soviet government of Najibullah fell in Kabul. The first cadres belonged to the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and of the Hizbe-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. But the Afghans found the conditions in J&K different. They had no access to stand-off weapons, the Kashmiris were not reliable, the Indian forces were far too numerous and effective and both groups were wiped out by 1993.
A Taliban presence in Azad Kashmir, across the Line of Control could change things. The last ten years, the war has been fought by professionals—the LeT—which is detatched from the population. Though Wahabists, the LeT did not go out of their way to interfere with Kashmiri traditions. The Taliban usually arrive along with their social and religious practices which transform by force the society they begin functioning in. We have to worry not just about the Taliban, but Talibanisation. It would be easy to suggest that the alien Taliban will hold little attraction for the Kashmiris on this side of the LoC who are, after all, well educated and economically better off than the tribesmen of Pakistan’s badlands. But, as Pakistan’s example suggests this may not be enough to persuade them to stand up to the Taliban. A deep and insidious Islamisation, as well as suspicion of New Delhi, could paralyse their response. They may prefer to cut their nose to spite the Indian face.
The United States offers, at best, a limited bulwark against these trends. Obama’s Afpak policy could be another name for a US exit strategy from the region. This will see them intensify the fight against Al Qaeda in the short run and hope that they can kill their nemesis Osama bin Laden and hand over the war against the Taliban to the new Afghan army and police by 2011. Purely in politico-military terms it is good that that the Americans have an exit strategy.
It is quite another thing that wars, more than anything else, seldom work along a time-table. Mr Obama comes up for re-election in 2012, so perhaps he has to work to schedule. In that event, countries like India must do their own long-range planning that takes into account the Pakistan meltdown and a possible expansion of the Taliban into our very borders. The US will no doubt do something about the Pakistani nuclear weapons. But after that we may be left to our own devices.
This may sound overly pessimistic, but it is better to be safe than sorry. India does not have the luxury of an exit strategy. We must think through our own plans to deal with Pakistan and Afghanistan in the event of a US retreat from the region. This policy-within-a-policy needs closer coordination with Iran and Russia. In the meantime, however, we should go along with the US effort to intensify the anti-Taliban war and contribute what we can, keeping in mind our longer-range national interest requirements in the region.
This article appeared in Mail Today April 10, 2009