The potentially nocuous impact of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan on Jammu & Kashmir
The impending withdrawal of the United States (US) after 18 long and arduous years in Afghanistan and India’s decision to rescind the autonomy of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) and bifurcate it into two union territories are both transformational events that could have serious ramifications for the entire South Asian region. How the narrative will play out with each of these events, as also how closely their impacts will be linked to each other in the months and years to come, will depend substantially on the role that Pakistan, as the common neighbour of Afghanistan and India, chooses to play. Neither Afghanistan nor India has much faith in Pakistan in view of the destructive role that the country has historically played in the region, and they believe that the Pakistani military establishment will persist with its policy of engendering violence, terrorism, and instability across its borders in order to keep itself relevant at a time when serious questions are being raised in Pakistan about its credentials and abilities.
Afghanistan’s apprehensions regarding Pakistan were recently articulated by Roya Rahmani, the Afghan Ambassador to the US, who on 18 August strongly objected to Pakistan’s linking of the situation in Kashmir with the ongoing peace efforts in Afghanistan. She said, “The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan strongly questions the assertion made by Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, Asad Majeed Khan, that the ongoing tensions in Kashmir could potentially affect Afghanistan's peace process. Any such statements that link the evolving situation in Kashmir to the Afghan peace efforts are reckless, unwarranted and irresponsible. It is a poor excuse used by Pakistan to justify its inaction against the Taliban and to avoid taking a decisive stance against the militant group”. Underlining that Kashmir was a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan, she added that the assertion by the Pakistani Ambassador that the Kashmir-issue could compel Pakistan to reposition its troops from its western border with Afghanistan to its eastern border with India was a misleading statement that mischievously suggested that Afghanistan posed a threat to Pakistan, whereas the reality was that "There is no threat from Afghanistan to Pakistan. The Afghan government sees no credible reason for Pakistan to maintain tens of thousands of military troops on its western frontier. On the contrary, Afghan stability is frequently threatened by Pakistan-based, sanctioned and supported terrorist groups”.
As for India, media reports over the last two days have quoted official sources as disclosing that recent intelligence inputs have suggested that in retaliation to India’s repeal of J&K’s autonomy through dilution of Article 370 of its Constitution, Pakistan was trying to push an estimated 100 battle-hardened Afghan terrorists into India. The terrorists had been brought to Pakistan Administered J&K, from where Pakistan planned to infiltrate them into the Indian side. Earlier this week, 15 such Afghan militants had been lodged at a terrorist launch-pad in Lipa Valley in Pakistan Administered J&K. These terrorists were being tasked by Pakistani intelligence operatives to carry out massive attacks in J&K as well as in other parts of India, including New Delhi, Gujarat and Rajasthan. Prominent political figures in J&K, Indian security forces, personnel of the J&K police, government buildings and schools had been identified as desirable targets.
The intelligence inputs also reportedly disclosed details of a meeting of “launch commanders” or terrorist handlers of the Pakistan-sponsored Jaish-e-Muhammed (JeM) terrorist group that had been convened to work out ways to push these Afghan fighters into India. The meeting was chaired by Rauf Asghar, brother of the outfit’s ailing chief Masood Azhar, in Bahawalpur in Pakistan on 19-20 August. The JeM and the Afghan Taliban are known to share a close and collaborative relationship.
Meanwhile, at least three Indian states, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, were put on high alert on 17 August after alerts by intelligence agencies that four terrorists holding Afghan passports along with a Pakistani handler and guide had entered Gujarat from Pakistan with the intention of carrying out damaging attacks. In a notification to all Special Operations Group units in the state that are tasked with keeping track of the movement of suspicious foreign nationals in Gujarat, the Gujarat Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) averred that “As per the inputs regarding possible terror attacks, four persons holding Afghan passports have entered India in the beginning of August to carry out terror attacks at crowded places in Indian cities. Attached herewith is the photograph of a terrorist who is from Kunar province of Afghanistan. He is the leader of the terror group. We have also attached the photo of a Pakistani ID of one Zaaki, who is providing guidance to this group of terrorists”. The states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, which border Gujarat, also tightened security in the light of this intelligence input.
These developments could actually turn out to be harbingers of things to come, especially with the US being in a hurry to leave Afghanistan. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, radiated optimism by tweeting after the recently concluded eighth round of negotiations with the Taliban that he hoped that this would be the final year that Afghanistan is at war. President Donald Trump also indicated that an agreement with the Taliban was just around the corner and that the US would soon start withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan. He said, “We have been there for 18 years, it’s ridiculous. At a certain point, you have to say, that’s long enough… We’re having very good discussions with the Taliban. We’re having very good discussions with the Afghan government”.
A US withdrawal from Afghanistan could present a serious challenge for New Delhi, not just in terms of its geo-strategic interests in the region but also for stability and security in Kashmir, which is already on the tenterhooks following the dilution of Article 370 in an undemocratic manner. Visions of the dreadful years in the 1990s following the withdrawal of the vanquished Soviet troops from Afghanistan, when the Afghan mujahideen trained by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) were re-routed to Kashmir in large numbers, would be flashing prominently in the Indian establishment’s memory banks. These Afghan mujahideen transformed the largely homegrown, albeit Pakistan-backed, insurgency in Kashmir into a ruthless terror machine. The degree of their penetration into Kashmir can be gauged from the fact that they made parts of the Kashmir Valley such as Sopore their own “liberated zones”.
US author, journalist and foreign policy expert Jonah Blank described the situation aptly. He wrote, “In February 1989, the last Soviet soldier withdrew from Afghanistan. The transformation of Afghan warfare from jihad to chaos in the 1990s propelled an upsurge of violence in Kashmir, where a decade’s worth of fighting left upwards of 50,000 dead. When the Russians left Kabul, so did many of the foreign mujahideen, or Islamist fighters. They had to go somewhere. And for many of them, somewhere was Kashmir. This achingly beautiful land, previously known in the West largely as the title of a Led Zeppelin jam, had experienced periodic insurgency for decades. Not until the Soviets left Afghanistan, however, did its conflict become a global problem”. Blank added, “During the 1990s, the insurgency might have burned out — despite Delhi’s provocations — if not for strong support from Islamabad. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Pakistan supported indigenous Kashmiri militant groups, such as the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. From the mid-1990s onward, however, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s powerful espionage agency, shifted most of its support to Pakistan-based groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and JeM. ISI supplied arms, funds, and safe havens for the training and recruitment of fighters. To facilitate the infiltration of militants into Kashmir, Pakistani Army units would initiate artillery duels with their Indian counterparts in order to cover the movement of units across the Line of Control dividing the Indian and Pakistani-held parts of Kashmir… Pakistan facilitated the redirection of mujahideen from Afghanistan to Kashmir, seeing it as a win-win situation: It kept India off balance, and prevented these murderous groups from returning to Pakistan”.
The expected US withdrawal from Afghanistan will render thousands of hardened jihadi mercenaries, triumphant after having driven yet another superpower out of Afghanistan, jobless. Blank believes then that “the dynamics that turned Kashmir into both a target and an incubator of global terrorism may be repeated: Thousands of the war-tourists who’ve spent a decade battling what they see as the invasion of a Muslim land by godless Westerners may shift eastward in their quest for another battlefield that pits Muslim insurgents against a predominantly non-Muslim army”. He feels that “Islamabad may have already resumed its policy of pushing militants into Kashmir to keep dangerous veterans of the Afghan campaigns from destabilizing Pakistan itself”.
Pakistan is still smarting from India’s controvertible move to dilute Article 370 of its Constitution and to bifurcate J&K. It is making desperate attempts to internationalize the J&K-issue, but barring support from China and an informal consultation on the issue at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), has little to show for its exertions. Serious questions are, meanwhile, being raised in Pakistan over the role and effectiveness of the country’s military establishment that has hogged a bulk of the country’s budget over the decades on the pretext of protecting Pakistan’s interests on the J&K-issue. The military establishment has aggressively and consistently pushed the propaganda down the throats of the average Pakistani citizens that it was a foregone conclusion it would one day wrest Indian Administered J&K and integrate it with Pakistan. India’s move has belied such hogwash and left the Pakistani military establishment with egg on its face.
In this situation, tempting as it may be for the Pakistani military establishment to attempt to regain some respect through a military offensive against India, it would also be acutely aware that a near-bankrupt economy and a much weaker military does not bode well for any conventional warfare that the establishment may hazard. Adding to the establishment’s woes is the fact that any misadventure, including indiscriminate use of its terrorist proxies and diversion of the more battle-hardened among them from Afghanistan, would not only be unacceptable to the international community but also plunge Pakistan into an even deeper economic crisis as severe punitive action by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which is watching Pakistan with a hawks eye, would almost certainly be forthcoming.
Pakistani columnist Imad Zafar in his article ‘Kashmir issue a blow to Pakistani deep state’ succinctly wrote, “It is evident that the narratives based on jihad and extremism did not pay dividends to Pakistan; in fact, they destroyed the social fabric of the country and turned the society into a land of millions of useless minds who other than hating the world on the basis of religion and ethnicity are incapable of thinking that it is the age of conquering the world through education, technology, and strong economy”.
If Pakistan genuinely has the best interests of Kashmiris at heart, as it invariably claims it does, it will surely desist from subjecting Kashmiris to the same fate that Imad Zafar asserts it has inflicted upon its own citizens. Inducting dreaded Afghan terrorists into J&K would certainly not be in the best interests of Kashmiris as it is they who would have to bear the brunt of the resulting human suffering.