Trump’s Kashmir remarks could be a typical maverick’s tactic to get Pakistan help the US in extracting itself from the festering Afghan mess, writes Iftikhar Gilani
There is an intrinsic link between events in Afghanistan and Kashmir. In February 1989, when the Soviet Union, India’s ally, made a full withdrawal from Afghanistan, it had a huge psychological impact and a realization among freedom movements across the world that a superpower and a suppressing ideology could be defeated. The event led to a full-blown revolution in Poland and continued in Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania. One feature common to most of these developments was the extensive use of campaigns of civil resistance and demonstration of popular opposition. Romania was the only Eastern Bloc country whose citizens overthrew its Communist regime violently.
Coinciding with these developments, there was an upsurge on Kashmir streets as well, where millions of people marched to the local UNMOGIP office. In China as well, a popular national movement of students led to large demonstrations; some 100,000 students took over the Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, till tanks rolled on June 4, 1989. Kashmir and China were, perhaps, only two places, where people misjudged the power of the state. While Beijing settled down, Kashmir was thrown into an unending period of anarchy and militancy, making it most dangerous and the heavily militarised places in the world.
Three decades later, the region is facing a similar situation — the possibility of a complete withdrawal of American troops, under whose security umbrella India had built its presence in Afghanistan. Former Director General of Jammu and Kashmir Police K Rajendra Kumar is quite sure that its reverberations would be felt in Kashmir. “It is a matter of time that we will be feeling its implications in the Valley,” Rajendra was quoted saying. “After the US withdrawal, the terrorist organisations would feel pumped up, emboldened. His worry is that America’s withdrawal would be seen as a sign of victory by militant outfits and separatists that Delhi can also be defeated. “Therefore, there is an urgent need for India to adopt a clear-cut roadmap to deal with terrorism in Kashmir, he asserted.
Over the years, India’s Afghanistan policy has some major objectives to curtail Islamabad’s influence in Kabul, keep her engaged on western frontiers, so that the state and non-state agents have little leverage to plot against Indian interests, and also to gain access to vast energy markets in Central Asia.
In the 1990s, India’s Afghan policy was broadly aligned with that of Russia and Iran, supporting an anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. The context has now changed dramatically in Afghanistan. Russia and Iran are no longer in sync with Indian interests. Early this year, India did send its two retired diplomats as observers at the Moscow round of peace talks, which triggered speculation that India was reversing its policy on Afghanistan.
Delhi is also anxious about the fate of its $3 billion worth investments and clout in the war-torn country. In the first annual budget of his second tenure, tabled in the Parliament earlier this month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi allocated Rs 4 billion ($58 million) for various development works in Afghanistan. But anticipating a throwback in case of a hostile government taking over Kabul, it has slashed allocations to the construction of Iranian Chabahar port from earlier Rs 1.5 billion ($21.8 million) to a mere Rs 450 million ($6.5 million) for the year 2019-20. The US had exempted this port from its sanction regime against Iran. India had committed a capital investment of $85.21 million on development of two berths of this port and container terminals, and the incurring of annual revenue expenditure of $ 22.95 million over the next few years. Keeping in view its unending hostilities with the western neighbour Pakistan, Chabahar port was hyped as a significant strategic point for India, not only to connect to Afghanistan, but also to control accesses to Central Asia and parts of Russia.
Experts believe that anxiety in India stems from the fact that even after providing $650–750 million as humanitarian and economic aid, making it the largest regional provider of assistance for Afghanistan, it has been left out from the peace talks. Added concerns are that Pakistan has joined the US, Russia and China to strike out a deal with the Taliban.
Former diplomat M K Bhadrakumar, who has also served in Afghanistan and Iran as India’s envoy, admitted that Indian policymakers have failed to read the tea leaves correctly when it became apparent that the so-called Afghan surge under General David H Petraeus had ended inconclusively by September 2012. “In the zero-sum mindset, Delhi overlooked that Pakistan has legitimate interests in Afghanistan – no less than what India would have in, say, Nepal – and that by virtue of culture, tribal and ethnic affinity or sheer geography and economic and social compulsions, Afghans can never do without Pakistan,” he said.
Further, while Delhi lavishly invested in Afghanistan, it had missed other ground realities, that massive corruption was undermining the government in Kabul and also did not realize that the US and its allies were engaged in an unwinnable war. “They (Indian policymakers) that reconciliation with the Taliban was the only way out,” said the former ambassador.
The four-party meeting on the Afghan Peace Process, held in Beijing on July 12, 2019, comprising China, the US, Russia, Pakistan and the Taliban hammered out an eight-point agreement. The participants underscored their consensus on peacemaking and signalled their intention to speed up the peace process to a final settlement.
The US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, who appeared upbeat at the outcome tweeted that these negotiations should produce a peace framework as soon as possible. His statement, mentioning setting up a future inclusive political arrangement acceptable to all Afghans, is being interpreted in India as the US giving go ahead to an interim arrangement in Kabul, deriding the incumbent elected government.
“We also agreed that violence needs to slow now and a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire should start with intra-Afghan negotiations,” said Khalilzad. “We agreed we will expand and ask more international partners to join with the start of negotiations. Very positive.”
The move also highlighted that Washington and its Western allies had fallen back on Pakistan to ensure that Afghanistan will not become a ‘lab of terrorists’. Putting behind the bitterness, American President Donald Trump and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan have found some common ground to move forward on. The US is once again looking at Pakistan’s support to extricate itself from a festering mess. This convergence of interest and Trump’s offer to mediate to resolve the Kashmir imbroglio could be his typical maverick tactic, but it has crash-landed twin objectives of Modi government, to isolate Pakistan globally and to resolve Kashmir issue unilaterally on its own terms.
(A former Strategic Affairs Editor with DNA, the author is an editor with the Turkish news agency Anadolu Agency and is based in Ankara.)