The Kabul Spillover?

Security experts are divided over the possible impact of the Kabul situation on Kashmir. But the dramatic Taliban triumph has altered the region’s geopolitics, for the time being, writes Riyaz Wani

Taliban In Zurmat (Paktia), where they took over the US-supplied vehicles and war infrastructure from the Afghan forces who surrendered after a protracted siege ending early July 2021. Photo: Twitter

As the Taliban return to power in Afghanistan, speculations are rife in India about the likely spillover of the violence into Kashmir. There is a fear in India that the Taliban victory would not only lend a fresh impetus to Kashmir’s otherwise waning militancy but also embolden Pakistan to once again support it with arms and manpower.

A Spillover?

Would this scenario play out as anticipated? There is a likelihood that it would. Senior BJP leader Ram Madhav who was also in charge of Kashmir affairs until last year was among the first in India to warn of Taliban spillover into Kashmir.

“Taliban has over 30K (30,000) mercenaries trained in Pak by ISI. In power in Kabul, Taliban leadership wl (will) now deploy them ‘elsewhere’ wid d (with the) help of mentor Pak. India shud (should) brace up for serious security challenges. Taliban may eventually consume Pak n China 2 (too), but the immediate threat is 4 (for) India,” Madhav tweeted soon after the Taliban took control of Kabul.

Similarly, well-regarded international publications like The Economist have predicted fresh trouble in Kashmir. “Now, with Mr Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government having stirred its own troubles in Kashmir, by stripping the region of autonomy in 2019, it must face the prospect of a new generation of Muslim Kashmiris inspired by the Taliban’s fanaticism,” The Economist wrote in a piece on the implications of Taliban victory for India.

In Qatar, Chinese officials with Taliban. Beijing has donated the anti-Covid19 vaccine to Taliban.

Writing in the Foreign Policy, Sumit Ganguly wrote:  “When they previously held power, the Taliban gave free rein to a host of anti-Indian terrorist organizations within Afghanistan, most notably Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Safe havens allowed these organizations to regroup, train, and then wreak havoc in Indian-administered Kashmir, the site of a long-running insurgency”.

The former Jammu and Kashmir Police Chief, S P Vaid has also expressed a similar opinion. In interviews with media, Vaid said that the Taliban’s previous rule from 1996 to 2001 had escalated the cycle of violence in Kashmir. “Kargil war, Parliament attack, Assembly attack and major suicide attacks happened then,” Vaid said while warning that a similar situation could play out yet again.

The Flip Side

Pravin Sawhney, a strategic analyst, however, does not think that the Taliban’s control over Kabul would directly impact Kashmir. According to him, the Taliban would try to endear itself to the international community for recognition

Sawhney added that Kashmir would be affected by new regional geopolitics.

“We have our own indigenous problems in Jammu and Kashmir. The biggest problem is that we are unable to differentiate between terrorism and insurgency. The problem there is insurgency. What is happening there has the support of people. The Kashmir situation in any case is volatile and people, in my estimation, feel alienated,” he said.

Split opinion

The opinion is thus divided between those who argue a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan would pave the way for the Islamic group to intervene in Kashmir and those who think the Taliban would not do so.

A S Dulat

Among those who say that a Taliban government would not affect Kashmir are the former RAW chief A S Dulat, a Kashmir expert.

“Taliban will now seek international recognition, including from India. Why would they get involved in Kashmir,” Dulat said in an interview he gave a month before the Taliban takeover. “I do not believe that the Taliban will now dance to Pakistan’s tunes; they have their own independent agenda”.

Dulat believes that he didn’t see the Taliban’s interference in Kashmir. “They will have to handle Afghanistan now. US troop withdrawal will only facilitate a political power moment in Afghanistan”.

Similarly, India’s former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal had, in a piece he wrote in July, urged New Delhi to take measures to pre-empt the fallout of the possible Taliban rule in Afghanistan on Kashmir.

“India has experience of Pakistan training jihadis in Afghanistan for terrorism in Kashmir, besides of course the IC-814 incident when the Taliban were in power in the country,” Sibal wrote in the piece. “The most important thing is to strengthen our security shield in Jammu and Kashmir.”

Pawan Varma, another former diplomat had in an interview last month acknowledged the Taliban threat in Kashmir. “The spillover from Afghanistan may lead to instability in this region and there could be attempts to infiltrate Kashmir and create trouble,” Varma said. He called for an outreach to Kashmiris.  “We have kept the people of Jammu and Kashmir incarcerated for two years and it is time to offer freedom to them. That would help in easing the situation in the Valley and help generate goodwill”.

On the other hand, a report carried by The Print some time ago, quoting sources in the army painted a grim picture for Kashmir should the Taliban return to power in Kabul.

“The next year will be crucial for us. The drawdown in Afghanistan and the surge of the Taliban will certainly have ripple effects in the region. The worst fear is that many of the paid fighters who were fighting American forces in Afghanistan will be diverted to Kashmir,” a source in the security establishment told the portal.

“The security forces also fear that history may get repeated. When the then USSR pulled out from Afghanistan in 1988-89, Kashmir witnessed a deluge of battle-hardened ‘mujahideens’, from not just Pakistan and Afghanistan, but also other countries, making their way into the Indian state,” another source, quoted by The Print, has said.

Reaching Out

Sensing the changing ground realities in the war-torn country, India had recently tried to open channels of communication with the Taliban factions, including its now top leader Mullah Abdul Gani Baradar. This was a significant shift from India’s position of not engaging with the Afghan Taliban. New Delhi had, instead, chosen to throw its lot with the Afghan government. But the engagement with the Taliban led to nowhere.

Hijacked IC 814 being surrounded by cadres of Taliban in Afghanistan in 1999.

Taliban has earlier said that India was welcome to continue its aid and reconstruction work in Afghanistan.  At the same time, the group urged New Delhi to stay neutral and not give the current Kabul administration any military support.

Taliban Victory

Having won the war, the Taliban are in no mood to compromise and want the entire Afghanistan for themselves. They are, however, trying to form a broad-based government by extending representation to other ethnicities in the new government.

Already, a Taliban delegation led by Anas Haqqani last week met former Afghan president Hamid Karzai and former chief executive officer, Abdullah Abdullah, in Kabul. Former Afghan senate chairman Fazal Hadi also attended the meeting, where the political leaders were provided with “foolproof security protocol”.

Separately, Haqqani also met Hizb-e-Islami chief and the Soviet-era mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Taliban has fought for twenty years to get to where they are now. After failing to wipe out the militia, the US found it pointless to continue staying in the country.  And after fighting the US military, the world’s most advanced war machine, to a standstill, the Taliban seem now invincible. The situation in the country is likely to stabilize now after decades of conflict.

Geopolitical implications

It goes without saying that the Taliban victory will have huge geopolitical implications for the region. A Taliban government will drastically alter the policies of the Afghan government. And India might be at a disadvantage here considering it has opposed the Taliban from day one. New Delhi’s unsuccessful attempt to reach out to the militia was an attempt to insure against a Taliban takeover in Kabul.

Russian Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov meets with Afghan and Taliban representatives in Moscow ahead of a conference for the centennial anniversary.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghanistan’s incumbent President., Ashraf Ghani

The impact on regional geopolitics would be profound. Kabul could continue to be the site of the great game and the violence unless all regional countries cooperate to bring peace to the country. As earlier underlined by the US president Joe Biden himself, eventually, the stability in Afghanistan will have to be the responsibility of the regional powers. And it is unlikely to happen if Afghanistan’s neighbours pursue their disparate interests as far as their approach to the evolving situation in Afghanistan.

The US will also need to make some subtle adjustments in its Afghanistan policy to make it work in the long term. So far, the policy has almost entirely neglected the regional geopolitics, prevailing issues and the contending interests of the neighbouring countries like India and Pakistan, which also keep the conflict going in Kabul. So rather than an exclusively Afghanistan-centric policy, the US also needs a broader regional approach to work for an integrated solution to the conflicts and the competing interests that in turn abet the instability. That is if the US is still interested in turning around the situation in Kabul.

An India Pakistan Cooperation?

But will an India-Pakistan cooperation happen? Unlikely. After reaching out to each other early this year and re-affirming the 2003 ceasefire agreement along the Line of Control (LoC) in February, India and Pakistan relations have gone back to square one.

Now, both the countries are putting the onus on each other to take the first step towards resuming engagement. Islamabad has made any re-engagement with India conditional to New Delhi reversing the scrapping of Article 370 or at least providing a roadmap for doing so. New Delhi continues to insist on an end to cross-border terrorism before talks begin. And as things, neither country is, in a position, to meet the conditions.

If the last year’s figures for infiltration and the killings of foreign militants in Kashmir are anything to go by, Islamabad has held back from supporting the local militancy. New Delhi, it seems, is unlikely to reverse the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir autonomy. It remains to be seen whether it restores statehood anytime soon.

The situation is very fluid. And it can go either way.  And for now, experts keep their fingers crossed.

Taliban Position on Kashmir

Meanwhile, the Taliban have said that it views Kashmir as “an internal and bilateral issue” between India and Pakistan, according to the news agency ANI, which has quoted “sources” within the group.  If that be so, the Taliban is choosing not to be drawn into the conflict at this stage.  And it may not, considering the group desperately needs global aid and the recognition of its government at this point in time.

Initially, the sudden Taliban control of Afghanistan made tens of thousands of residents to attempt fleeing the country. Many of these people who supported the US and the previous regime in Kabul feared retribution from the Taliban.

However, since taking over Kabul, the Taliban have tried to dispel the global narrative about the regime. The group has committed to respect women’s rights, offer amnesty to those who fought them and ensure Afghanistan does not become a haven for pan-Islamic outfits. The effort has been to reassure the world powers.

A Taliban leader shaking hands with a Taliban leader. Though a general impression is that the Taliban are a creation of Islamabad but both Taliban and Pakistan have rejected it. Pakistan, however, has helped the Taliban talk to the US.

However, it would take much more than assurances by the group for the world to trust it. More so, when there are many powers, which are invested in projecting and perpetuating a certain image of the Taliban. Many actions from the group’s previous rule like the blowing up of Bamiyan Buddha has also made the world deeply sceptical about what could happen now.

So, the weeks and months ahead could be crucial. The period would make it clear how the world would respond to the Taliban government and how the regime would deal with the evolving situation, especially, its relationship with its neighbours.

Evolving Situation  

The situation is still unfolding in the war-scarred country and it is too early to predict what will happen in the days and weeks to come. Taliban is yet to give a formal shape to its government. And then it remains to be seen which country or countries will be the first to recognize it. Meanwhile, China has said it was ready for “friendly relations” with the Taliban, while Russia and Iran have also made diplomatic overtures.

Pakistan, which is regarded as the benefactor of the Taliban, is also approaching the issue with some caution. Pakistan’s interior minister Sheikh Rashid has said that Pakistan’s cabinet will take a decision on recognition of the Taliban. On the other hand, the governments in the west, including the United States, are likely to take more time. The US has already frozen about US$9.5 billion of the Afghan government’s reserves in US banks after the Taliban seized Kabul. The Biden administration is allegedly contemplating other actions as well to pressure the group.

Washington has also stopped shipments of cash to Kabul as part of an effort to prevent a Taliban-led government from accessing money. The US wants the armed religious group to behave responsibly and follow through on its promise not to allow Al Qaeda to operate from Afghanistan before it gives recognition to its government.

The situation will certainly change for the good if the Taliban translate their promises on running an inclusive government into reality. And if it convinces the world that it has changed. But that is likely to take some time.

The Geopolitics

Meanwhile, the geopolitical shift that the Taliban victory has occasioned is likely to change the regional situation in unpredictable ways.

And this is where Kashmir comes in. Will history repeat itself in the Valley? It is difficult and also premature to predict anything at this time. But there is also little reason to rule it out.  The way the situation in Afghanistan is shaping up, bears – with some due exceptions – an uncanny resemblance to the run-up to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. This time again, the Taliban, yet another version of mujahideen, has dislodged a US-backed government.

The situation also evokes the memory of the mid-nineties when the Taliban had toppled the then squabbling Mujahideen government. The development is likely to have massive security implications for the neighbours including India and Pakistan. And the only way to deal with the unfolding situation is for the regional countries to cooperate. This is more urgent for India and Pakistan, which have always been working at cross-purposes in their dealings with the successive Afghan regimes.

Moment of Truth

Taliban’s return to power is also a moment of truth for India. The country sees its investment in the development of the country over the last two decades going to waste. India has also had to close down all its consulates and the embassy. Two Indian Air Force C-17 transports flew into Kabul on August 15, to evacuate diplomatic personnel, including Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel who defended the mission. The Taliban victory has suddenly reduced India’s capacity to influence the outcome in the country. Accordingly, Pakistan is suddenly in a greater position of leverage.

US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad with and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s chief negotiator, after the two signed the peace agreement at Qatar in Doha on February 29, 2020. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo witnessed the signing.

A defeated US could expect little direct influence in the country now. Yes, the US along with the European countries could still try to force the Taliban hand by sanctioning its government. But this could also further destabilize Afghanistan, currently lacking resources to run an effective government, which would be neither good for Afghanistan nor for the region. Also, sanctioning by the US would force Afghanistan to get closer to China and Russia.

What fallout will this evolving situation have on Kashmir? Will there be a spillover of the violence from Afghanistan? How will Jaish, Lashkar and the other militant groups conduct themselves in the evolving situation? This all is difficult to predict. But these are the potential factors, which can have a profound bearing on the situation in Kashmir – most probably in unpredictable ways.

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