October 6, 2022

The Afghanistan Fallout on India: The Way Forward

As much as the Taliban and Pakistan will like to keep India out, the rest would like to keep Pakistan out. There will be a balance attained. Further it is clear that USA and Russia want India on the scene. So will Iran and other Central Asian Republics. India will be the balance against the Sino – Pakistan – Taliban nexus.

By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)

The Afghanistan Trilogy 

The Afghanistan Fallout on Pakistan

 The Afghanistan Fallout on China

These days everyone says that Taliban, Pakistan and China are the victors and USA and India the losers in Afghanistan. Things are not so simple. Taliban has won the war but not the peace.  USA has lost this aimless war and wants a quick exit.  While Pakistan, a nation eternally at war,  has won this war to its West,  its real war is with India.  China wants to win all its wars without fighting and rule the world. India is constantly at odds with itself, seldom at peace; and strangely progressing despite the chaos. However if war is thrust on India, it will not baulk. Pakistan will do well to remember that, after having instigated  four rounds of war with India. The fifth might be its last as Pakistan. It is in this context  that we  need to examine the Afghanistan fallout on India and its options thereof. 

The Afghanistan fallout on India is not direct but through Pakistan, China or both. It must be seen through the prism of India’s interests. India’s core interest is to safeguard its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and internal stability. The next is to safeguard lives of Indian nationals in Afghanistan. That is being done competently through an evacuation plan. The last is to exercise responsibility as a regional power to bring stability to the people of Afghanistan; many of whom have hopes in India. When seen in this paradigm, India has temporarily lost direct influence in Taliban dominated Afghanistan. However, the all-pervading apprehension is that Taliban fighters will stream towards Kashmir to create havoc and mayhem once again, as it happened in the 90’s. Many, fear this. It is a threat to our core national interests. However, since this threat is anticipated,  India must precipitate reciprocal action to deter Pakistan and China from even attempting anything. 

The Afghanistan fallout on India is not direct but through Pakistan, China or both. It must be seen through the prism of India’s interests. India’s core interest is to safeguard its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and internal stability. The next is to safeguard lives of Indian nationals in Afghanistan. That is being done competently through an evacuation plan.

IS(K) has apparently entered the scene with the twin blasts outside Kabul airport, resulting in more than 100 casualties (at least 13 US Marines and 90 Afghans). It has prompted President Biden to say  “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.” It means the USA has to stay engaged in the region militarily in some form, for some time. The incident has just complicated the messy military, diplomatic, political and humanitarian crisis for all stakeholders. Action by Al Qaeda could complicate the situation. There is competition for the Taliban. Panjshir Valley resistance is hardening. IMF and World Bank have shut the financial tap. Muslims are fleeing from a promised Islamic state. The intelligent, educated, and influential Afghans have left or are leaving. A food crisis is on the cards. Taliban is not a monolith with horizontal differences emerging between its power hungry leaders and radicalised cadres indulging in violence, rape, forced marriage, vengeance et al. There are also vertical differences emerging between Shuras in the power sharing structure. This is compounded by statements like no proof of Osama Bin Laden role in 9/11 attacks or Pakistan is like a second home.  All issues considered, Afghanistan will remain unstable whether it is a pure Taliban government or a seemingly inclusive one with all Afghan factions and interest groups. Stability and peace will elude the Taliban dominated Afghanistan and its backers viz Pakistan and China. That is for certain.   

The  Afghanistan Fallout on Pakistan was analysed in detail in an earlier article. Pakistan has lived up to its history. It has played the first half well. It has been brilliant in defeating the USA and putting Taliban in power. It is riding a tiger. All roads to Kabul go through Rawalpindi. All links to terror outfits begin and end with ISI. Very soon, Pakistan has to foot the bill to  keep Taliban in power as the voracious financial appetites of its greedy military establishment and Imran Khan’s wayward government keep increasing.  This is when it is under IMF and FATF guidelines, exports are down and hot money is flowing out. International conviction of its complicity and duplicity will squeeze future funding. An all-round economic blowback is on the cards when the dust starts settling. Simultaneously, a resurgent TTP and emboldened Baloch rebels have started specifically targeting Pakistani security personnel and Chinese workers. The TTP resurgence is significant since its leader, Noor Wali Mehsud is considered  ‘intellectual’. He has networked with the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, al-Qaeda, splinter groups and other Punjab-based groups. Earlier TTP had the lofty aim to overthrow the Pakistan Government and impose Sharia. Now it is merely concentrating on Pashtun areas by exploiting their nationalism and grievances. An unstable western border is certain. Add societal radicalism  and increasing misogynism to this canvas. As per a Pakistani analyst, the country is flying into uncertainty. As things get worse, Pakistan is all set for a disastrous second half. 

The Afghanistan Fallout on China was also analysed in detail earlier. The portents for the Chinese are not great. They are stretching when the USA is consolidating. In addition, their economy is weakening due to many factors,  with no hope of great revival. These issues were not foreseen even a year back. In fact, if one steps back and analyses issues, it is apparent that China is faced with new geopolitical and geoeconomic paradigms which it had not bargained for. The emergence of IS(K) with a bang upsets Chinese calculations despite wooing the Taliban. If Taliban puts pressure on Uighur militant elements in its ranks , they will gladly switch to ISIS / Al Qaeda. The threat will morph but not vanish.  China has to now face an inescapable reality. It has to manage its security beyond its borders whether Taliban is in pole position or not.  It needs Pakistan to manage Afghanistan in the post US phase. Hence it needs to support Pakistan despite the attacks on the CPEC. China has acquired two bankrupt and unstable babies which it has to fund to safeguard its interests. Slowly and irrevocably, it will get sucked into the cauldron.  

Under the circumstances what does India do? To understand that, we have to go back to the 90s, when the Mujahideen were repurposed by Pakistan and sent into J&K. India was unprepared. Capacities to handle the new phenomenon of terror and foreign terrorists were low. Our economy was just about reviving. We were not experienced in handling cross border terror or hybrid war – politically or militarily. On the other hand, the Deep State was adept at this dirty game. There were nuclear redlines we could not cross. Pakistan’s economy rested on USA, despite its perfidy at partnering in the Global War on Terror. US presence in Pakistan restrained India. Things have changed. We are better trained and organised to handle any terror influx now. The LOC fence system is a formidable barrier to cross. Our intelligence is better. Economically, we are far better than a bankrupt Pakistan, on which we can impose costs. We have called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff and they know that we will strike across the LOC. With the abrogation of Article 370, the political scene in the Valley has changed. The OGW network, communications and political support stands disrupted. People in the Valley have experienced peace and might not like to wind the clock back. A significant aspect is that Afghanistan is an area of  652,860 km² as against  an area of 15,520km2 of the Kashmir Valley. Proportionately, we have far more number of troops in multiple tiers who are experienced and well equipped for a CI/CT/CVE role. Significantly, we are fighting for our home land while the Americans were not. Most importantly, the world knows about the Pakistani game plan and duplicity. Does it mean that Pakistan will not attempt to send foreign terrorists surplus to Afghanistan across the LOC into the Kashmir Valley? Of course they will. The issue is how many and when. 

Under the circumstances what does India do? To understand that, we have to go back to the 90s, when the Mujahideen were repurposed by Pakistan and sent into J&K. India was unprepared. Capacities to handle the new phenomenon of terror and foreign terrorists were low. Our economy was just about reviving. We were not experienced in handling cross border terror or hybrid war – politically or militarily.

Taliban’s bid to capture power and retain it, is based on its military power. They will not part even with one fighter till they consolidate power. Even after that, they will need a significant part of their fighters to police and govern the country. They will also need a large number to contend with IS and Al Qaeda or whoever. They have to also balance out the Panjshir resistance with whom they are negotiating. Moreover, their internal power structure is also based on factions who derive their power from the number of fighters at their disposal. At the end they must secure their borders with Iran, Pakistan, China and Central Asian Republics. After all, the Afghan Army has dissipated. Also, if China or anyone else has to invest and  develop infrastructure, they have to be provided with security. For the next three to four months it is very doubtful if we will see any significant eastwards movement despite the JeM and LeT seeking help from Taliban. The winter will set in and that takes us to the summer of 2022 at the earliest. Even then, it will be difficult for the situation in Kashmir to deteriorate since a base must be built up and the foreign mercenaries will stick out like sore thumbs. However, given the way issues are unfolding – diplomatically, financially and politically, a minimum of two years is more likely and reasonable. That gives us a great window of opportunity to monitor and respond to the situation proactively rather than  react hastily.

From any perspective , our aim should be to harmonise Kashmir politically and societally. The events in Afghanistan have put a time line on our internal actions in Kashmir to weave it into the national fabric. Development of internal strength is the prime most important task before us. Alongside this, we need to build up and consolidate our conventional and non-conventional capacities to be able to handle contingencies. Our intelligence in the Valley and in the hinterland has to be alert. In the meantime, we should not rule out a few Taliban fighters from appearing in the Kashmir valley. At the first instance of an Afghani or Talib fighter appearing in India, we must go on the offensive. Pakistan should not be left in any doubt about the kinetic or non-kinetic, conventional or unconventional and contact or non-contact action from India. As I have always maintained, Pakistan has three frontiers. The Western frontier faces Afghanistan. The Eastern faces India. The Central frontier composes of vulnerable CPEC projects and radicalised internal groups. All these frontiers can and must be targeted surgically. Pakistan understands this language only. 

The centre of gravity of the India-China-Pakistan-Afghanistan quadrangle is Gilgit Baltistan. I have explained this in detail in my earlier article on Sino Indian Logjam. This is our area occupied illegally by Pakistan. We need to start the political process formally to get it back. Once  we start doing that in earnest, Pakistan and China will start negotiating. India must externalise the situation and make China and Pakistan look inward. Simultaneously there is a requirement to give political signals on Tibet and Taiwan. China understands political signals better than Pakistan. 

The centre of gravity of the India-China-Pakistan-Afghanistan quadrangle is Gilgit Baltistan. I have explained this in detail in my earlier article on Sino Indian Logjam. This is our area occupied illegally by Pakistan. We need to start the political process formally to get it back. Once  we start doing that in earnest, Pakistan and China will start negotiating. India must externalise the situation and make China and Pakistan look inward. Simultaneously there is a requirement to give political signals on Tibet and Taiwan. China understands political signals better than Pakistan. 

The next level at which we must operate is diplomatic. It is now apparent that Pakistan is the epicentre of international terror. It has already started  its bleat of being a victim of terror and that Pakistan and USA need to cooperate more in future. By now all are sure about the kind of ‘Cooperation’ which Pakistan gives. The time has come to clip Pakistan’s wings. India needs to focus on that in international diplomacy. For a start, every effort must be made to convince people that any funding to Pakistan will end up being used against the donor. In addition, the West needs to be convinced that sanctions against Pakistan are a must for peace and stability. Very importantly, the international community must find a way to get Pakistan’s nuclear facilities under close monitoring. 

India has another important role to play which has been constantly overlooked. If a rapprochement can be brought about between Iran and USA many regional problems will be resolved. India has good and deep relations with both countries to bring this about. We must shed our hesitancy in this area. It will put paid to many Chinese and Pakistani plans inimical to India.

India has one ace up its sleeve. The Afghan people trust India as much they distrust others. That goodwill will not fade. As things are evolving, the chances of a pure Taliban government are receding. A government based on a power sharing agreement between the Taliban, Panjshir resistance group and elements of the erstwhile Afghan Government is likely to emerge. It will be some sort of a coalition with strings attached. As much as the Taliban and Pakistan will like to keep India out, the rest would like to keep Pakistan out. There will be a balance attained. Further it is clear that USA and Russia want India on the scene. So will Iran and other Central Asian Republics. India will be the balance against the Sino – Pakistan – Taliban nexus. To that extent, India’s loss of influence in Afghanistan is temporary. We might not have a free run, but we will not be out of it. The real decision which India will have to take is recognition of the emerging government. That will depend upon the shape, character and composition of the government and the international opinion.  

(This blog was originally published on www.gunnersshot.com with the link: https://www.gunnersshot.com/2021/08/the-afghanistan-fallout-on-india-way.html?m=1 and is being republished with the permission of the writer.)

-The writer is former DG Artillery, Indian Army. He is presently working at Department of Aerospace, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras. Views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of https://strategicaffairsindia.in

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