Wednesday, 11 August 2021

What a civil war next door means for us

It is widely believed that Afghanistan is heading into a civil war. The Taliban and the Afghan government have not resumed their talks process started last September in Doha, even as they square off on ground with the Taliban controlling the country side and the government losing five cities so far. Taliban has reportedly lost some 200 fighters over the week in Afghan air force bombings.

At an open session of the Security Council called at the behest of the Afghan government and facilitated by India, holding the rotating presidency of the Security Council through August, the Afghan government has asked for the Security Council to warn Taliban against attacking cities. The call found echo in the statements of some members of the Council.

The current situation

This makes sense in the balance-of-power logic, with both sides having some tokens in the power play that inevitably precedes negotiations, with the government holding the provincial capitals even if the Taliban controls the intervening rural spaces. Such a power equation helps build symmetry on the negotiation table and bears promise of an agreement emerging with the two sides relatively evenly represented in an interim government that an agreement is expected to midwife.

Taliban’s gains on ground are therefore troubling. Not only do they set back the talks, allowing it to grab as much as it can in the interim, but portend an uneven agreement. Given the latter possibility, it makes it more likely that the two sides may persist with fighting, with the Taliban hoping to make military gains and the government hoping to preserve its space and reclaim lost ground.

For this reason there is a consensus in the international community that the Taliban must be cautioned against attempting to take Kabul militarily and any Taliban Emirate emerging thereafter would not be recognized. This would place the Taliban at the same starting point it was some 25 years ago when merely three states recognized it, though it had control over some 90 per cent of Afghan territory then. Besides, persisting with fighting in face of calls for military restraint would jeopardise not only political support, but also humanitarian and developmental aid that serves as incentive for the two sides to arrive at a compromise agreement at Doha.

The Security Council’s open session ended in further deliberations in a closed format. The outcome will likely be reflected in a Security Council resolution when the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) comes up for extension by the Council next month. Interim developments, both on ground and at Doha, will inform the resolution on the UNAMA mandate that will reflect these developments.

Optimistically, if the Doha talks make progress and fighting is curtailed, UNAMA can be mandated to extend support to the Doha process till it eventuates in an agreement on interim power sharing in Kabul. Alternative, if the military situation worsens, the international community can exert pressure to open up the humanitarian space, extending but maintaining a status quo on the mandate of the mission. In both cases, the UN secretary general’s newly appointed personal representative would support forming an international and regional consensual position on the future of Afghanistan supportive of a ceasefire and a resumption of the peace process.

Unfortunately, as of now, it appears that the alternative - pessimistic - possibility is more likely. The two sides may contend militarily till winters set in and dampen military moves. Thus, it is only over the turn of the year that movement on the peace front may be more visible. This gives enough time for the international community and the regional players to get their act together.

Currently, the prominent actors are only superficially on the same page. The United States (US) has fast forwarded its exit, without meeting the earlier intended timeline of the Doha peace process resulting in an agreement by when it departs. This has prompted criticism from regional players as China that it is a hasty withdrawal and from Pakistan that the US is leaving a mess behind. The three, joined by Russia, are confabulating in the extended troika while the other regional players, as India and Iran, feeling left out, want to join the conversation. As tit for tat, at the Council session, Pakistan, a major player, was not in the room, kept out – in its reckoning – by India as chair of the Council.

Proxy war clouds ahead

Strategic calculations might yet upend a meeting of minds, leading to violence continuing. The Americans are assisting the Afghan air force and are conducting air strikes of their own. To the Americans, such support lends confidence to the Afghan government to persevere against the Taliban offensive. However, air strikes are prompting the Taliban to rationalize its uptick in violence against civilian targets, such as its recent assassination of the media head of the government, and forays into urban areas.

This solidifies civil war portents, an outcome the US may not be averse too since it leaves the ‘mess’ – Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s word – at the doorstep of China, Iran and Pakistan, states with which it does not have cordial relations. Besides, it helps the US get back at the Taliban by denying Taliban control of Afghanistan for defeating it in a decade-and-half long insurgency. An Afghan cauldron will keep China’s Belt and Road Initiative centric interests in the region in abeyance.

A civil war might serve as setting for proxy war. India would continue its support for the Afghan government under its decade-long strategic partnership and revive its relations with its erstwhile partner, the Northern Alliance, by reaching out to the ethnic self-help militias that have formed across Afghanistan in wake of the Afghan national defence and security forces proving less than able to take on the Taliban despite over a decade of capacity-building by the US and, to a lesser - and less visible - degree, India. For its part, Pakistan will likely deepen its military engagement with the Taliban. It has reportedly deployed elements of the Pakistani terror organizations as Jaish and Lashkar in support of Taliban offensives.

Implications for Kashmir

For India, keeping Pakistan tied down in Afghanistan in a proxy war will help keep Pakistan off Kashmir, over which India has tightened its political and military control of late. Perceiving that its mentee, the Taliban, is thwarted in Afghanistan, Pakistan may return to its long held preoccupation, Kashmir, by resuming infiltration of Afghan civil war hardened Pakistani Punjabi fighters to revive the intensity of terror and help boost the insurgency in Kashmir. With China breathing down India’s neck on the other side, in Ladakh, Pakistan will unlikely be deterred by India’s conventional might, whittled as it has been with the pivot to the China front involving a diminution in its conventional advantage by transfer of some of its Pakistan-centric strike corps assets to the mountain strike corps poised against China.

Since the Taliban will be rather busy within Afghanistan, it is unlikely they will spare time and attention for Kashmir – the fear voiced in some strategic writings based on the factually incorrect narrative that international jihadism and Taliban presence was incident in Kashmir in the nineties when the troubles there were at their peak.

A revival of the insurgency, buttressed by Pakistani terrorism by proxy, shall lead to India responding with a heavy hand. The regional security situation can get potentially worse since the trend in surgical strikes over the past decade has been incessantly upwards. Earlier these were retributary raids, which in 2016 grew in magnitude and by 2019 had acquired an aerial dimension. More stringent population control measures impacting Kashmiris can be expected.

Reliance on the police, assisted by the central armed police, has only grown since the nullification of Article 370 two years back. With a proportion of the army-led paramilitary force, the Rashtriya Rifles, redeployed to Ladakh in the face off against China there, the security forces – feeling resultantly more vulnerable – will likely be more heavy-handed.

Politically, such a situation might be read as an opportunity by the Indian government. It is on-the-ropes after a series of setbacks to include a poor economy, disputed record in its showing on Covid, an alienated constituency of farmers and ‘Snoopgate’. Facing elections in a crucial north Indian state, Uttar Pradesh, early next year, it can use a stand-off with Pakistan for electoral gains, as it did in the last state elections there soon after the 2016 surgical strikes.

For Pakistan, continuing military contest in Afghanistan has the advantage of allowing its protégé to make gains and cement its strategic interest there of ‘strategic space’. Strife in Kashmir enables it the cover of a political rationale highlighting human rights to reengage in its interference in Kashmir. Pakistan gets two places to divert the Islamist energy within its society, even though this has the underside of developing a backlash in its cities as was the case a decade back. Besides, it can help it get back at India for tripping it up in Afghanistan and spurning its offer of geo-economic incentives made early this year.

Heightening preventive diplomacy

The upshot of this worst-case assessment is that while players may voice a disinclination for a civil war, all may not be unwilling to settle for one in case their interests are not met. The strategic interests of the US in leaving behind a restive Afghanistan must be called out, even if this dilutes focus on the Taliban as the sole spoiler.

Prevention of the worst-case entails the political moves currently framing the developing situation in Afghanistan need being energized in an expansion of the extended Troika to include India. The regional organization most relevant – the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – must step up, since it has both political heft and is best positioned to lend support to any agreement from the peace process, including by deploying military monitors or peacekeeping troops along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border as requested by the Afghan government at the Security Council. The UN envoy can play a catalytic role in all this.

Even as India is helping the Afghan government whittle Taliban’s military momentum, it must upgrade its outreach to the Taliban from an intelligence-led to a diplomatic one. This will help it mirror the other actors who have links with both sides, making it appear less of an outlier thereby. India can exploit and further its proximity with the Gulf states by helping them move faster on the peace process. It can position itself as a responsible player by easing the job of the UN envoy and bolster its longstanding case for a permanent Council seat.

For this to transpire, the internal political fallout of the possibility of being scalded by an Afghan civil war’s fallout in Kashmir must be brought home to Indian security minders. The sentiment voiced by Olympic javelin gold medalist Neeraj Chopra that had Nadeem, the fifth place Pakistani finisher, joined him on the podium it would have been good for Asia needs to come to fore.