Kashmir and the geostrategic game

Altaf Parvez | Update:

 Indian security forces personnel patrol a deserted road during restrictions after the government scrapped special status for Kashmir, in Srinagar 7 August. Photo: AFPNo one of Afghan origin has won the Nobel Peace Prize till date, but 70-year-old Zalmay Khalilzad is to be a strong contender for the award next year. If he does win the prize, he’ll be the second Pushtoon Nobel Laureate, after Malala Yusufzai.

Interestingly, Khalilzad hasn’t been heard to speak Pushtoon. He has been living in the US for long and is considered an American. In fact, he is one of the main architects of the Republican’s Asia policy.

Khalilzad had long tried to get the US to withdraw from the Afghan war and finally succeeded. The US is likely to reach peace agreement with the Taliban this month. The US is accepting the Taliban once again at a time that India has snatched away Kashmir’s constitutional status and made it a centrally controlled region. Many see this as the result of the dramatic acceleration of relations between the US and Pakistan.

The return of the Taliban is certainly a big regional gift for Pakistan. This comes in exchange for Islamabad’s help for the US to extract itself from the Afghan war. The NATO troops are war-weary and there still are 20,000 of them on ground.

The US media too has begun to avoid equating the Taliban with terrorists, though 18 years ago Operation Enduring Freedom had been launched to uproot these Taliban.

In the meantime, independence and peace remains a far cry there. Even in July this year, at least 1500 civilians were killed or injured. The presidential elections are scheduled for this month, September, though these are likely to be cancelled and an interim government installed at the helm.

The US did not win the Afghan war. In fact, it hardly gained anything from it. A large area of Afghanistan is under Taliban control. The Washington-backed government has no control other than in the capital cities of these provinces.

Khalilzad wants to use the peace treaty as a cover up, to indicate that the US wasn’t defeated. This itself can be a trump card in Trump’s election campaign. With the election fray ahead next year, the Democrats are actively raising issues of health care, minimum wages, etc, while Trump has his attention focused on Doha, Qatar.

If he can pull off a dignified withdrawal from Afghanistan, that will help him win a second term in office. During Khalilzad’s talks with the Taliban in Doha, a sense of understanding between the two sides has emerged. The actual pivot of understanding lies in Islamabad.

As far as has been understood so far, the NATO troops will return home within 15 months of the peace deal. This will also signify as withdrawal of the US from South Asia, in a sense. And fresh equations in the region’s geo-strategy may emerge. Smaller and medium powers will then begin to flex their muscles in the guise of proxy wars. Kashmir is just one of the many fronts.

The US will have to relent very little to the Taliban in the forthcoming deal, pledging not to aid the extremists. This will come with a deluge of conditions which the Taliban have no problem to accept, for the time being at least. They will simply be happy to regain their lost ‘emirate’, though that may not be immediate.

Trump is playing a pragmatic geostrategic game. The US administration has finally accepted the importance of Pakistan’s role on the Afghan front. As for Pakistan, is has hardly made much noise about Kashmir, in the anticipation of a friendly government being installed in Afghanistan. And India is taking full advantage of the situation.

Certain quarters feel that India hurriedly declared Kashmir a centrally controlled region in response to US depending unilaterally upon Pakistan in connection to Afghanistan.

Amit Shah, for the moment, has drawn a close to the traditional haggling between Pakistan and India over the Kashmir and Afghanistan issues. But who will have the last laugh, only future will tell.

Another question that looms large is whether, having gained full control of the party, Amit Shah has consciously pushed Modi towards a risky position. The events in Kashmir have made things difficult for India’s friends in Afghanistan. This is evident in the recent assassination attempt on Amrullah Saleh, the former Afghan intelligence chief. He luckily escaped an explosion that blew up a five-storey building, though 20 others died and 50 were left injured in the incident.

Saleh was always in favour of India’s extended role on Afghanistan and President Ashraf Ghani selected him as vice president in the second term election. Ghani, in an ambiguous message on Twitter, termed the attackers as ‘enemies of the state’, but it is clear that the attempt was on Saleh’s life. New Delhi’s media was clear about this. The India newspapers reported that after 5 July, no one in Kabul was very vocal about consulting New Delhi in connection with the peace deal.

Ironically, India had provided development support of around 2 billion US dollars to keep the US-backed government in power. This included construction of the parliament building in Kabul. Once the peace treaty is signed in September, the Taliban will enter its halls. The clout of the Ghani government and their local and foreign allies will diminish.

Senior citizens are being reminded of how things were 30 years ago, when New Delhi was backing the Najibullah government, though everyone in Afghanistan was aware that the control had gone into the hands of the Mujaheedin.

Pakistan’s military experts feel that the future Afghanistan can prove to be the ally they need when it comes to the Kashmir question. And so they are going slow. They want unilateral control in Afghanistan at any cost. Once the US withdraws, the puppet government in Kabul will automatically be dependent on Islamabad for its own security. At the behest of the Taliban, this government has not been included in the peace talks.

It is inevitable that the Taliban will come to power within a year or two once the peace deal is signed. This will put Pakistan ahead in the South Asian strategic game. Imran Khan’s repeated call to India for an understanding is all part of the plan.

Pakistan exercised restraint even in face of the air attack. They are not willing to lose any war. Islamabad feels that the abolition of Article 370 by India’s parliament is not the end of the Kashmir issue. There is still the apprehension of a test of strength.

The shape of things depends much on the relations between India, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan in the coming years. The Pakistan generals failed all these years to create a situation in Kashmir what New Delhi has done by ending conventional politics in Kashmir.

Contributing editor of the Indian Express, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, on 6 August wrote succinctly that the Modi government has greatly increased the gulf between Kashmir and India.

It is ironic that, 48 years ago, India benefitted from a similar mistake committed by its rival in another region of South Asia.

* Altaf Parvez is a researcher on South Asian history. This piece appeared in Prothom Alo online and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

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