Why America's Afghanistan Pullout Is Bad News for Kashmir

Why America's Afghanistan Pullout Is Bad News for Kashmir

As India considers its response to the suicide car bombing of a paramilitary convoy in Kashmir, a retired military commander who oversaw a much lauded military strike against neighboring Pakistan in 2016 has urged caution.

SourceRajesh Kumar Singh/AP

Why you should care

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan could allow Pakistan-based terror groups to once again focus primarily on India. 

In public rallies, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi often boasts of his success in quelling cross-border terrorism — comparing the relative calm of his tenure with the trauma of the Mumbai terror attacks carried out by Pakistani militants during a Congress government a decade ago.

At the heart of Modi’s political mythmaking lies his government’s much-trumpeted 2016 “surgical strike” — a raid into Pakistani-held territory by a small team of elite troops who destroyed a clutch of Pakistani “forward positions” in retaliation for the deaths of 19 Indian soldiers in a militant attack on an Indian army base. The raids have been celebrated in public functions and dramatized in a recent crowd-pleasing, big-budget Bollywood action film, which Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party has urged voters to watch before India’s upcoming parliamentary elections.

But last week’s devastating suicide bombing in Kashmir — which killed 44 paramilitary police officers returning to duty in the restive Muslim-majority region — has come as a jarring reminder that the threat to India from cross-border terrorism has been more dormant than vanquished.

Now, with U.S. President Donald Trump eager to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, many analysts warn India is likely to see a renewed upsurge of terrorist violence, as Pakistan’s military intelligence turns its attention back to India’s troubled Kashmir region, the site of a long-running separatist insurgency. “There is this unfinished business in the eyes of the Pakistan army, which is Kashmir,” says Paul Staniland, a political science professor at the University of Chicago. “They still view it as a disputed territory and unresolved issue.”

They [terror groups] don’t have to fight in Afghanistan as much any more, so they can move their guys … back to the Kashmir front.

Alyssa Ayres, former U.S. diplomat

Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, has recently been engaged in frenetic negotiations to give Washington a face-saving exit from the 18-year-old Afghan war, a process likely to see Taliban militants incorporated in some new governing arrangement. With the winding up of the conflict, analysts say Pakistan’s military intelligence — which has long provided covert support to the Taliban — can redeploy fighters who had been battling U.S.-backed Afghan forces to reinforce insurgents in Kashmir. Such a phenomenon would echo the events of the early 1990s, when foreign fighters who had cut their teeth fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan moved on to battling Indian forces in Kashmir after the Soviet withdrawal.

“They don’t have to fight in Afghanistan as much anymore, so they can move their guys away from the focus on the northwest and repurpose them back to the Kashmir front,” says Alyssa Ayres, a South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, and former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia.

Pakistan-based militant groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), which has claimed responsibility for last week’s car bombing in Kashmir, and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks, have long been active both in India and Afghanistan, where they often focus on attacking Indian targets.

Rudra Chaudhuri, director of Carnegie India, says the winding up of the conflict in Afghanistan would certainly have a “fallout” for India over the next two years. “At the moment, JeM fights on two fronts. LeT fights on two fronts,” he says. “After the drawdown, you will see a lot of that firepower focused on Jammu and Kashmir.”

A picturesque Himalayan region, Kashmir has been divided since the late 1940s between India and Pakistan, nuclear-armed neighbors who have fought four wars — one undeclared — over territory that each claims as its own. India has also struggled for decades to subdue a separatist insurgency that erupted in the late 1980s and has simmered — with varying degrees of material support from Pakistan — ever since.

But tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad have surged since last week’s suicide bombing of the military convoy.

JeM promptly claimed responsibility for the attack, releasing a video of a 22-year-old Kashmiri former sawmill worker who carried it out. India promptly accused Islamabad of responsibility for the carnage, accusing it of providing “full freedom” for JeM to plan terror attacks — charges that Islamabad called a “knee-jerk” reaction and vigorously denied. Under pressure to reinforce his strongman image ahead of the upcoming elections, Modi has vowed retribution against Pakistan, saying he had given “full freedom” to India’s security forces to decide the timing and precise nature of a military response.

“After the surgical strikes, and given the government of India’s public position, it is going to have to do something that combines military effectiveness with something cinematic,” says Chaudhuri. “They have to demonstrate to the Indian people that they’ve done something that has some effect. But the other side is not going to stay quiet.”

India and Pakistan have come to the brink of conflict at least twice since 2001, but Washington was able to mediate to defuse each crisis and restore equilibrium. What has many analysts worried is whether the Trump administration has either the willingness or ability to prevent the latest tensions from boiling over.

“The two key actors that have always played a role in the de-escalation of crisis have been the U.S. and Great Britain,” says Chaudhuri. “But now both these countries are hypnotized by their domestic political compulsions.”

Ayres says: “The U.S. is in a jam in terms of its diplomatic strength. When you look at this crisis, it’s looking pretty weak. It’s an atrophied diplomatic muscle.”

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By Amy Kazmin

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