Why Militancy in South Asia Defies a Common Response

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Kashmir attack: Bomb kills 40 Indian paramilitary police in convoy – BBC News

Dr. manoj Kumar Mishra 16 February 2019

Recently, at least 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel (Indian paramilitaries) have been killed in a suicide car bombing by an operative of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM has claimed responsibility for the attack). Adil Ahmad Dar, a local recruit of the group is reported to have crashed a vehicle laden with explosives into a convoy of the CRPF in Pulwama district on the Srinagar-Jammu Highway on Thursday (14th February). Although this has been the worst attack on Indian security forces since 1989 when the separatist campaign started gathering momentum in Jammu and Kashmir, the data recently released by the Ministry of Home Affairs show that between 2014 and 2018 (last 5 years), there has not only been a 93 per cent rise in the number of security personnel killed in terrorist incidents but the state has witnessed a 176 per cent rise in the number of terrorist incidents as well. Thus, there has been a continuous rise of militancy (killing of security personnel) as well as a surge in the incidents of terrorism (killing of civilians) in the state. However, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has responded to the recent macabre incident by saying that the forces behind this act of terrorism and those responsible for it would pay a ‘very heavy price’ and had made a ‘big mistake’.

Pakistan’s Strategies in salvaging its Afghan and Kashmir policy

Pakistan managed to salvage its policy on Kashmir and Afghanistan even after joining the US-led ‘War on Terror’ by maintaining an ambiguous stance. General Pervez Musharraf highlighted the phrase ‘safeguard the cause of Kashmir’ as one of the most important reasons to join the ‘War on Terror’ (S. Pattanaik, “War on Terror and its Impact on Pakistan’s Kashmir Policy”, Strategic Analysis, Vol. 32, No. 3, May 2008, p.  389). He linked Pakistan’s decision to join the ‘War on Terror’ to India’s attempt to get violence in Kashmir recognized as terrorism at an international level. While Pakistan was claiming to battle against militants in the AfPak region on its western frontier in the war against terror, violence in the east was characterized as a freedom struggle. Pakistan’s ploy to join the ‘War on Terror’ reaped rich dividends in terms of showing it as being serious about getting rid of terrorists on its soil. This led the US view militancy in Kashmir as a secondary affair to be dealt with after the War on Terror. Immediately following Pakistan’s declaration of support for the US-led Afghan war, terror incidents in India increased manifold. According to Kanti Bajpai, terrorist violence since 9/11 was continuous and audacious. Terror attacks on Kashmir Assembly on October 1, 2001, attacks on Indian Parliament two months later on December 13, 2001, attacks on army camp in May 2002, killing of Abdul Ghani Lone, a moderate leader in the separatist All Party Hurriyat Conference and attacks on Hindu pilgrims on their way to sacred Amarnath temple in Kashmir and the Akshardham temple in Gujurat pointed to spiraling of terror in the aftermath of 9/11 attack  (K. Bajpai, “The War in Afghanistan and US Policy”, Salman Haidar, (ed.), The Afghan War and its Geopolitical Implications for India, Manohar Publication, New Delhi, 2004, p. 40).

Pakistan joined the American-led ‘War on Terror’ in order not to be isolated internationally. Second, as India swiftly declared its support for Washington, Pakistan might not have wanted India to move closer to the US, which would have disturbed regional balance of power and third and more importantly, it was obvious to the Pakistani leadership that the country’s geo-strategic location with a shared border with Afghanistan would pay rich dividends as the US would have to depend on it for military operations. However, the decision to support the US in its ‘War on Terror’ did not come easily as Pakistan had to make a volt face to take such a stance. Supporting the Taliban was considered crucial to Pakistan’s security and regional calculations. General Musharraf even at times thought of estranging relationship with the US rather than abandon his allies in Afghanistan. Prior to the 9/11 attack on the US, Musharraf had openly admitted Pakistan’s ongoing support for Taliban, declaring, “This is our national interest…the Taliban cannot be alienated by Pakistan. We have a national security interest there” (R. Ahmed Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation-Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, Viking, New York, 2008, pp. 50-51). However, Pakistan assisted the US with facilities and bases as well as the required intelligence necessary for the conduct of the Afghan war. On the other hand, it allegedly continued to provide recurring support to the Afghan Taliban surreptitiously in order to promote its interests in Afghanistan even while it had to conduct a selective military operation against the radical groups which turned against the Pakistani state. The US was aware that Pakistan had the potential to use coercive measures in order to multiply its support for the radical groups and impede its war efforts. Similarly, mounting pressures on Pakistan (a nuclear weapon state) could turn it into a failed state enabling militant groups’ access to the weapons. From a geopolitical perspective, India was considered instrumental containing China by successive American administrations and a part of American Asia-Pacific strategy which was later reframed as Indo-Pacific strategy during the Trump administration while Pakistan was instrumental in promoting the US interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia due to its advantages of geography and alleged contacts with radical groups.

Pakistan’s age-old strategy of exercising influence over radical Islamic groups paid it off well as Pakistan began to be seen more as an interlocutor by regional powers seeking to address national security threats rather than a source of threat. Pakistan was able to limit India’s influence in Afghanistan while its complicity in proxy wars in Kashmir did not receive adequate attention. Indian attempts at redefining its relations with China in the post-Doklam summit meetings have not invited a robust response from Beijing that could meet New Delhi’s expectations of dealing with the menace of terror. China would be more inclined to defend its flagship project of Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) – China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) pursued along with Pakistan than throw its weight behind India on the issue of terrorism. New Delhi also failed to forge a common front against terrorism due to the existing geopolitical divisions within Afghanistan which prevented it from seriously engaging Russia and Iran while depending on American war and peace strategies in Afghanistan.

Geopolitical Divisions within Afghanistan

Although many countries expressed their concerns, sympathies and joined the American drive to forge a global war on terror following the 9/11 terrorist attack on twin-towers, they pursued different geopolitical objectives in Afghanistan in their apparent unity to fight terrorism as they began to perceive a greater threat from the American presence and role not only in Afghanistan but also in the adjacent regions as well. For example, while Pakistan seems to be more inclined to spread its own influence in Afghanistan as part of its strategy of acquiring strategic depth against India and supports its enhanced role as attempts at securing its legitimate interests which sought to undermine Indian influence, Russia harbored the desire to spread its geopolitical sway into the Central Asian region by presenting itself as the only security provider which could defend its backyard from the onslaught of terrorism  while simultaneously prohibiting that space to the US. 

Russia also considered the ‘War on Terror’ would strengthen its position in Chechnya. Iran saw its interests expanding from the West to the Central Asian region and wished to supply Central Asian natural resources to the world market by laying down the shortest and cheapest pipeline route and continued its strategy of maintaining its traditional sphere of influence in the western Afghanistan. For its part, China was least interested to intervene in the Afghan muddle and antagonize Pakistan given its concerns of Islamic uprising in Xinjiang and common interests in promoting China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and had a free ride on American military operations though later on showed an increased interest in Afghanistan due to the gradual drawdown of American forces and to execute its Silk Road Economic Belt project by holding peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. American reliance on Pakistan also determined Indian role in Afghanistan to a large extent given Islamabad’s sensitivities towards an increased role of New Delhi had to be taken care of by Washington. Further, Russia, Iran and China despite their concerns over the rise of Sunni fundamentalism sought Pakistani cooperation to stem this due to their common antipathy towards the American designs in the region.

Central Asian states with large Muslim population but under secular leaderships perceived looming threats from the growing possibilities in the export of Islamic fundamentalism into their territory from Afghanistan. Although these states did not wish to move out of the Russian orbit of influence, nonetheless in a bid to get rid of the Russian monopoly over energy politics in the region they invited American presence.

The US reliance on Pakistan to ensure military and non-military supplies for its troops on Afghan soil, poor communication facilities between Central Asia and Afghanistan and its frosty relations with Iran led to Washington’s greater dependence on Islamabad for its Afghan war efforts. Notwithstanding Washington’s reservations and apprehension over Islamabad’s role as a strategic partner, it continued to provide enormous ‘war aid’ to the latter over the years which significantly outweighed the ‘developmental aid’ meant for Pakistan’s socio-economic development (A. S. Zaidi., Who benefits from US aid to Pakistan?, Policy Outlook, Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 21, p. 4, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/pakistan_aid2011.pdf, 2011).

Pakistan was considered vital to US reconciliation efforts under the Obama administration not only due to its allegedly well-established links with the Afghan Taliban, the latter was also apprehensive of Pakistan’s collusion in multiplying support to anti-American militant groups. The US entered into a discourse of good Taliban versus bad Taliban palpably pandering to Pakistani interests. The differences in the US and Indian position on terrorism became apparent in their divergent perceptions while India considered the ‘War on Terror’ as a comprehensive and all-out effort to eliminate terrorism, the US sought to address those threats that undermined American efforts in Afghanistan rather than mitigate the cross-border terrorism concerns that bothered India. Trump administration’s stringent approach toward Pakistan led to a greater alignment of Washington’s and New Delhi’s response to terrorism with the country’s inclusion in the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) ‘grey list’ on the ground of its failure to freeze assets of terror outfits such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad subjecting its financial transactions to global surveillance and preventing it from raising money from any illegitimate sources. On the other side, the US compulsion to withdraw from Afghanistan without depending on Russia and Iran raised the possibility of rapprochement between US and Pakistan.