India’s move to end the special status for Jammu and Kashmir indicates that the government is bracing for serious geo-strategic shifts that will unfold in South Asia over the next few months. Though the domestic reasons for ending the special status was presented through a detailed analysis of the negative effects that the Article 370 had for Kashmir, the real reason for this hurried makeover lies in the international context.
Soon after Union Home Minister Amit Shah presented his case for turning Kashmir into a Union Territory of India, a message from U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad stated that his talks with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar had yielded “great progress” and that he was heading to Delhi to create greater consensus in favour of peace in Afghanistan.
Taliban has alerted peace activists in Afghanistan that, as of now, an agreement with the U.S. has been finalised and both sides are expected to sign the agreement before this weekend. Earlier, the Taliban wanted the U.S. to withdraw in nine months but the U.S., after multiple shifts, has settled for 15 months. That means the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will be the major campaign card for President Donald Trump in the November 2020 election.
The implication of this peace agreement between the Taliban and U.S. will be felt across South Asia and in the West Asian region. This will be a ready acknowledgement that the Bush Jr. and Obama administration’s Afghanistan policy of the last two decades have failed and the Taliban will be the winner of the war in Afghanistan.
This will also be a landmark for Pakistan, which partially explains the silence that Prime Minister Imran Khan has maintained over Kashmir since the Indian announcement to end the special status of the State.
Mr. Khan’s stance shows that Pakistan is waiting anxiously till its biggest strategic assets — the Taliban — seal the deal with the U.S. The Taliban have a historical parallel going back to the 1980s. In 1988, following the Geneva Accords of 14 April, South Asia went into a tailspin with Pakistan trying to use some of the resources secured for the Afghan Mujahideen fighters to Kashmir where insurgency peaked subsequently creating the years of violence.
Thanks to quiet diplomacy, parts of the Afghan Mujahideen were in contact with India and the governments of Rajiv Gandhi, V.P. Singh and P.V. Narasimha Rao maintained contact with them, which they used to India’s advantage. In comparison, India has not yet made any major overture to the Taliban, which is being guarded by Pakistan zealously.
The immediate outcome of the U.S.-Taliban deal will be the visible display of American disinterest in South Asia. For the last two decades, the U.S. has been a critical balancer in South Asia. With this superpower eager to exit its biggest regional outpost, it is obvious that the regional rivals will clash.
This is the context in which India firming up its grip in Kashmir has been seen. The issue, however, is if Pakistan would like to go down the path of promoting cross-border militancy, as it did in the 1990s when the Lashkar-e-Taiba became a major terror force backed by masters in Islamabad. The coming months are expected to be tough for India, to say the least.
The volatile 1990s were managed with the help of local Kashmiri politicians like the Abdullahs, Muftis and deep sources among militants, who are unlikely to find the same political space in the territory that has been reduced to a Union Territory of India. With space for democratic politics restricted in Kashmir, a lot depends on what role the “old” Kashmiri dynasties will play in the region and who will be the new discoveries of India in the political field of Kashmir.
India can, however, play its hand in Kashmir undisturbed only if Pakistan decides to sit back, which is unlikely after scoring a major strategic victory on its Taliban front. It remains to be seen what will be the impact of the Taliban-U.S. pact on the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul, which is seeking renewed legitimacy through the upcoming election that the Taliban has opposed. In brief, India has made a move, but it is far from achieving its strategic goals that appear under the shadow of powers beyond its control.