By Ashok Malik
Feb 19, 2014
New Delhi must brace for a terrorist upsurge as civil wars in Pakistan and Afghanistan worsen.
Precarious anyway, "peace negotiations" between the Pakistani government and Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) - or simply the Pakistan Taliban - have suffered still more after news that TTP beheaded 23 Pakistani soldiers in its custody. India should be paying attention.
While national security has been almost absent in the pre-election political discourse, this cannot take away from the fact that India's security environment is set to undergo a dramatic change in 2014. The challenges the new government will end up facing in even its early months could be of an order unknown since the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks in 2008.
At the end of this year, American and international forces begin their withdrawal from Afghanistan. Even if a security agreement is signed with the government in Kabul that allows the Americans to retain a small presence, the overarching security umbrella that has been in place since the Taliban defeat in 2001 would have receded. A period when the greater jihad in Afghanistan (and inside Pakistan) overtook the lesser jihad in Kashmir and against India would come to a close. Twinned with this is Pakistan's own but different Taliban threat - in the form of TTP.
What is the state of play in both these trouble zones? In Afghanistan, western governments are confident that the Afghan army, largely officered by Tajiks, will be able to take on the Pashtun-led Taliban forces and keep the symbolically important city of Kabul for the foreseeable future. This confidence is somewhat negated by the admission of these very governments that the Taliban is likely to chip away at territory, especially in southern Afghanistan, and will invite defections, seek to win over supporters from the government side, make economic and developmental projects unviable and destroy signs of progress such as girls' schools.
Despite this, western diplomatic sources continue to insist that Kabul, though likely surrounded, will still hold. Is this optimism justified? How does one square it with reports that property prices in Kabul are falling? There is evidence that the city's (non-Taliban Pashtun) elite is moving money and investments to other places, such as Dubai, where the ongoing property boom is dependent at least to some degree on the flight from Afghanistan.
While the Pakistani army would hope for a Taliban takeover of Kabul or at least removal of a leadership in the city that is not in the control of Rawalpindi, the in-house Taliban question in Pakistan poses quite another dilemma. Here Pakistani generals are theoretically determined to fight TTP and stave off a challenge to the state. TTP's ultimate goal is the capture of Islamabad and formal conversion of Pakistan into an Islamist lebensraum. As such, in the battle against TTP, Indians find themselves in the unusual position of rooting for the Pakistan army.
Yet, here too there are complications. Intelligence sources suggest the Pakistan army is too tired and incapacitated to take on TTP in its strongholds of North Waziristan, even if the Nawaz Sharif government gives permission to do so. A quick, decisive victory for the army is ruled out. The TTP has a growing footprint in Punjab and Sindh, including in the urban centres of Lahore and Karachi. An army onslaught would drive TTP warriors out of Waziristan and into the heartland of Punjab. A civil war in Pakistan, to match a civil war in Afghanistan, would result.
Civilian Pakistani politicians, whether Nawaz Sharif or former cricketer Imran Khan, seem to take a more indulgent view of TTP. They look upon it as representing an insurgency and a disaffection that can be appeased with territorial concessions, with imposition of strict sharia laws in its regions and with offering it a slice of political power. That explains "peace talks" with TTP. In short, the Pakistan army may not even get permission to wage war on TTP, never mind if it can win the war in the first place.
What happens in case of a deal between the Sharif government and TTP? Pakistani political leadership would hope to co-opt the Pakistan Taliban, as it has the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). It is to be noted that TTP, LeT and the Pakistan army recruit from the same areas in Pakistani Punjab. In the short run, the only common target Islamabad can find for the army, LeT and a potentially or partially co-opted TTP is an external adversary. The pressure on India would be obvious.
There is one other concern. Sections of the Pakistan army and Inter-Services Intelligence have a history of testing a new Indian leader. In 1990, V P Singh encountered reckless threats about a nuclear attack on New Delhi. In 1999, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had an invasion on his hands in Kargil. What awaits the prime minister who takes office in New Delhi in May 2014?
It is possible all of this is scaremongering and actually the civil wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan will continue for long enough to give India breathing space. Even so, a medium-term nightmare scenario - with the Afghan Taliban closing in on Kabul and Pakistan Taliban getting a slice of state power - cannot be ruled out. For India, it would be the perfect storm.
Ashok Malik is a political commentator.