The bloody terrorist attacks in Mumbai have serious repercussions for NATO efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and defeat the Taliban insurgency. Whether or not any alleged links between the Mumbai terrorists and Pakistan are confirmed, the rise in tensions between India and Pakistan and the possible further escalation of their bilateral disputes will hamper the military campaign against the Taliban, likely exacerbate a crisis of governance in Afghanistan, and jeopardize efforts to imbed the country in a regional security framework.
At minimum, the terrorist attacks will delay a quick launch of a regional initiative toward Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India that has been urged by analysts to be the centerpiece of the incoming administration’s policy toward the region. The initiative was devised to assist Pakistan and India in reaching accommodation over Kashmir and reducing tensions along their border so that Pakistan could genuinely embrace efforts against jihadi militants on its western front. Pakistani reluctance for several years until recently to attack the Taliban safehavens in Baluchistan, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and the Northwest Frontier Province significantly contributed to the Taliban’s ability to recoup in Pakistan and launch an intense insurgency against the Karzai government and NATO. Pakistan’s rather fickle and lukewarm efforts have been mainly due to US inducements – both pressure, including in the form of US airstrikes into Pakistan, and US aid transfers.
Underlying Pakistan’s reluctance to target the Taliban have been not only the long-standing and carefully cultivated ties to the mujahadeen by the Pakistani intelligence services, the Director for Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), but also crucially the Pakistani military view that Afghanistan could provide a necessary strategic depth for Pakistan during a military confrontation with India. Given India’s conventional military superiority and the difficulties in defending the narrow territory that separates the border with India from Islamabad and Peshawar, the Pakistani military has considered it imperative to be able to fall back into Afghanistan, recoup forces there, and launch a counterattack against India. Above all, an encirclement by hostile powers in Afghanistan and India had to be avoided. Thus, a regional initiative that reduced one of the main triggers of India-Pakistan conflict – Kashmir – would permit Pakistan to come fully on board, focusing its resources on its western front and systematically targeting the Taliban and other jihadi groups. Reducing tensions between India and Pakistan is also a critical piece of a necessary larger regional framework toward Afghanistan, which for centuries has been plagued by regional and great power rivalries.
The tensions between India and Pakistan following the Mumbai attacks can greatly reduce the political will in both Islamabad and New Delhi to agree to such conflict resolution efforts. In India, the Congress Party government, already weak before the attacks, will likely find it too risky politically to participate in such efforts, especially before the national elections there next year. In Pakistan, the civilian government of Asif Zardari will struggle to maintain control over the military-intelligence services to conduct policy, especially towards its archrival India.
Any escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan will also result in the redeployment of the Pakistani military away from its border with Afghanistan toward its eastern border. Such a standoff between the two militaries following the 2001 Jaish-e-Mohammed (a militant Kashmiri group with deep connections to the Pakistani intelligence services) attack on the Indian parliament critically contributed to the ability of al Qaeda to slip out of Afghanistan into Pakistan. Any reduction of pressure on the Taliban and other jihadi groups, such as the Haqqani and Hekmatyar networks, that operate along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, will augment their ability to regroup, resupply, train, recruit, and fundraise in Pakistan, thus increasing the already serious level of violence in Afghanistan. Although the Taliban insurgency is self-sustaining at this point and has developed a substantial internal base, the external safehaven in Pakistan greatly hampers the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan. The United States and NATO do not have the military resources in Afghanistan to seal off the border with Pakistan; the three US brigades to be deployed to Afghanistan will not redress this problem. Any lessening of the anti-Taliban effort on the Pakistan side will be felt in Afghanistan.
A serious escalation of the tension between India and Pakistan could easily result in a full-blown proxy war between the two countries. Afghanistan has repeatedly been the theater for such rivalry. During the 1980s, while Pakistan and the United States supported the mujahedeen, India backed the pro-Soviet regime of President Mohammad Najibullah. During the 1990s, while Pakistan supported the Taliban, India provided assistance to the Northern Alliance.
Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, President Karzai’s embrace of India has been a major irritant to Islamabad. Indian consulates in Afghanistan are regarded by Pakistan as spying outfits and sources of aid to the separatist movement in Pakistan’s province of Baluchistan while Indian aid in dam construction in the Afghan province of Kunar is interpreted by Islamabad as a way to divert water resources from Pakistan. Pakistan’s paranoia about being encircled and possibly carved up between Afghanistan and India was already tragically revealed by the attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul in July 2008. Although the attack was conducted by the Haqqani network, US intelligence sources have reported that elements in the ISI provided support. A major confrontation between India and Pakistan may in fact push India into conducting operations in Afghanistan that the Pakistanis fear.
Such a proxy war would spell the end of Pakistani assistance against the Taliban. It would also further fracture the fragile and frequently fratricidal relations among Afghanistan’s political leaders. With the approaching presidential elections in Afghanistan next summer, the rivalry among the political elite in Afghanistan is already intense. The sense of exclusion and grievances among the various leaders are running high, fed by and reverberating through ethnic, tribal, and clan competition. Any proxy war in Afghanistan by the regional powers would fuel these internal fissures, possibly bringing Afghanistan to the brink of a 1990s-like civil war. Already, the collapse of governance in much of the country, caused by insecurity as well as a weak and frequently corrupt and predatory leadership, has eviscerated the legitimacy of the Kabul government and added fuel to the Taliban insurgency. Countrywide arming of various militias, stimulated by a proxy war, would reverse one of the remaining widely-popular accomplishments after the fall of the Taliban, the disarmament of the various warlords.
- The United States should marshal all available resources to help deescalate the tensions between India and Pakistan. High priority must be given to discouraging any military confrontation between the two countries, including massing of forces on the Pakistan-India border.
- At the same time, the United States and other friends of Pakistan must encourage Islamabad to cooperate with Indian officials in the investigation of the attacks and to take serious and visible actions against terrorist groups on its side of Kashmir and elsewhere, including against Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed.
- The United States also needs to restrain India from taking any provocative measures in Afghanistan and elsewhere and to prevent both countries from conducting a proxy war there. This may require bringing more pressure on New Delhi than the United States has been willing to apply recently. At the same time, it will also require the incoming administration to undertake a robust, intensive, and direct engagement with India.
- The United States should also stress to Pakistan that undertaking actions against Afghan-border jihadists is in Pakistan’s own national interest regardless of developments on its eastern border. Washington needs to persuade Islamabad that the fight against jihadism is vital and urgent for Pakistan itself as many of the jihadists, while originally cultivated or tolerated as Pakistan’s proxies, have come to seriously threaten the security of the country.
- In cooperation with its NATO partners, Washington must also discourage Afghanistan’s political leaders from exploiting the regional tensions to pursue narrow political power struggles and personal agendas, further exacerbating regional instability and internal Afghanistan fissures. Instead, Afghan leaders should be encouraged to come together to improve governance in Afghanistan and strengthen its internal capacity to withstand any ensuing regional crisis.