The Road to Peace in
Goes Through Kashmir
Pakistan has repeatedly told the world that peace in the region depends upon peaceful resolution of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute. At a time when international efforts to bring peace to the war-ravaged Afghanistan are in full swing, it has come as a whiff of fresh air that Pakistan and India have agreed to a ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC). Pakistan, which has been a frontline ally of the United States in the overstretched war on terror has now successfully facilitated the talks between the United States and the Taliban. Supporting the peace process in Afghanistan and facilitating the US-Taliban dialogue leading to a historic agreement is a clear manifestation of Pakistan’s new approach towards its neighbours. Pakistan fully recognizes the significance of peace in Afghanistan to turn it into a geo-economic hub.
As COAS Gen. Bajwa pointed out, “[Pakistan’s] robust role in the current quest for peace in Afghanistan is proof of our goodwill and understanding of our global and moral obligations. Our close collaboration and crucial support for the peace process has led to the historic agreement between the Taliban and the US and paved the way for intra-Afghan dialogue.” It gives a clear view that Pakistan’s thinking has witnessed a remarkable change in approach during the last few years. Pakistan’s priorities revolve around peace, connectivity and economic development these days. That’s why the country has offered an olive branch to India and is playing a constructive role in the Afghan peace process. However, given the complicated regional dynamics, the Afghan peace process is unlikely to yield results unless the Kashmir issue is addressed.
In this regard, the United States will have to play an important role. The time is ripe for Kashmir peace talks, and the Biden administration, with Secretary Blinken at the helm of foreign affairs, can play a constructive role in bringing India to the table.
The Afghanistan Theatre
Pakistan, which intermittently linked peace in Afghanistan with the Kashmir issue, expects US support on the Kashmir issue in return for facilitating US-led talks in Afghanistan. The current Afghan government however, has denied any association with the Kashmir issue and believes in positive neutrality, holding that India and Pakistan should resolve their territorial disputes by taking the rights of Kashmiris into account.
India, which has huge infrastructural stakes in Afghanistan and treats the country as a gateway to the Central Asian region, is seriously concerned over the possibility of the Taliban returning to power. The country has provided over $2 billion in aid to Afghanistan, mostly for reconstruction and rehabilitation projects, the most famous of which is Salma Dam, the building of a new Afghan parliament building, providing scholarships to Afghan students, and investing in the Iranian port of Chabahar, which gives it land access to Afghanistan through Iran.
The Indian government has occasionally indulged in partisan politics in Afghanistan by favouring a specific group or a party against the other. In a recent parliamentary debate Asaduddin Owaisi, a Member of Indian Parliament, declared that if Taliban returns to power, India should support Hazaras and Tajiks, which are minority ethnic groups, as allies in Afghanistan. This statement is pushing the Pashtuns, the larger ethnic group, into the embrace of Pakistan.
Earlier Indian governments pursued conciliatory policies which focused on state-to-state relations, so that New Delhi could have cordial relations with any regime that comes to power in Kabul. This policy holds that all three countries could benefit if peace and stability are secured and cooperation is strengthened. The current Indian government has also reiterated that it would only support the peace talks if they are ‘Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled’.
Iran, another significant stakeholder in the Afghan peace process, has frequently supported pro-Shia politics in Afghanistan. This was seen during negotiations over whether the Hanafi or Jafari jurisprudence should be implemented as the legal code in Afghanistan. Whether Iran’s support for Shia rights adds to the sectarian faultlines in Afghanistan remains to be seen.
In an interview, Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif, labelled the Taliban as a terrorist group but supported peace talks with it in the same breath. He also wanted the Fatimyoon (Afghan migrants mostly Shias and Hazaras in Iran, who were sent to fight against ISIS in Syria by Iran) absorbed into the Afghan National Army. The Afghan government sees this as a clear intervention in its internal affairs and an attempt to create a sectarian rift in the Afghan Army.
China too is involved in Afghanistan, but this is mostly driven by its economic interests and trade routes towards Central Asia. It also wants to import oil from Central Asia states through Afghanistan, which cannot be done unless there is peace and tranquility in the region. While it is wary of the US presence in Afghanistan, Beijing also worries over the growing insurgencies in the region, as extremism in Afghanistan and the tribal belts of Pakistan, Kashmir and Central Asia could further nurture the separatist tendencies among Uighur Muslims in the northwestern province of Xinjiang.
Given these contradicting politics and changing equations, any dialogue on peace in the South Asian region is unlikely to yield results unless there is a serious engagement over the Kashmir issue along with a dialogue on Afghanistan.
New Waves in Afghanistan
It has already been a year since the historic US-Taliban peace deal was signed on 29 February 2020. This deal followed sporadic efforts since 2001, which intensified since 2018. Under the deal, the US committed to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan within 14 months, lift sanctions against Taliban leaders and facilitating the release of 5000 Taliban prisoners. In return, the Taliban agreed that it would not allow Afghanistan to be used against the US and its allies by terrorist groups and that it would join an intra-Afghan dialogue and consider community representations in future decision-making.
The intra-Afghan dialogue however, remained plagued by internal rifts between the established government and several belligerent groups, as well as external factors which play a crucial role, since peace in Afghanistan is not an internal issue but a regional dilemma. The regional countries, especially India, Pakistan, and Iran, all aiming for greater regional domination, have high stakes in the changing political dynamics, and are seen as key stakeholders in the Afghan peace process.
Pakistan took a pole position during the US-Taliban deal, as it played a major role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiation table and holds the key to internal security and harmony in Afghanistan.
A successful US withdrawal from Afghanistan requires peace in Kashmir. The combination of instability in Afghanistan and popular discontent—verging on an uprising—in Kashmir creates ripe conditions for spillover. Stabilizing Afghanistan but not resolving the Kashmir crisis could once again trigger Afghan and international militant relocation to Kashmir, exacerbating the conflict there and potentially spilling over into other parts of the region, such as Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, China, or Central Asia. Facilitating a Kashmir peace deal is also an opportunity for the United States to make clear that “it means what it says” about democracy and human rights. It would send a message to India and the rest of the world confronting the rise of authoritarianism about the distinctiveness and value of America’s global leadership.
The United States need not play an official mediator’s role, which former President Donald Trump offered to do on multiple occasions. India categorically rejected the offers, citing its firm stance that Kashmir is a “bilateral” issue between New Delhi and Islamabad. Where there is an opportunity for President Biden and Secretary Blinken to play a constructive role is in encouraging their Indian counterparts to consider Kashmir peace talks as a viable strategy. Among the other minimally intrusive techniques Washington could employ are: (1) helping to set up the negotiations, (2) providing advice and offering proposals, (3) serving as a sounding board for all sides, and (4) protecting the negotiators from outside influence.
The writer is a member of staff.