Afghan conundrum: India, Pakistan and Kashmir ceasefire

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A politically dominant approach to the twin India-Pakistan and Kashmir problems would require a ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC) and internally in Kashmir as well. The Indo-Pak track would entail taking comprehensive bilateral dialogue forward while within Kashmir, it could mean an outreach to the dissident and mainstream political parties.

The Indo-Pak track – the ceasefire along LoC – is now past the 100 day mark, drawing appreciative comments from the Army chief as the “first step” in a process of normalization with Pakistan, the second step then logically should be a ceasefire within Kashmir.

This is perhaps on the cards, with India giving itself another summer campaign to mop up the Valley floor off militants that it calls “terrorists” and assuring itself of Pakistani good behavior during the peak infiltration season, summer. The two sides, with an eye on the Afghanistan peace talks unfolding in Dubai, have till September to see how things turn out.

If positive in and for Afghanistan, then it is likely that the remainder steps the Army chief tacitly alluded to may roll out over the coming winter. Here an advocacy is made for a ceasefire in Kashmir to build pressure on both sides to take this route not tread so far due to lack of imagination, force of habit and sheer cussedness.

In the liberal scheme, force has a place as a means to an end, bringing a violent situation under control in order that the political track of strategy is employed for conflict termination. This is in line with the sub-conventional doctrinal thinking in the Indian Army — iron fist in velvet glove — which has it that the role of the security forces is to bring the violence down to levels in which governance is unimpeded and is conducive to political initiatives.

Force is used to gain a position of advantage from which talks are initiated towards conflict resolution.

In Kashmir, by the indicators that are put out periodically by the police, the security situation is well under control. Not only are gunfights fewer but fewer youth are signing up to militancy, as admitted officially. This is the outcome of relentless joint operations and innovative, if debatable, means, such as burials of killed militants in a faraway place using Covid-19 as an excuse against gatherings.

The current juncture is potentially the right time for transition from kinetic to non-kinetic means. A ceasefire with Pakistan, reiterated in February, suggests that the proxy war factor is at ebb. Internally, sub-conventional operations are now being handled largely with the police supported by the Rashtriya Rifles and the Central Armed Police Forces. In fact, one division worth of Rashtriya Rifles has been redeployed to Eastern Ladakh against the Chinese, indicating that the situation is considerably under control in Kashmir.

Externally, there are reports of the two sides, India and Pakistan, meeting in Dubai. While these were in relation to the Afghanistan peace process towards which there is much activity in the Gulf, the end February ceasefire is a result of such talks. Besides, there were feelers from no less than the Pakistan army chief on wanting to change course on Kashmir. The Imran Khan government too did its own messaging. It has also appointed a National Security Adviser who can take the thread of talks forward.

The internal political track has unfolded in district council elections in Jammu and Kashmir. The political track of strategy has not culminated in that there is a constituency delimitation exercise underway, where after there would be legislative elections. A reversion to statehood is possible to visualize, as indicated by the home minister once. This suggests that the political track has a viable end state, an elected legislature of a state in place over the coming couple of years.

The realist case for a ceasefire may perhaps be more appealing for the Indian state that has lately cultivated an image of being tough and resolute on matters of security. Realists believe in a few varieties, such as that there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests. This thinking under-grids outreach to Pakistan, including the semi-secret talks in Dubai between the two security establishments. The realist case is that India cannot afford a two front security problem. Therefore, with the China front heating up since last year, it has had to let up on the Pakistan front.

If a ceasefire within Kashmir is not offered alongside, then Pakistan will be incentivized to continue its infiltration to reduce the asymmetry opened up by continuing Indian operations. A ceasefire within enhances scope for ceasefire continuing on the LoC, besides creating enabling conditions for the militant groups to come over-ground.

Pakistan can tacitly influence the Kashmiris militants to lay down arms and prevail on their proxy fighters and nationals to surrender. There could be an adjunct agreement with Pak to take back the Pakistani terrorists, with a safe corridor being given over a limited timeframe through Kashmir to a few exit points for the terrorists to make their exit.

From a realist perspective, ensuring that Kashmir does not serve as a magnet for foreign fighters would be useful once the Afghan peace process kicks in. In case Afghanistan reverts to a civil war condition, then proxy wars by regional states may be witnessed. A spill over from such a proxy war into Kashmir is feared. Preventing this requires that India and Pakistan arrive at a modus vivendi prior and as tacitly being urged by friends in the Gulf and the United States. Taking forward the process begun with their LC ceasefire in a ceasefire in Kashmir is a major confidence building measure between the two.

In terms of timing, a ceasefire this summer can see the militants concentrated by the winter. Acceptance by the major indigenous groups will ensure that the remaining groups, that are inspired by jihadism or having sponsors across, would be marginalized and amenable to surgical action.

Militant group members would require persuasion by political leaders, civil society and by their families. This needs emphasizing since the youth taking to arms are exercising a natural right to rebel against perceived oppression. A ceasefire call by the state is therefore a necessary initial step and sustaining it an essential next step establishing the bonafides of the state in their minds’ eye as a sincere actor. The state for its part does not lose its authority, primacy or aura, and can project that its initiative is part of its social contract obligation of being responsive to its citizens.

As in the north east, the groups coming over ground can be cantonmented suitably or allowed back into communities under surveillance and guarantee by the community for desisting from militancy. A ceasefire monitoring group exists in Nagaland that provides precedence and a framework for a similar set up. It could comprise eminent peace practitioners from the rest of India along with Kashmiris, including Pandits, and governmental representatives.

Perhaps over the coming winter modalities can be worked out for return of Kashmiri militants on the other side of the LoC to progressively rejoin the mainstream over the following year. The winter can see the political activity necessary in the run up to legislature elections sometime next year after the constituency delimitation exercise, or the following year.

Advertising the elections as meant for a state, rather than a Union Territory, assembly will incentivize militants coming over-ground, enthuse political participation and see public support. This has an appeal for political decision makers in Delhi, who could then go into national elections with peace in Kashmir with its statehood restored prior to elections.

Prior to national elections and with the support of the state government in Srinagar, a dignified return of Kashmiri Pandits will certainly be an indubitable marker of return of passable normalcy to Kashmir. The elected state government can then proceed with substantial matters such as negotiating with Delhi coverage of Article 371 for the state — in a return to the Article 370 status under a different route.

For Pakistan, it can claim to have contributed to restoration of statehood to Kashmir. There are reports of Pakistan contemplating rationalizing the status of Gilgit-Baltistan, critical to the security of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The advantage for India is in its engagement in Afghanistan continuing and enhancing with Taliban reciprocating its outreach. For allowing space to Pakistan in Afghanistan and easing its two front security predicament, deft foreign policy footwork by India would require extracting from it a commitment to desist from internationalizing Kashmir and reverting to the Simla treaty-ordained bilateral and peaceable framework.

A timely ceasefire now in Kashmir thus has potential as a win-win option for all sides: India, Pakistan, Kashmiris. It is mindful of geopolitics unfolding in the region, sensitive to the potential of geo-economics to further peace, alive to internal political compulsions in Delhi and empathetic to the pain of Kashmiris, including Pandits. It is plausible in both liberal and realist security paradigms, and therefore can be sold to the government in India that operates within the latter. It heralds and is in sync with a post Covid environment when human security shall assume priority. It is responsive to the United Nations secretary general’s global call for ceasefires in prevailing conflicts made at the onset of the pandemic, but better heeded late than never.

A former infantry colonel in the Indian Army, Ali Ahmed is a senior political affairs officer with the United Nations. His doctorates are from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Views here are personal.

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