In Afghanistan and Kashmir, It’s the 1980s All Over Again

Decades of violence and terrorism were set in motion back then. Here’s how to avoid that from happening this time around.

A soldier atop an armored personal vehicle smiles as Soviet troops stop in Kabul prior to their withdrawal from Afghanistan on May 16, 1988.
A soldier atop an armored personal vehicle smiles as Soviet troops stop in Kabul prior to their withdrawal from Afghanistan on May 16, 1988. Douglas E. Curran/AFP/Getty Images

While a superpower negotiates an exit from Afghanistan, India stirs up a hornet’s nest in Kashmir. It is the 1980s, and the world is at an inflection point that led to a major insurgency in Kashmir, the Afghan civil war, the rise of the Taliban, and the attacks of 9/11.

Again today, the world is facing no less an important transition period as the United States is set to conclude a preliminary peace agreement with the Taliban and India’s Hindu nationalist government continues its communications and media blackout in Kashmir after having revoked the region’s nominal autonomy this month.

Back in the 1980s, the absence of a comprehensive political settlement in Afghanistan paved the way for the Afghan civil war and the emergence of the Taliban, which hosted al Qaeda, a transnational terrorist network. Meanwhile, Kashmiri refugees poured into Pakistan and the indigenous insurgency in Kashmir was eventually commandeered by Pakistan (and some alumni of the Afghan jihad), continuing the cycle of India-Pakistan proxy wars.

To prevent that history from playing out again, the United States cannot withdraw precipitously from Afghanistan as it halfheartedly plays crisis management between India and Pakistan. Instead, it should carefully structure any departure from Afghanistan while leveraging its working relations with both countries to facilitate a diplomatic process to resolve the Kashmir dispute.

In November 1985, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev proposed to U.S. President Ronald Reagan a United Nations-brokered political settlement and Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Unlike the current direct talks between the United States and the Taliban, the main parties to the diplomatic effort to end the Soviet war were not the occupying force and an insurgency movement. Rather, at the center of the peace process were bilateral talks between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which had been backing the insurgent mujahideen against the Afghan government. The talks were mediated by the United Nations, with the United States and Soviet Union serving as guarantors.

On April 14, 1988, Afghanistan and Pakistan signed three bilateral agreements to “normalize relations and promote good neighborliness.” In practice, they merely provided Moscow with a face-saving exit. On Feb. 15, 1989, the last Soviet troops crossed the Amu Darya River into the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, bringing an end to what many have called “Moscow’s Vietnam.” But as the former Pakistani diplomat Agha Shahi noted at the time, the Geneva Accords, as they were called, offered no basis for ending the war among the Afghans. He accurately predicted that the “internecine conflict in Afghanistan is set to continue.”

And continue it did. The Soviet-backed ruler Mohammad Najibullah clung on to power until 1992. The mujahideen then fought among themselves until the Taliban emerged and took over Kabul in 1996, replacing the Islamic republican system with what it called an “emirate.” The Taliban gave refuge to al Qaeda and a host of other jihadi networks.

Today, al Qaeda is a shell of its former self in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden’s son and heir, Hamza bin Laden, is reportedly dead. Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s successor as leader of al Qaeda, is seriously ill. One of Zawahiri’s wives, al Qaeda claims, is in Pakistani custody. Even so, the group will claim any U.S. withdrawal as a victory and attempt to regenerate itself in Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda is not the only extraregional threat in Afghanistan. Lurking in the shadows is the local affiliate of the Islamic State. Even if the Taliban end their war with Kabul and the United States—and if al Qaeda is contained as part of the peace agreement—the Islamic State will certainly continue its fight, attempting to play the role of spoiler and seeking to absorb militants who are opposed to the deal.

An even bigger threat to stability in Afghanistan, meanwhile, is its fractious elite. President Ashraf Ghani seems set on retaining power, refusing opposition demands to form a caretaker government after his term expired in May and insisting on holding elections in late September that few expect to be fair and transparent and will likely result in another crisis leading to greater factional and ethnic polarization.

Once an initial U.S.-Taliban deal is signed, observers expect a new dialogue between the Taliban and Kabul to begin. Yet the country’s mainstream power brokers have yet to come to an agreement among themselves on the role of religion and women in government or power-sharing in the current system, so there’s little reason to think that they’ll be able to come to an understanding once the Taliban are thrown into the mix.

Non-Pashtuns, who make up a majority of Afghanistan, desire decentralization. Pashtuns, chief among them the polarizing Ghani, insist on nothing but a strong center. And although bringing the Taliban into the political fold will address the major driver of violence in Afghanistan today, it will tilt the balance of power even more toward Pashtuns, replacing today’s ideological war with an ethnic one.

In late March 1987, as the United Nations brokered talks in Geneva between Afghanistan and Pakistan, New Delhi, according to firsthand accounts by journalists and local politicians, was busy rigging legislative assembly elections in Kashmir in favor of its partner, the pro-India National Conference. The Geneva Accords would be signed the next year. And by then, protests against India and a low-level insurgency had gained steam.

Like the cancellation of Kashmir’s special status and related curfew this month, the 1987 elections sent a message to a generation of Kashmiri political activists that their aspirations for self-rule could not be achieved through the ballot box. New Delhi would eventually crush the insurgency, which was later backed by Pakistan, taking the lives of tens of thousands of people. By the 1990s, the region became home to a panoply of jihadi groups. In particular, Pakistani Deobandi militant groups operating in Afghanistan and Kashmir became key local partners in al Qaeda’s global jihad. Splinter factions among them would also go on to wage a deadly insurgency against the Pakistani state after 9/11.

Once again, New Delhi has confined millions of Kashmiris to their homes, arrested thousands, and virtually cut off the region from communication with the outside world. And it is obvious why. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s abrogation of Kashmir’s nominal autonomy is the most radical attempt at altering the status quo in that region in decades, and it is deeply unpopular in Kashmir. To prevent mass protests, New Delhi is likely to keep the curfew over the coming months.

India has likely concluded that it will never win the hearts and minds of Kashmiri Muslims, but it can set the terms of their dispute with the central government. By arresting hundreds of political leaders, including two pro-India former chief ministers, Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah, Modi is seeking to set new red lines for the local leadership, isolating even those who had accepted extremely limited autonomy within the Indian union.

But Modi’s plan will likely backfire. Kashmiris have seen it before. Sheikh Abdullah, the Kashmiri Muslim leader who decided to side with New Delhi at partition, was jailed for 11 years by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, despite their friendship. Today, Abdullah’s grandson Omar is in solitary detention, and his son Farooq is under house arrest.

What goes on in Kashmir will not stay in Kashmir. Modi’s Kashmir annexation is his latest move of a series that fulfills long-standing demands of Hindu nationalists, many of whom champion the dismantling of India’s secular edifice in a bid to create a Hindu nation and erase the public presence of Muslims. Beyond ending Kashmir’s special status and canceling some other regulations governing Muslim family life, Modi has also worked to nationalize a population registry program in Assam state that has so far disproportionately impacted Muslims, stripping many of their citizenship. At the same time, India, long cherished as the “world’s largest democracy,” now ranks 140th on the World Press Freedom Index.

In the 1980s as now, just as a security vacuum opened in Afghanistan, India confronted turmoil in Kashmir that only stoked regional tensions. But this time around, Hindu nationalist forces are also on a trajectory to consolidate control over India, putting the country’s secular democracy and religious minorities even more at risk.

In the coming years, South Asia will be ripe for unrest. In Afghanistan, pro-government forces now surpass the Taliban in the killing of civilians. Even once the insurgency is technically over, it will continue to enjoy the moral support of large swaths of eastern and southern Afghanistan. In fact, a U.S. exit before a comprehensive peace agreement among all Afghan power brokers is concluded may well lead to civil war as the various players, awash in weapons supplied by major powers, once again adjust their allegiances and turn their guns on another. The chaos would be a boon for global jihadi networks like al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Meanwhile, India is making a fundamental break with its former secular self. Hindu-Muslim violence has been a feature of post-partition India, and it could grow more intense. A more assertive and majoritarian India could be more inclined to take risks in a nuclearized region. It is already clear that the Indian public’s appetite for escalation with Pakistan is growing as its mainstream media promotes the narrative that India triumphed in clashes with Pakistan this year. It continues to promote claims disproved by the international press that New Delhi killed hundreds of militants in Pakistan in February and that an Indian fighter pilot who was shot down by Pakistan was in fact a hero who took down a Pakistani F-16.

Amid the chaos, the United States looks set to leave the region one way or the other. It can mitigate the risk of Afghanistan’s troubles from spreading outward, though, if its withdrawal deal is phased and conditional. A smart exit strategy would involve redeploying U.S. assets in Afghanistan away from the Taliban toward targeting al Qaeda and the Islamic State. And it would leverage Afghanistan’s economic dependence to compel Ghani and other Afghan power brokers to put the country’s stability above elections and forge a grand bargain with the Taliban as well as between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns. Once the U.S. withdrawal is complete, the United States could maintain counterterrorism forces just outside Afghanistan—for example, in neighboring Uzbekistan.

In India, the U.S. State Department and leading members of Congress appear to be looking to get U.S. President Donald Trump to back away from his earlier offers of mediating between India and Pakistan and warning Islamabad not to resume support for militant groups in Kashmir. Meanwhile, human rights have gone virtually unmentioned in government, even as India’s siege of Kashmir looks set to continue. But U.S. engagement in South Asia at the highest level is necessary to avert a human rights disaster in Kashmir and war between two nuclear powers.

A little more than a decade after the Soviet Union and United States wiped their hands clean of Afghanistan the last time, terrorism came to the streets of New York. This time around, a superpower has an opportunity to leave Afghanistan in a responsible fashion that secures its own national security interests. Given the United States’ increasing ties to India, it also has a moral responsibility to try to prevent the foundations of India’s democracy from further weakening. The United States cannot afford to ignore the convulsions in South Asia. It is home to a quarter of the world’s population, and changes within it are bound to have ramifications for the security and prosperity of millions of people.

Arif Rafiq is the president of Vizier Consulting. Twitter: @arifcrafiq

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