The Year Ahead
India and Pakistan Are Edging Closer to War in 2020
Two crises dominated South Asia in 2019, and each one stands to get worse next year.
Turmoil is never far away in South Asia, between disputed borders, acute resource shortages, and threats ranging from extremist violence to earthquakes. But in 2019, two crises stood out: an intensifying war in Afghanistan and deep tensions between India and Pakistan. And as serious as both were in 2019, expect them to get even worse in the coming year.
Afghanistan has already seen several grim milestones in the last 12 months that attested to the ferocity of the Taliban insurgency. Casualty figures for Afghan security forces and civilians set new records. It was also the deadliest year for U.S. forces since 2014.
Ironically, violence soared even as there was unprecedented momentum toward launching a peace process. U.S. President Donald Trump, eager to exit Afghanistan, stepped up efforts to secure a deal with the Taliban that would give him the political cover for a troop withdrawal. U.S. negotiators and senior Taliban representatives held multiple rounds of talks, and by September the two sides were finalizing a deal that centered on a withdrawal of U.S. troops coupled with a commitment by the Taliban to renounce ties to international terror groups.
However, in September, Trump abruptly called off talks, giving a recent Taliban attack on a U.S. soldier as the reason. The likelier explanation, as I wrote for Foreign Policy back then, was the administration’s recognition that the emerging accord with the Taliban—which didn’t call for any type of cease-fire—was a lousy deal for Washington and Kabul.
The suspension of talks didn’t last long. Trump announced plans to scale up offensives against the Taliban, but this was more of a bargaining tactic than a battlefield redirection. Washington wanted to increase military pressure on the Taliban so that the insurgents would make more concessions at the negotiating table—such as the cease-fire they had refused to agree to earlier. Indeed, several days after Trump made a surprise Thanksgiving visit to Afghanistan, talks resumed—and this time with U.S. negotiators aiming to get a Taliban commitment to reduce violence against U.S. troops.During the last few days of December, media reports revealed that the Taliban had agreed to a temporary ceasefire to clear the way for a deal with the United States. The Taliban, however, rejected these reports.
Meanwhile, 2019 was a dangerously tense year for India and Pakistan—two rivals that are both neighbors and nuclear states. In February, a young Kashmiri man in the town of Pulwama staged a suicide bombing that killed more than three dozen Indian security forces—the deadliest such attack in Kashmir in three decades. Jaish-e-Mohammad—a Pakistan-based terror group with close ties to Pakistan’s security establishment—claimed responsibility. India retaliated by sending jets across Pakistan-administered Kashmir and launching limited strikes, for the first time since a war in 1971. Soon thereafter, Pakistan claimed it had carried out six air strikes in Kashmir to showcase its might, and it also shot down an Indian fighter jet and captured the pilot. The confrontation, which de-escalated when Islamabad announced the pilot’s release several days later, represented the most serious exchange of hostilities in years.
Then, in August, India revoked the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, the India-administered part of Kashmir, and declared it a new territory of India. New Delhi also imposed a security lockdown in Kashmir that included the detention of hundreds of people and a communication blackout. For Islamabad, which claims Jammu and Kashmir as its own, the move amounted to a serious provocation, if not a hostile act. Pakistan retaliated by expelling India’s envoy from Islamabad and suspending trade with New Delhi. Undaunted, in the weeks that followed, senior Indian officials—including the defense and foreign ministers—turned their attention to Pakistan-administered Kashmir, which New Delhi has long claimed, and suggested they eventually planned to reclaim it.
Bilateral relations remained fraught over the last few months of the year. Islamabad issued constant broadsides against New Delhi for its continued security lockdown in Kashmir. By year’s end, an internet blackout was still in effect. Then, in December, India’s parliament passed a controversial new citizenship law that affords fast-track paths to Indian citizenship for religious minorities—but not Muslims—fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The new law angered Islamabad not just for excluding Muslims, but because of the implication—accurate but not something Islamabad likes to admit—that Pakistan persecutes its Hindu and Christian communities.
These prolonged tensions often overshadowed what was arguably the biggest story in both countries in 2019: economic struggle. India suffered its biggest economic slowdown in six years, and Pakistan confronted a serious debt crisis. The two weren’t unconnected: Given the inability of New Delhi and Islamabad to fix their economies, both governments arguably sought political advantages from the distractions of saber rattling.
Against this tense backdrop, the opening in November of a new border corridor that enables Indian Sikhs to enter Pakistan visa-free to worship at a holy shrine, which in better times could have been a bridge to an improved relationship, amounted to little more than a one-off humanitarian gesture.
Bad as these crises are, they are poised to get worse next year.
The good news for Americans is that a U.S.-Taliban deal likely isn’t far off; both sides are fully invested in a troop withdrawal. For Trump, the importance of troop departures will grow as the U.S. presidential election draws closer, and especially because the Washington Post’s release in December of the “Afghanistan Papers”—documents that feature senior U.S. officials admitting failure in the war—will likely solidify U.S. public opinion in favor of winding down America’s role in the 18-year war.
However, any U.S.-Taliban deal will do little to reduce violence, other than halting attacks on U.S. troops. In other words, the war will continue.
A U.S.-Taliban accord would clear the path for an intra-Afghan dialogue between the Afghan government, other political stakeholders, and the Taliban that aims to produce a cease-fire and an eventual political settlement that ends the war.
The path to intra-Afghan dialogue, however, is fraught with obstacles. Afghanistan held a presidential election in September. The preliminary results—released in December—showed President Ashraf Ghani in the lead, but with barely the 50 percent of votes needed to avoid a second round of voting with the second-place finisher, his bitter rival Abdullah Abdullah (who rejected the results). The close margin suggests that when final results are announced, the loser won’t accept them.
This means Afghanistan is unlikely to have a new government in place for at least another few months, and even longer if the final results are different from the initial ones and require a second vote. Due to winter weather in Afghanistan, a runoff likely wouldn’t occur until the spring. Without a new government in place, it beggars belief that Afghanistan could launch a process to establish an intra-Afghan dialogue, much less negotiate an end to the war. And even if and when an intra-Afghan dialogue is launched, the hardest of sells will be required to convince the Taliban to lay down arms and agree to share power within a political system that it has long rejected and vowed to overthrow by force.
Consequently, Afghanistan in 2020 is likely to see a withdrawal of U.S. forces before a peace agreement is in place—a demoralizing outcome for already struggling Afghan forces that would deliver another boost to the Taliban and further increase violence.
Meanwhile, the underlying tensions between India and Pakistan remain sharp. Pakistan arrested dozens of Islamist militants this past year, but New Delhi wasn’t convinced Islamabad was taking strong and “irreversible” steps against India-focused terrorists and their networks. And New Delhi’s actions in Kashmir in 2019 represented worst-case scenarios for Islamabad.
The two nuclear-armed nations will enter 2020 just one big trigger event away from war. The trigger could be another mass-casualty attack on Indian security forces in Kashmir traced back to a Pakistan-based group, or—acting on the threats issued repeatedly by New Delhi in 2019—an Indian preemptive operation to seize territory in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
In either scenario, escalation would be swift. Bilateral relations are much worse than they were during last February’s confrontation. Ever since its resounding reelection victory last spring, India’s ruling party has pursued its Hindu nationalist agenda in increasingly aggressive fashion—which gives it no incentive to go easy on Islamabad. Pakistan, not wanting to show weakness, will not give in easily.
The doomsday clock for the next India-Pakistan war is at a minute to midnight. Diplomatic intervention from Washington and other third parties, and cooler heads on both sides, may keep it from ticking further forward. But it’s hard to see a path to unraveling such tightly knotted tensions—or to solving Afghanistan’s unending conflict.
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman