On April 7 this year, the US government’s National Intelligence Council released an assessment about risks of large-scale war between two archrivals “India and Pakistan” in its Global Trends report 2040, produced after every four years. The report warned policymakers in Washington that the duo may stumble into a large-scale war neither side wants, in the wake of any terrorist attack. The publication surfaced when the US is finally winding up its two-decade-long war in Afghanistan against al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
The release has hinted at any likely incident in the next five years that can drag the subcontinent into a bloody clash having far-reaching political and economic ramifications. It maintained that scenarios based upon the “ability of some militant outfits to conduct attacks, New Delhi’s resolve to retaliate against Islamabad after such an attack, and Islamabad’s determination to defend itself are likely to persist and may increase in coming years.”
As US President Joe Biden recently announced complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghan soil by September 11 this year, the risk of terrorists’ regrouping might increase and threat of such eventuality is likely to increase.
Gen Kenneth F. McKenzie, Commander US Central Command (USCENTCOM), in a Pentagon brief “emphasized keeping pressure on terrorist groups, otherwise they would regenerate after completion of the withdrawal of Resolute Support Mission.” In recent years, the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other factions have gained significant ground amidst peace efforts and negotiations, and there still exists a strategic stalemate between the fighters and the Afghan National Unity Government that has maintained control over Kabul with the assistance of international forces.
However, now there are serious concerns that after September 11, the prevailing stalemate might end in favor of the Taliban and Afghanistan may plunge into greater turmoil. If this happens, the country will again become a breeding ground for terrorist groups having the ability to launch attacks across the region.
Pakistan is deeply wary about these emerging dangerous dynamics because Islamabad has established domestic peace after a long struggle of eliminating terrorist activities and dismantling their networks from the country. However, a few religious factions still maintain connections and sympathies with fighters in Afghanistan that can reorganize and get exploited by the spoilers of peace.
The resurgence of the civil war in Afghanistan will not only endanger Pakistan’s stability but also has the potential to engulf the surrounding countries of South and Central Asia. More importantly, if insurgents gain significant ability of cross-border attacks, the recent Indo-Pakistan detente might fall into peril.
The February 24 Line of Control (LoC) ceasefire agreement, followed by talks between the Commissioners of the two countries in March 2021, are notable developments between these rivals and present effective Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) for further improvements in relations. But fears for such peace prospects are greater particularly due to the threat posed by non-state actors. Since 2001, both nations have been on the verge of conflict five times, along with regular skirmishes on the LoC. Each time, terrorist incidents strained this relationship further, and the likelihood of similar incidents might increase once US military presence in Afghanistan ends.
Any future terrorist act inside Indian territory or in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir might trigger a military response from New Delhi and push both neighbors towards the brink of full-blown war. Also, with Indian military build-up plans, New Delhi’s compulsion to retaliate will naturally rise along with egotism and delusion of security among Indian strategic circles.
This will trigger Pakistan’s determination to defend its sovereignty, which was effectively demonstrated on February 27, 2019, in response to Indian Air Force’s Balakot strike. In order to preclude the likelihood of such an occurrence, both India and Pakistan must devise some mechanism of communication in the aftermath of any future terrorist incident. The US must also play its role post-Afghan withdrawal in managing Indo-Pakistan tensions by establishing a three-party committee that works to prevent both neighbors from slipping into a conflict.
In the past, India without any formal investigation started leveling allegations against Pakistan for harboring and sponsoring terrorism, which the latter has always outrightly rejected. Pakistan has suffered greatly at the hands of terrorism in all domains and exhaustively worked to address international misperceptions of sheltering/backing miscreants. Fortunately, this realization has finally dawned on US government officials in Washington, who are now acknowledging Pakistan’s efforts against extremism. The US must also work to convince policy formulators in New Delhi to stop the blame game and engage with Pakistan in joint efforts to maintain durable peace in the region.
Hasaan Tahir is a researcher at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS). He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.