In 2014, Russia had annexed Crimea, which was a part of Ukraine’s eastern territory. Formerly part of Soviet Russia, the Crimean Oblast was transferred in 1954 to the Ukrainian SSR by the then General Secretary of the Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev. However, since the fall of the USSR, it had been assigned strategic and historical value by Russia. Putin’s annexation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory had invited criticism from the US and NATO and has since soured relations between the two former Cold War rivals. Almost 3500 kms away, in five years time, another geopolitical hotspot would attract similar attention. Recently, India abrogated Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, which bestowed “special status” on the northern state, leading to protestations from Pakistan. The strategic significance of Kashmir is well known to India’s political leadership. While it involved a decision regarding India’s own sovereign territory, it was fashioned in a way that warrants a Crimea-like understanding due to its security implications for the whole region. Despite the nationalistic overtones of the move that India considers an internal matter; the underlying strategy has wider regional security implications. For starters, Pakistan erroneously stakes claim over the “disputed” territory. Therefore, India’s latest move has put them in a tight spot.
According to Stephen Walt’s ‘balance of threat’ theory, India’s action can be considered as a counterweight to the growing US-Pakistan alliance in the context of Afghanistan. The imminent withdrawal of U.S forces from Afghanistan is predicated on Pakistan’s promise to engage with the Taliban in matters of its neighbour’s internal security. The political urgency of the U.S move shifted the regional power balance in favour of Pakistan at the expense of India’s strategic interests in Afghanistan (via the Chahabar port in Iran). Moreover, India failed to gain any foothold in the ongoing peace talks with the Taliban. With Taliban set to call the shots in Afghanistan’s political future, aided by Pakistani backing, the loss of strategic influence vis-à-vis Afghanistan dealt a major blow to its regional security aspirations. The decision to tighten the screws on Kashmir was India’s way of sending a strong message to Pakistan that it will not allow Islamabad to undermine its core regional objectives.
Fluctuations in Regional Power Dynamics
What are the broad regional implications of the move to abrogate Article 370? Firstly, India defines its security interests based on regional power dynamics. Over the years, any move that potentially undermined Indian interests was met with proportionate or disproportionate responses. For example; India’s intervention in East Pakistan in 1971 was primarily determined by the unprecedented migration of Bangladeshis across the border. The flow of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka was similarly the cause of India’s tacit support of the LTTE in the early years of the war, which later backfired miserably leading to a change of stance. As Afghanistan attracts the attention of the world, India could not leave its destiny in the hands of the Pakistan-Taliban alliance.
Secondly, introduction of internal security measures ensures rapid troop mobilization in the event of an uncertain external environment. Once again, history is replete with examples of regional powers undertaking internal balancing to determine its course of actions. China’s harsh clamp down of protestors in the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre introduced a series of laws and reforms to strengthen internal security. Therefore, today’s surveillance-obsessed Chinese state is a product of internal balancing. India, given its exposure to cross-border terrorism, justifies security measures in Kashmir based on the logic of internal balancing.
The political costs and opportunities are obvious, but the external strategic implications need to be discerned. While India has regained the strategic advantage in Kashmir, it is unlikely that the move would serve to enhance India’s influence in Afghanistan and by extension the regional power politics. If the decision on Kashmir is linked to Afghanistan or annoyance with foreign interference on internal matters (read: Trump’s Kashmir ‘mediation’ remark), India has achieved little ground in projecting its ambitions beyond Kashmir. At best, India may have managed to convince the world about its sovereign right over Kashmir but whether it can assure them about long-term regional stability is another matter. Can India’s decision to deploy forces in Kashmir complicate the power dynamics in the region? Pakistan has certainly been caught off guard but would weigh their options desperately. If Pakistan’s preoccupation with Afghanistan prevents any response to India’s swift act on Kashmir, then it unsettles the stakes for other regional actors invested in the long term future stability of Afghanistan. Following their talks with the Taliban, the US, Russia and China had identified Pakistan as the lead player. If Pakistan is left in the lurch regarding developments in Kashmir, it would necessarily nudge them to abandon and, much worse, allow Taliban to call the shots in Afghanistan. Regional security is a situation of one-upmanship where state interests fluctuate based on external threats to power. It would be premature to term India’s decision as changing the regional geopolitical landscape with Pakistan still holding the Afghan card. The other regional actors, especially China, would wish that Pakistan remains invested in their Afghan duties with potential BRI investments for the taking.
Challenges of Insurgency and Terrorism
As mentioned earlier, it is almost taken as a given that power maximization guarantees security objectives. Despite the soundness of a state’s power maximizing policy, offensive realist theory fails to account for one of the cardinal laws of physics: Newton’s Third Law of Motion, which states that ‘every action has an equal and opposite reaction’. A move that clearly seeks to wrest away Kashmir’s autonomy is bound to increase incidences of insurgency and terrorism. While the additional troop deployment serves to counteract any possible fallout from the move, it also sets in motion the vicious cycle of ‘security-terrorism-
instability’. One can argue that this has always been the standard operating principle in Kashmir and in most conflict-ridden zones but the current scenario throws up a complicated outcome.
Firstly, with little international legitimacy for its Kashmir stance, Pakistan’s ISI won’t hesitate to continue sending jihadists to disrupt any semblance of stability in the Valley. In fact, Pakistani motivation would be stronger given that Kashmir is a matter of prestige for its military. Hiding behind the cover of US’ dependence over its active role in Afghanistan, Pakistan would feel emboldened to strike India hard and engage in disruptive politics. Although the Indian strategic leadership can easily pre-empt Pakistani propensity for indulgence in Kashmir whenever the stakes are high, this time around the difficulty lies in defining the new ‘red lines’ over its counter-terror policy. Would low-intensity attacks attract a Balakot-like response? With Kashmir now regarded as an ‘integral part of India’, would India respond with equal vigour as before? Would the response involve the opening of diplomatic channels of communications with Pakistan? Based on the assumption that Pakistan-sponsored terror is ripe for escalation, how would New Delhi manage to recalibrate its range of options available?
Secondly there is a strong possibility of spike in the level of home-grown insurgency and terrorism with Kashmir’s jihadist fighters deriving inspiration from an essentially ‘pan-Kashmiri sentiment’. While this isn’t something new, the latest ground reality suggests it could destabilize the region far more potently than before. In seeking security, India effectively opened the possibility of escalation with the disaffected section of the Kashmiri population. This would have far-reaching consequences for any comprehensive strategy to maintain peace and stability in the Valley. The application of the recently promulgated UAPA Amendment Bill is another contentious issue that would complicate the handling of peace operations. With ISIS claiming to have established a ‘Hind Province’ to wage jihad against India, the allure of terrorism would receive a facelift. The revival of the Taliban would instigate local elements prone to terrorism to enlist the actor’s support in the fight for Kashmiri independence. While insurgency looks poised to rise, the lack of security infrastructure might hamper India’s counter-terror (CT) efforts. Unlike Israel, which has put in place a holistic CT approach that responds according to the nature of threat, the Kashmir’s state police force has limited capability to deal with large scale offensives. Moreover, Israel’s strong surveillance infrastructure has succeeded in preventing the rise of the “Knife Intifada” of 2015-2016. As the situation in Kashmir unfolds, India might do well to take precautionary measures on the CT front. Mere increase in troop deployment only serves to mitigate the impact of a terror strike but rarely seeks to prevent the same.
The Burden of ‘Returning the Favour’
When India sought the security-maximizing approach in Kashmir, it opened up two possibilities: its impact on regional security (discussed above) and the reaction of external actors like the US, Russia, China etc. While the regional security prospects remain uncertain, India left no stone unturned in its quest to mobilize international backing of the move. It was reported that India had already communicated its course of action to the P5 countries (US, UK, Russia, China and France) including a recent mention of it by S Jaishankar, Minister of External Affairs to Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State. In the absence of the violation of any international treaty or agreement, India decidedly expected that none of the major countries would wade into the issue. Positioning it as a matter of internal security, India succeeded in its strategy. Barring Pakistan, none of the major states voiced immediate criticism for India’s action. Even China’s strong response came a day later after Home Minister Amit Shah clarified that Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and the Chinese-occupied Aksai Chin region are also part of J&K.
While India certainly proved its diplomatic heft, it remains to be seen whether it bodes well for strategic interests. Despite India’s strong reservations against any foreign dabbling on the Kashmir issue, major powers generally do not concede a geopolitical opportunity without the promise of a ‘return gift’. In relaying an internal matter such as the abrogation of Article 370 to major powers, India might be obliged in return to act on areas where they had previously fallen short on performance and expectations. This is to be most expected from the US, which is led by a President with a transactional approach to foreign policy. This could manifest in two ways:
Firstly, India could be called on to take actionable steps in its bilateral commitments and security arrangements with major powers (for example, in the Quad). India has been the most reserved of the four member countries of the Quad, a stance borne out of prudence given that there is nothing to be gained from openly ganging up against China. By procuring US acquiescence on the Kashmir move, India needs to manage the fallout of its possible refusal to partake in multilateral groupings such as the Quad in the near future. In short, the expectations of burden-sharing on India would be stepped up.
Secondly, India could be expected to pick sides on issues where it would otherwise exercise restraint and take the diplomatic route (for example on 5G, missile defense systems etc). Although India would prefer to choose from the array of options available, it would be difficult to wriggle out of this conundrum by merely citing national interests. In the realm of technology it is increasingly becoming clear that 5G-enabled AI systems would need to be sourced from technologically superior countries who in turn engage in hostilities and trade wars with each other. Such software is increasingly being integrated into military technologies as well. We are already seeing a potential showdown between the US and China as their tech software war heats up. This could have consequences on India’s technical capabilities and strategic choices.
At a theoretical level, the move to abrogate Article 370 by the Indian government seeks to maximize state security in an unstable regional environment. However, in practical terms, the quest for security is a never ending process where objectives shift based on evolving circumstances. In international relations, brute use or the threat of force by states is often construed as necessary to maximize security. This logic, however, doesn’t account for the consequences of security maximization for the future interests of the state, both for its own national and wider regional security.
By Carl Jaison