Unstable environment

For the mostly bitter India-Pakistan relationship, the year gone by ended on a positive note when the prime ministers of India and Pakistan met at Lahore on Christmas Day. While the Narendra Modi-Nawaz Sharif meeting itself was symbolic, it sent the right message to the foreign and security policy establishments that the premiers meant business and were working towards breaking out of the logjam of almost seven decades of hostility. 

Iran’s nuclear deal with the US and its strategic partners provided a rare silver lining. However, elsewhere in Southern Asia, the security environment continued to deteriorate. As the year 2015 drew to a close, the Taliban had captured a large swathe of territory in the Sangin district of Helmand province in Afghanistan; the Pakistan army was struggling to complete Operation Zarb-e-Azb to eliminate the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in North Waziristan; infiltration attempts across the LoC in Jammu and Kashmir and sporadic incidents of violence were continuing unabated despite severe winter conditions; and, the Madhesi stand-off in protest against the promulgation of a flawed constitution, especially their blockade of goods entering Nepal, went into the third month.

Further west, the Houthis backed by Iran managed to hold their own against the Saudi Arabian and the UAE forces and the mercenaries employed by both. Despite Russia entering the fight against the Islamic State (IS) and the formation of a coalition of 34 Islamic nations by Saudi Arabia, the IS succeeded in consolidating its hold on the territory it had gained across the Iraqi and the Syrian borders. 

In its cyber and word-of-mouth outreach, the IS began propagating its future plans to extend the Caliphate to the east to Khorasanand to then fight Ghazwa-e-Hind – the last battle for Hindustan. It managed to capture and temporarily hold a few districts in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan, appointed a regional head for South Asia and declared Bangladesh as a new battleground. 

If the Southern Asian region is the second most unstable region in the world and is closely competing with West Asia for the number one spot, the foremost contribution to this dubious distinction come from the internal conflict in Afghanistan, the attendant instability along the Hindukush mountains on the Af-Pak border and Pakistan’s internal volatility. Afghanistan is still a safe haven for trans-national terrorist organisations, including the IS and the Taliban fighters have demonstrated their ability to strike at a time and place of their choosing.

The remaining NATO-International Security Assistance Forces, number-ing about 9,800, are no longer undertaking active operations and are now in a ‘train, advise and assist’ mode. While the 3,50,000 strong Afghan National Security Forces have been conducting counter-insurgency operations against the resurgent Taliban with immense courage, their numbers are inadequate to be able to sustain the required tempo of operations over the entire Afghan territory. 

They also continue to lack intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, helicopters gunships – India has given a commitment to provide five to six Mi-25 attack helicopters, heavy weapons like mortars and light artillery, mine-protected vehicles for casualty evacuation and logistics. 

The Pakistan-sponsored reconciliation talks with the Taliban broke down in July 2015 when President Ashraf Ghani got tired of Pakistan’s double games. In fact, Rahmatullah Nabil, the head of the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence service, resigned a few weeks ago saying Pakistan cannot be trusted. A gradual drift into civil war appears to be the most likely outcome. 

Pakistan’s pursuit of “full-spectrum nuclear deterrence”, particularly its quest for the acquisition of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) for battlefield use, is a major cause for instability at the strategic level. 

In view of India’s clearly enunciated ‘massive retaliation’ strategy, the Pakistani generals need to give serious thought to the disastrous consequences that will ensue if deterrence breaks down. Pakistan’s TNWs have fuelled international fears of the Jihadis coming into possession of these dangerous weapons of mass destruction, even as the country appears to be headed on a self-destruct course.

A ‘failing’ state
Pakistan’s struggle against its home grown Taliban like the TTP, fissiparous tendencies in Balochistan, continuing radical extremism and creeping Talibanisation in the heartland, violence against the Shias, the floundering economy and, consequently, the nation’s gradual slide towards becoming a ‘failed state’, pose a major security challenge for the region. Despite tall claims of major success, the Pakistan army’s offensive campaign against the TTP has not made substantive progress.

Sri Lanka continues to lag in finding a lasting solution to its ethnic tensions. The rise of Islamist fundamentalism in Bangladesh could trigger new forces of destruction if left unchecked. The government of Sheikh Hasina and the Modi government are cooperating to neutralise organisations like HuJI and the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). 

Nepal’s desire to seek neutrality between India and China is a blow to what has historically been a stable India-Nepal relationship. Simmering discontentment that is gathering momentum in Tibet and Xinjiang against China’s repressive regime has the potential to snowball into a full-blown revolt. The long-festering insurgencies in Myanmar may destabilise the government despite its post-election confidence.  

The year gone by saw both China and Pakistan come closer than ever before. China committed to spend $46 billion to link Xinjiang with Karachi and Gwadar under its One-belt, One-road (OBOR) initiative. The Pakistan army repeatedly violated the cease-fire agreement and stepped up the infiltration of terrorists across the LoC, but a stronger than usual Indian response quickly neutralised these efforts. At year-end, ties between India and Pakistan were on an upswing with the two countries agreeing to commence a 12-point Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue.

(The writer is former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi)