The number of Afghan refugees in India already runs into about 50,000 and India can ill afford another major influx. India should not get militarily involved in the conflict as that may inflame public opinion within India as well as earn the wrath of Islamic countries.
Lack of success in the early resolution of the present imbroglio will have adverse repercussions for India. Though the US strikes have been carefully calibrated to ensure that ordinary Afghans are not targeted and a major humanitarian catastrophe is averted, there will still be a fairly large exodus from Afghanistan. While most of these refugees will tend to migrate into Iran, Pakistan and the CARs, some of them will inevitably trickle eventually into India. The number of Afghan refugees in India already runs into about 50,000 and India can ill afford another major influx.
The fall of the Taliban will impel Pakistan to divert at least part of the retreating militia-men to India so that they do not indulge in enforcing their peculiar brand of fundamentalist Islam in Pakistani territory. The diversion of 1,500 to 2,000 additional trained fighters into Jammu and Kashmir will require the Indian Army to induct and additional 20,000 to 30,000 troops to stabilise the situation as the empirical ration of Army troops to militants to maintain a semblance of normality is 20:1. Also, though Indian Muslims are predominantly secular, some fundamentalist leaders are bound to exploit inflamed sentiments and riots may break out in the traditional trouble spots of Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Bhiwandi and Aligarh, among other towns in northern India.
Besides ensuring long-term regional stability though a broadly representative moderate Islamist regime, India has manifold interests in Afghanistan. A strong and stable Afghanistan with a regime that is friendly towards India will tie down several Pakistani divisions on the Afghan border and enhance India’s combat edge. The CARs have vast reserves of oil, which India can exploit to advantage only if the land route through Afghanistan and Iran can be used commercially. Indian trade with Afghanistan, particularly exports, can be resumed to mutual advantage. Indian companies, including PSUs, will be able to participate in the economic reconstruction of Afghanistan.
Handing over power to the Northern Alliance by itself is not acceptable to most of the contenders as the alliance is not truly representative of the ethnic composition of Afghanistan. It comprises mainly ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks and has almost no representation from the dominant Pashtun community. Even if the alliance military commanders are able to engineer some defections and add some Pashtun warlords to their coalition, they will be few in numbers and will lack the authority to represent the proud Pashtun community. Hence, the US and its allies are working towards installing a grand coalition of national reconciliation led by the former King Zahir Shah after Kabul is liberated. All the elements comprising the newly constituted United Front and the deposed government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, which is still recognised by the United Nations as well as India, are likely to be accommodated in the grand coalition. Once Kabul comes within reach of the United Front, more Pashtun warlords can be expected to defect and join it, giving the front adequate Pashtun representation. The UN will have to play a major role if the new coalition is to succeed in governing Afghanistan effectively and in supervising the dismantling of deeply entrenched jehadi structure. The economic reconstruction of Afghanistan will have to be carefully planned and systematically executed so that the Afghans can be gradually weaned away from the present Kalashnikov and madrasa culture supported by a poppy-dependent economy to more productive and less destructive means of livelihood.
However, the United Front is unlikely to be able to drive the Taliban militia out of Afghanistan completely without substantial help from US ground troops. As the US is unwilling to commit troops for large-scale conventional operations, all indications are that the Taliban is likely to remain in control of its strongholds around Kandahar and the areas of Jalalabad and Khost where the close proximity of a porous border with Pakistan and the strong support likely to be provided by the sympathetic Pashtun population of NWFP may help it to hold out for a long drawn civil war.
In case the Taliban manages to hold out in Kabul longer than expected, there is a likelihood of the balkanisation of Afghanistan along ethnic lines. The Uzbeks and the Tajiks may merge politically with Uzbekistan and Tajikstan. Such an outcome will spell decades of regional instability and give Pakistan another opportunity to fish in trouble waters.
In the worst scenario for Pakistan, if the Taliban is completely defeated and evicted from Afghanistan, Pakistan will have to contend with approximately 30,000 to 40,000 fully armed and trained militiamen on its soil, including about 5,000 Arabs who are either fugitives from justice in their countries or have chosen to disclaim their national identities and now claim to belong to a sovereign Pan-Islamic nation. As these virulently Islamist hordes prepare to take revenge, they will further pollute the already Talibanised Pak polity and give a fillip to the nascent separatist movements in NWFP and Baluchistan. The MQM may also exploit the situation to its advantage and create disturbances in Sind.
Pakistan may find itself facing a major internal instability civil war situation, which its divided army will be unable to control. Some analysts have put forward the alarmist view that Pakistan may even break up. However, the likelihood of a civil war is slim and the US and its allies will not allow the stability of a nuclear-armed Pakistan to be seriously undermined. Pakistan is likely to be faced by a long spell of instability on its Western border due to the active presence of large numbers of armed Taliban militiamen and the support that the Pashtuns, in particular, are likely to provide. However, demands for the formation of Pakhtoonkhwa will become more strident and there may be widespread unrest in Baluchistan and Sind.
The most likely scenario is that of the United Front, supported by the US, gaining control of most of Afghanistan except the Jalalabad-Khost-Kandahar belt. General Pervez Musharraf’s already shaky control over the Pakistan army is unlikely to survive the fall of the Taliban. General Musharraf is likely to be replaced as soon as Kabul falls. The military regime that replaces Musharraf is likely to be even more anti-India in its stance.
Indian should step up its humanitarian aid to the Northern Alliance and consider giving military aid if it is asked for in the event of a long-drawn conflict with the Taliban. The Prime Minister has already offered to give one million tonnes of wheat. This should be expeditiously delivered. In addition to the military hospital that India has already given, logistical support by way of transport helicopters and even heavy-duty vehicles could be given if requested. In keeping with its interests, India should appoint military liaison officers with Northern Alliance forces to keep track of the emerging situation. However, India should not get militarily involved in the conflict as that may inflame public opinion within India as well as earn the wrath of Islamic countries.
Finally, India should utilise the opportunity that may be provided by the possible departure of Afghani and Pakistani mercenary terrorists from J&K and the temporary slow down in Pakistan’s proxy war due to the likely commitment of its army on the Afghanistan border to renew offensive action against Kashmiri militants over the coming winter and create conditions that are suitable for a political solution. If the fall of Kabul leads to the large-scale exodus of the so-called mujahideen from J&K, it would provide and opportunity to India to prove that the ongoing terrorism in Kashmir is primarily sponsored by Pakistan by quickly rounding up the remnants of the Indian militants and initiating a political process before the coming elections. Within certain limits, the dark clouds hovering over Afghanistan may after all have a silver lining for India.