D. Suba Chandran
International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP)
National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore
Are there possibilities of conflicts getting addressed in 2019, and peace processes walking the last mile?
While South Asia has been witnessing numerous conflicts – political, armed and violent during the last few decades, the following five are likely to be the most prominent during 2019.
The Afghan Conflict: Tipping Point?
In recent years, 2018 was one of the most violent in Afghanistan. Four sets of violence could be observed within Afghanistan during 2018.
The first one led by the Taliban; using suicide attacks and guerrilla warfare, the Taliban was on an offensive during the entire 2018. The Taliban targeted primarily the Afghan security and US-led forces. Outside these two, there were a series of soft targets; the civilians –were both intended, and the collateral. Most of the violence was concentrated in Kabul and in southern and eastern Afghanistan.
The US and the Afghan security forces led the second set of violence. The US used drones and B-52 bombers as a part of its strategy to strike the Taliban from the air; at times the bombing was precise, and at times there were collateral damages – both men and materials. On the other hand, the Afghan security forces engaged the Taliban in search and neutralize operations.
The ISIS fighters in Afghanistan led the third set of violence in Afghanistan. A series of sectarian attacks rocked Afghanistan during 2018, led by the ISIS fighters. Most of the ISIS attacks used suicide bombs and targeted the Shia community in Afghanistan.
The fourth set of violence took place between the Taliban and the ISIS. While the ISIS has been trying to establish its own presence, the Taliban see this as a threat to its presence and influence. During July-August 2018, there were a series of targeted attacks between the two groups.
Will there be a change in the above pattern in 2019? Unfortunately no.
With Trump committing a blunder with the troops' drawdown from Afghanistan, the Taliban is likely to wait and watch in 2019. The Trump administration has also made another cardinal mistake in creating a dialogue channel open with the Taliban directly, thereby underplaying the position of Kabul.
The US contribution to counterinsurgency is mainly in terms of using the aerial route (drones and B 52 bombers); it is likely to continue in 2019. However, what is needed is a rigorous search, clear and hold operations at the ground. There is an asymmetry between the Afghan security forces and the Taliban; the first is engaged in conventional warfare, while the later is using the guerrilla warfare and suicide attacks. While the Afghan security forces may succeed in pitched battles, it would be difficult for them to fight the suicide bombs.
With Russia re-entering Afghanistan and likely to support the Taliban either directly or covertly, the scales are likely to tip. The administration in Kabul is likely to be at the receiving end politically and militarily. Expectedly, towards the end of 2018, the Taliban has rejected negotiating with the government in Kabul.
The confidence of the Taliban comes not from the success in the battlefields, or from the ground in terms of popular support. Rather it emanates from the American urgency to reach a political settlement, Russian re-entry into Afghanistan, and more importantly, Pakistan’s continued political support. This will continue.
2019 may become the tipping point in Afghanistan between the elected government and the Taliban. And for the larger Afghan peace.
Pakistan: The Political Rise of Extreme Right and an unstable Karachi
Last year was a better one for Pakistan in terms of militancy led by the Taliban. When compared to the previous years, the Establishment had succeeded in addressing the Tehrik-e-Taliban-Pakistan (TTP) threat.
The real threat to Pakistan in 2019 is likely to emerge not from the battle-hardened TTP, but from an ambitious Barelvi group – the Tehreek-e-Labbaik-Pakistan (TLP) led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi. While the TTP is still based in the tribal regions of Pakistan along the Durand Line, the TLP is in the heart of Pakistan – mainly in Punjab. And it makes all the difference. Remember what the TLP did to Islamabad and Rawalpindi in 2018, by blocking the main connecting route?
The greater threat to Pakistan emanates from the political rise of the TLP. While the number of seats it had won in 2018 elections –for the National Assembly and for the four the Provincial Assemblies may be insignificant, its vote tally when compared to other established political parties is significant. In many constituencies in Punjab, the heart of Pakistan, the TLP had polled sufficient votes to be the third and fourth largest party. Established religious political parties led by the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and both the factions of Jamiat-ul-Islam (JUI) together have polled less than the TLP.
Unlike the TTP, which has a militant agenda, the TLP pursues a political agenda of a radical ideology. It is likely to shift the Right in Pakistan further to the extreme and provide more space for a narrow interpretation of the religion. Who is Muslim and who is not, is likely to be debated on the streets of Pakistan with the use of violence.
The bigger casualty is likely to be the minorities of Pakistan – both within and outside Islam. The case in point is the response to the release of Aasiya Bibi, a Christian woman who was wrongly accused of blasphemy and was put in jail. When the judiciary finally released her – all hell broke loose in Pakistan. The TLP took to the streets attempting to pressurize the newly formed Imran Khan government. Though Imran Khan put up a brave face, he caved in subsequently. There was pressure on the government to place Aasiya Bibi’s name in the ECL list so that she does not leave Pakistan. Instead of making a statement with a positive intent, the State has hidden her. Is she in Pakistan today? Or has she already left to the Netherlands?
For a party, that celebrates Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Salman Taseer, and openly advocates the imposition of the Shariah, 2018 was just a beginning. Much would depend on Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan to address this new extremist threat. If the government yields to the TLP in 2019, as the PML-N did in 2018, it would ensure that the entire Rightwing plate in Pakistan drifts further Right and gets radical.
The next major threat for Pakistan in 2019 will emanate from Karachi. While the Deep State may feel satisfied with the political re-engineering of the city’s political landscape, the process has resulted in creating a vacuum in Karachi. Especially during the last two years, the Deep State had succeeded in breaking the MQM into factions. More importantly, it has broken down the hold of Altaf Hussain over Karachi. Hussain has to blame himself for what had happened to the party.
Karachi is a melting pot with multiple ethnic communities. Though it remains the provincial capital of Sindh, the Sindhis are marginalised. Historically, the Balochis consider Karachi as an extension. Today, the Mohajirs and Pashtuns fight for the supremacy; while the Mohajirs reached Karachi during and immediately after the partitions, Pashtuns keep coming every day – from KP, Balochistan and even Afghanistan. Whom does the city belong to – has been the primary question.
Though the MQM was also accused of inciting violence in Karachi, it also played an invisible balancing hand in maintaining the order (without law!) amongst the different ethnicities. Besides the ethnic communities, all the sects of Islam have a strong political presence supported by their own madrassas. It was no wonder that the Taliban and al Qaeda could find space in Karachi.
After a lull, one could see the return of violence in Karachi during the latter part of 2018. While the Deep State would like to establish order in Karachi, it cannot do in a political vacuum. The MQM may be rationalised in Karachi, but its political hold cannot be replaced with the PTI. Not yet.
So, who will control Karachi? 2019 will prove crucial to the city of lights.
J&K: Return of Violence and an Unstable Srinagar-Jammu-Delhi Triangle
With the breakup of the ruling coalition and the imposition of Governor’s rule, all major achievements of the last decade have come to a nought in 2018.
In 2018, even before the PDP government lost its support in the legislative assembly, there were clear signs of political developments moving in the wrong directions. The coalition led by the PDP was on shaky grounds; nonetheless, it was a brave experiment. After coming together, the PDP and BJP should have identified ways to work together, despite the ideological differences. Unfortunately, both wanted to address their own political constituencies than govern J&K.
New Delhi had a different agenda. It wanted to pursue a muscular policy towards J&K. The belief amongst the policymakers in New Delhi is the earlier government’s appeasement policy towards Kashmir didn’t work. The ideological orientations of the BJP and the party’s political calculus within J&K have coloured the larger national objectives in the State.
During the previous three governments under Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh-I and Manmohan Singh-II, New Delhi and Srinagar, despite political differences have walked a substantial distance together. Though there were criticisms of the Manmohan Singh Committees and the Interlocutors, it did open political space in the Valley.
On the security side, the military and the local police have covered a huge security gap and have made the situation ripe to address politically, if not resolve completely.
Alas, the BJP’s politics in the State have hindered this process. The muscular approach has resulted in opening new wounds before the old ones could heal. If the appeasement approach didn’t work, the muscular one is less likely to succeed either.
Worse, the BJP’s approach has made the Kashmiris look inwards further. While the Kashmiri society had a predominant negative perspective of the rest of India and New Delhi’s approach to the State, the present policies have only reasserted them. The Valley today looks at rest of India and worse, even rest of J&K outside the Jawahar tunnel as the “other”, against whom “they” should be protected.
This process is likely to increase the political distance between Jammu and Srinagar. The two regions are already divided with J&K becoming J vs K. National politics in 2019 will increase this divide further in 2019. With the BJP facing elections in 2019, one could expect the party becoming more assertive towards Kashmir. It is well aware of its vote bank in the Jammu region and is unlikely to win in the Valley.
A great dis-service has been done to the remarkable work done by the military, para-military and the local police; result was clear – 2018 was the most violent year in the last few years in J&K. The run up to 2019 general elections and party politics in the State will make J&K even more violent – politically and otherwise.
India should get ready for a hot summer in the Valley in 2019.
Sri Lanka: Will the 2018 tremors lead to a tsunami in 2019?
The last six months in Sri Lanka was totally unexpected and undid most of 2015 election results. Following the electoral victory of Maithripala Sirisena, the two leading political parties of Sri Lanka – UNP and SLFP, came together. Though the previous government led by Mahinda Rajapaksa had brought the war with the LTTE to an end, it did not automatically lead to the resolution of the Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka.
The autocratic rule by Rajapaksa and his brothers also witnessed the rise of narrow Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism. While the Tamils were the primary targets of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism for the last many decades, recent years witnessed the Sri Lankan Muslims becoming the new victims.
Though the judiciary has intervened in the latest political drama and reinstated Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister during December 2018, one is not sure whether Wickremesinghe and Sirisena will be able to work together in 2019.
There is so much at stake in Sri Lanka, besides the national reconciliation between the majority Sinhalese and the minorities – Tamils and Muslims. The rise of radical right led by Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) marks a new threat; especially with its links to the radical monks in Myanmar, the BBS could become a big factor in influencing the Sinhala hardliners. And Mahinda Rajapaksa is known for his appeasement towards this section.
Unless Wickremesinghe is able to resolve his difference with Sirisena and attempt a national reconciliation with minorities, 2019 may well become another tipping point for Sri Lanka.
India-Pakistan: The Road to Nowhere
Finally, the Indo-Pak conflict. Given the elections in 2019, New Delhi is unlikely to take any major steps towards a bilateral rapprochement. Elections or otherwise, the present team in New Delhi from the NSA to External Affairs minister, is not looking for a political process.
For this government, peace with Pakistan is not a priority. Hence, it is unlikely to pursue a positive bilateral process in 2019.
On the other hand Pakistan will be rhetorically sound with its peace push, but in reality will remain wedded to the “resolution of Kashmir conflict”. Imran Khan’s overpitched deliveries on Kartarpur opening to project Pakistan as a peace-loving country is aimed at an international audience than an Indian one.
If Pakistan is serious about improving the bilateral relations with India, let is start from the LoC. Let Pakistan maintain peace along the LoC, leading to the resumption of bus and truck services across the two parts of J&K. Let Pakistan also agreed to open the Skardu-Kargil road for the movement of divided families.
Instead of opening a new point along the International Border at Kartarpur, Imran Khan should have strengthened the cross-LoC interactions.
And bilateral relation is not a T-20 match. Given the animosity between the two countries, and the public memory, there are not many takers in India for Imran’s sudden found love for peace. For many outside the Sangh Parivar, Mumbai remains fresh even today.
Finally, Bilateral peace cannot be fought through media and in international capitals.
If Pakistan is looking westwards ideologically, India is looking eastwards politically, economically and geographically. With the Indian government pursuing the BIMSTEC and BBIN as a regional eureka moment, the SAARC process is also under stress. As a result, 2019 will mark a further degeneration of the regional process in South Asia.
An abridged version of the above brief was first published in the Rising Kashmir, 1 January 2019. The views expressed are author's and does not reflect the Institute or the Network.