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Kashmir tensions could flare after US troops leave Afghanistan

Tensions between India and Pakistan over the disputed Kashmir region could flare once US-led foreign troops leave Afghanistan next year. Samanth Subramanian reports from New Delhi

NEW DELHI // Tensions between India and Pakistan over the disputed Kashmir region could flare once US-led foreign troops leave Afghanistan next year.

Freed of the restraints imposed by America's presence in the region, militant groups based in Pakistan – and, some say, backed by the Pakistan military – will be able to turn their attention wholly to Kashmir and India.

But another piece of accepted wisdom – that Afghanistan will turn into a proxy battleground for India and Pakistan – is flawed, analysts say.

"Certainly there may be a spike in violence in Afghanistan, after the troops leave next year," said Srinath Raghavan, a senior fellow at New Delhi's Centre for Policy Research. "But the suggestions about this proxy war are absurd. What will happen is that the tensions over Kashmir will get much sharper."

Pakistan sees a window of opportunity in the coming months, Mr Raghavan said. "They may think that, in exchange for their participation in a stable political arrangement in Afghanistan, they can extract from the United States a promise to pressure India to negotiate over Kashmir."

The recent repeated infractions of the 2003 ceasefire over the Line of Control, the de facto border dividing in Indian and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, are likely to be a part of Islamabad's strategy to raise the stakes in its dispute with New Delhi over the Himalayan region, Mr Raghavan said.

This month, India accused the Pakistan army of killing five of its soldiers in a cross-border ambush. Pakistan denied this, claiming that Indian soldiers killed two civilians on its side of the border.

Troops continue to exchange sporadic gunfire across the Line of Control.

India's engagement with Afghanistan has grown in the past few years, as the United States has looked for stabilising influences to operate in the country after its troops leave.

India has pledged aid worth US$2 billion (Dh7.34bn) to Afghanistan, has hosted the Afghan president Hamid Karzai on multiple occasions and is training officers in Afghanistan's national security forces.

This has left Pakistan jittery that it will "be left alone to confront an unstable, an unfriendly or an Indian-influenced Afghanistan on its borders" after American troops withdraw in 2014, a US defence department report said last year.

Some analysts predicted hostilities between India and Pakistan may play out directly on Afghan soil.

Three suicide bombers in a car attempted to attack the Indian consulate in Jalalabad on August 3, killing nine Afghan civilians. Indian doctors, aid workers and construction workers were killed in attacks in 2010.

Last week, a source from the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistan-based terror group that has been linked to an attack the 2008 attacks in Mumbai and on the Indian parliament in 2001, told Reuters: "It is correct that the LeT co-operates with the Afghan Taliban when there is a question of attacking Indian interests."

"India's equity are now deeply engaged in Afghanistan, and the danger is that the next frontier of the India-Pakistan conflict is going to be Afghanistan," Robert Blackwill, a former US envoy to India, said at an ambassadors round-table in Washington last month.

However, an unnamed Pakistani foreign ministry official denied that Pakistan was looking to foment trouble against India in Afghanistan. "I'm shocked by these allegations. Pakistan has its own insurgency to deal with. It has no appetite for confrontations abroad," the official was quoted by Reuters as saying.

Mr Raghavan, too, called it "slightly absurd" that India and Pakistan-sponsored militant groups would come to blows in Afghanistan.

"India doesn't share a border with Afghanistan, so there are severe limitations to what India can do there," he said. "And the Indian government is the first to realise this."

In fact, India is aware of Pakistan's sensitivities in Afghanistan and is holding back on how deeply it engages with Kabul, said Sushant K Singh, a defence policy fellow at the Takshashila Institution, a Chennai-based think tank.

The Afghan army "may still not get all the training that Karzai desires," Mr Singh said. "India doesn't want to go the whole hog. So we might see more training, but it probably won't be on the scale that the Afghan army wants."

A former Indian government official said there was no prospect of a proxy war when India's presence in Afghanistan is largely developmental.

"I think attacks on Indian missions will continue, particularly in Jalalabad and Kandahar," he said. "But for the most part, I think this notion of a proxy war is convenient for the Americans, who fear alienating Pakistan. To satisfy Pakistan, they want India to make concessions in its involvement in Afghanistan."

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

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