India's media would do the country a service if it was to discard its preoccupation with the possible shifts of US policy on the Kashmir issue and devote more attention to the shifts in geopolitics the US air strikes on Afghanistan have initiated. That many of these could make governance more difficult in India, with 140 million Muslims, goes without saying. But Kashmir is only a small part of the problems these shifts are going to create for New Delhi in the coming years.
No one can quarrel with the US' strategy for denying Al Qaeda the home base that Afghanistan had become in the past seven years. It first gave the Taliban regime every opportunity to surrender Osama bin Laden, and thereby avoid further action against it. To do so it adopted a classic good cop, bad cop routine, combining public ultimata and a military build-up with quiet persuasion by a Pakistani delegation that travelled to Kabul a month ago. Only when the Taliban proved impervious did the US move to its alternative strategy. This was to eliminate the Taliban regime and put in its place another that will not permit bin Laden to stay in Afghanistan.
The bombings are carefully calibrated first to bring down the Taliban by crippling its capacity to resist not the US-UK forces but the Northern Alliance and second, to slow down the latter's descent on Kabul till an alternative moderate leadership is developed among the Pashtoons. This too makes eminently good sense and shows how much the US has learned from the turmoil following Najibullah's downfall in 1992. For, the reason the Peshawar-based mujahideen groups failed to form a stable government after 1992 was the absence of an independent Pashtoon leader among them.
The bombing is also intended to warn other countries that might flirt with the idea of providing a refuge to bin Laden of the fate that will befall them. This is the context in which one needs to read the US government's letter to the UN secretary general reserving the right to bomb or otherwise subject other nations to military action under Article 51 of the UN charter. President Bush, Colin Powell reminded cnn, had expressly reserved the right to follow the terrorists wherever they went.
If all goes well, the Taliban will be ousted; bin Laden will be flushed into the open and even other Muslim countries antagonistic to the US won't give him a safe haven for any significant period of time. The US surmises, probably rightly, that once bin Laden has been flushed out, he will have to pass through immigration ports, check into airline flights and hotels, send e-mails and faxes to associates and arrange money transfers. Sooner or later, this 'paper and video' trail will expose him. What it hasn't taken sufficiently into account is the domestic repercussion of its strategy in the countries it is involving in the fight against terrorism.
The worst of these will be in Pakistan. Powell conceded that "he (Gen Pervez Musharraf) has paid something of a political price. There are demonstrations in Pakistan". But he added that "those demonstrations are quite manageable and don't reflect what's happening throughout the country". In this, he is almost certainly erring on the side of optimism. Pakistan's problems have not peaked: they are only beginning. They will peak when the leaders and the hard core of the Taliban have been driven out of Afghanistan and stream into Pakistan.
Several thousands are in any case Pakistanis who have a right to return.But there will also be the remnants of some 5,000 Arab mujahideen who stayed behind in Pakistan after the Afghan war and were directed to Afghanistan by the isi after 1994. Lastly, there will be the Afghan core. Most of its members grew up in refugee camps in Pakistan, went to Deobandi madrassas in the Quetta to Peshawar belt and are ideologically and to a large extent culturally rooted in Pakistan. It is most likely that Pakistan will try to keep them out but its long and difficult border with Afghanistan in any case makes that impossible.
In Pakistan they will be greeted as heroes by an estimated one lakh Afghanistan-returned Pakistani Taliban, by the religious political parties and by another 1.5 lakh 'graduates' of the jehad training schools. And they'll come thirsting for revenge against their betrayers. This will be echoed in the army and the general populace by a sense of guilt at having let them down. The sense of betrayal will be especially strong among the Pashtoons who are bound by the code of 'Pashtoonwali'. It is thus difficult to see how some, perhaps many, of these returnees will not seek to avenge themselves against Pakistani generals, officials and resident European diplomats and military personnel.
As Indians know to their cost after 18 years of Pakistan-supported insurgency in Punjab and Kashmir, the "crackdowns" that will inevitably follow will alienate more and more people. It is worth remembering that there were no more than 2,000 militants active in Punjab and 5,000 in Kashmir at any point in time. Yet they tied up over half a million troops and paramilitary forces. The numbers Pakistan will face if the insurgency spirals out of control will be many times higher.
Eventually, the army will have to step in, and the only way it will be able to restore peace will be to enlist the mullahs' support. The price they will demand will almost certainly be Musharraf's ouster. There is no certainty that this will succeed but if it does, the temptation to buy peace by turning the energies of the Afghanistan-returned fighters towards Kashmir and other parts of the country with large Muslim concentrations will be overwhelming. It is this eventuality that Messrs Vajpayee, Advani and Jaswant Singh should discuss with Powell next week. A common strategy to control the fallout will almost certainly be needed.