Afghan situation: Responses from Pakistan’s military and foreign policy strategists
- Since the 9/11, the Afghan society has given birth to considerable swathes of and emerging middle class with a global outlook and international linkages.
- Extremism, conflicts, refugees, and proliferation of narcotics and weapons in Afghanistan have always negatively affected Pakistan.
- The fear of India making inroads into Afghanistan has pushed the Pakistani military to seek ‘strategic depth’ through seeking a friendly government in Kabul.
- The current Taliban takeover of Kabul has dented India’s influence in the country.
- Pakistan is nervous about two potential scenarios: first, large-scale refugee influx; and secondly, resurgence of anti-Pakistan militant groups.
- Reports suggest the Afghan Taliban have worked with Russia and Iran to tackle the ISIS threat. The Taliban are not threatening Russia, which is willing to use force to protect its Central Asian allies in case of threat from Taliban. China is also willing to work with the Taliban if its economic engagements are secured and the Taliban don’t allow the ETIM to operate from Afghanistan.
- What will make the Taliban unacceptable to the regional powers is their continued links with Al-Qaeda and affiliated groups including the TTP. As late as 2020, a UN team report said there was no evidence the Taliban broke ties with Al-Qaeda. The Taliban give Al-Qaeda protection in exchange for training and resources.
- Right now, there is no clarity as to how the Pakistani military is viewing the evolving situation in Afghanistan.
- The Taliban are the new product of the Deobandi revivalist movement that originated in British India. The Taliban have had no exposure to western and secular education.
- The Strategic Depth: General Aslam Beg believed in physical and military strategic depth, while General Kiyani talked about political and diplomatic strategic depth in Afghanistan.
- Two elements in Pakistan’s Afghan policy do not change: first, keeping India out of Afghanistan; secondly, creating a centralized Afghan state with Islamist Pashtuns at the helm.
- Pakistan and the US had divergent views on Afghanistan right from the start. Pakistan wanted India out of Afghanistan, while the US wanted to engage India in Afghan reconstruction.
- India sees the Afghanistan-based militant groups as a threat to its security. The groups can join hands with Kashmir-centric militants to attack India.
- Large-scale civil war is unlikely in Afghanistan at present largely because the regional states are apparently not in a mood to support anti-Taliban rebellion. But the protests in Afghanistan show that political instability may not be ruled out.
- The Taliban have relations with Iranian and Russian security establishments. Experts believe the Taliban regularly consult these states before taking any major step or decision.
- Pakistan has no intention to break with the US on Afghanistan.
- A destabilized Afghanistan would be a public relations disaster for the US, but the US also does not want a Taliban-exclusive government. Pakistan should help incorporate moderate and pro-West elements in the Taliban government.
During the past forty years of incessant war, Afghan society has transformed from a traditional and isolated tribal society to the one with considerable swathes of an emerging middle class, which has a demonstrable global outlook and international linkages. In the early 1990s, the country suffered a brutal civil war as the anti-Soviet mujahidin plunged into infighting (Farooq, 2021). Almost all countries in the region had a proxy inside Afghanistan to which they were providing weapons, training, finances and intelligence and logistical support.
Pakistan has always been at the receiving end of all that went wrong in Afghanistan. Afghan military conflict, refugees, ideological and social strife, drugs and narcotics and spread of small weapons all affected Pakistani society deeply. Political trends like the rise of fundamentalist religious-political groups, formation of militant outfits and the spread of militancy and extremism have been affecting both Afghan and Pakistani societies since the Soviet-Afghan war.
The forty-year political and security instability in Afghanistan has shaped Pakistan’s strategic thinking and policy towards its western neighbor. Many believe the threat of India making inroads into Afghanistan promoted the Pakistani military strategists to expand Pakistan’s strategic depth through a friendly government in Kabul (Qaiser, 2020). In the post-9/11, India established a strong economic footprint in the war-torn Afghanistan with $3 billion investment in different development projects. During this period, Pakistan repeatedly accused India of using Afghanistan to perpetuate security instability in Pakistani provinces bordering Afghanistan i.e. Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The situation in Afghanistan and in the region has undergone another dramatic change after the US troops’ withdrawal. Apparently, the Taliban takeover of power in Kabul has negatively affected the Indian influence in Afghanistan. At least this is general belief being discussed both in India and in the international community (Kuchay, 2021).
On the other hand, Pakistan’s military leaders have also displayed nervousness with regards to the possibility of increased violence in Afghanistan. Such a scenario will have two adverse implications for Pakistani society. First, it could lead to large-scale displacement in eastern and southern Afghanistan leading to an inflow of refugees to border areas of Pakistan. Secondly, it could give a ‘boost’ to Pakistani militant groups, whose power, as Pakistani military claims, has been decimated by successive military operations.
However, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan doesn’t present a clear and neat strategic scenario for the Pakistani security establishment. It is not like the mid-1990s-scenario when Taliban’s military victories created euphoria in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. This time the Taliban’s military advances gave Pakistani security planners a headache — one of the concerns was that if the Taliban’s military advances in northern and eastern Afghanistan were not welcomed by regional players including Russia, Iran and China or if the Taliban failed to receive the tacit approval of the regional players, then the emerging military situation inside Afghanistan could add to Pakistan’s isolation at the international level. Also, in the mid-1990s, the Pakistani military establishment was not engaged in a campaign to attract Washington’s support for its efforts to present the country as a hub of regional connectivity (Farooq, 2021a).
There is a clear realisation in Pakistan’s foreign policy circles that the US’s unilateral decision to withdraw from Afghanistan indicates that Washington is no more fixated on terrorism related issues, which for all practical purposes means a dwindling strategic importance of Islamabad. Coupled with this is Islamabad’s inability in sustaining the financial and political assistance from country’s chief patrons like oil rich Arab states, whose leaderships no longer seem to be in a mood of supporting so-called ‘Islamic causes’ all over the world.
There were, however, ‘signals’ emanating from regional capitals that Pakistani security establishment’s ‘strategic assets’— as the Afghan Taliban have often been referred to in international media — enjoyed strong support of the regional countries like Russia, Iran and China. During the peak of the US’s military presence in Afghanistan, the US intelligence had reportedly presented the US administration with the information that Iran and Russia were providing weapons, intelligence support and finances to the Taliban for attacks on US forces inside Afghanistan. The information also said that the Afghan Taliban, at the behest of Russians and Iranians, had carried out operations against Daesh affiliated groups in northern and eastern Afghanistan, in the period between 2014 and 2016, when there was a sudden rise in the profile of ISIS in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency ISI even hosted the intelligence chiefs of Russia, Iran and China in Islamabad for a conference in July 2018 where it was agreed that the four intelligence services would coordinate their efforts against the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan.
Does that mean that Russia and Iran have developed a working relationship with the Afghan Taliban? Does it also mean that for regional players the Taliban are more acceptable than the radical ISIS and other Salafi groups, which, according to reports, were emerging inside Afghanistan? No clear answers to these questions so far exist in the public realm. Iran has welcomed withdrawal of foreign troops and Russia has indicated willingness to use military force to protect its regional allies like Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Taliban are not mentioned as a threat in any of the Russian statements, though it is obvious that increased violence and instability will be disliked by these states.
A series of formal talks and visits of the Taliban to regional capitals including Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Tashkent and Islamabad might have changed the image of the religious militia. But the Taliban behaviour in the days to come will influence these countries’ future policies and actions towards Afghanistan. Most international experts predict that a civil war is likely in post-US Afghanistan. What will make the Afghan Taliban unacceptable to the regional players is their continued links with Al-Qaeda and affiliated groups including the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, and East Turkistan Islamic Party, among others.
In its 2020 report, a UN team said the Taliban still have strong ties with Al-Qaeda. The Taliban provide Al-Qaeda with protection in exchange for resources and training. Between two hundred and five hundred Al-Qaeda fighters are believed to be in Afghanistan, while several of its leaders were also killed there. The Taliban ‘regularly consulted’ with Al-Qaeda leaders during its negotiations with the United States, providing ‘guarantees that it would honour their historical ties,’ the UN monitor reported. Al-Qaida is affiliated with a large number of terror groups originating from Chinese Xinjiang and Central Asian states. At the end of the day, Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan will be strongly shaped by attitudes of regional players. Similarly, the Pakistani security establishment until recently was pitching the idea of Pakistan as a hub of regional connectivity to Washington. A civil war in Afghanistan will not be conducive to the success of this idea. Similarly, Pakistan’s too much reliance on the Afghan Taliban can utterly spoil its move to project itself as a connectivity hub, unless it could convince the Taliban to enter into a power sharing agreement with other Afghan groups.
Very little public information is available about the thinking in Pakistan’s foreign policy establishment and Pakistani military on their policy attitude towards the developing situation in Afghanistan. There are some isolated statements from senior officials, as well as public acts and decisions like providing evacuation facilities to western diplomats and NGO workers fleeing the chaos in Afghanistan and high-level meetings of civil and military leadership to discuss the Afghan situation. So far, Pakistan has not extended diplomatic recognition to the Taliban government in Kabul. The day the Taliban captured Kabul, Pakistani diplomats received an Afghan delegation of senior politicians and members of parliament in Islamabad who arrived in the capital city to discuss the Afghan situation. Still there are a lot of facts about Pakistan’s Afghan policy which are not publicly known: for instance, we don’t know whether or not Pakistan is still actively pursuing a reconciliation policy to bring different Afghan groups within the folds of Afghan political system.
This paper will answer certain key questions about Pakistan’s Afghan policy in a historical perspective. It, however, will also place a larger focus on Pakistan’s current policy towards the developing situation in Afghanistan. The paper will answer the following questions: a) How ideology, geography and strategic interests have defined Pakistan military’s attitude and policy orientation towards Afghanistan? b) How has the Pakistani military historically perceived the Afghan situation? c) What is the history of these relations? d) What are the current dynamics of these relations?
Now that the Afghan Taliban are back in Kabul, there is a pertinent question as to what kind of relations Pakistan’s security establishment wants to have with Afghanistan led by a ragtag militia. At the cultural level, very little is common between the modernist state machinery of Pakistan and Taliban militia with a culture based on 19th century religious ideology.
2 Ideology, geography and strategic interests
From the early decades after independence, Pakistan’s ruling elites and state machinery had been oriented or pressed toward introducing Islamic modernity in the state affairs. There was a parallel trend of Islamic revivalist movements, which continuously attempted to put pressure on the state and influence its policies. But these trends remained in a relation defined by friction as well as cooperation to strengthen the centralised state structure that the elite constructed in opposition to the centrifugal forces of ethnic-nationalist elites marked by their marriage to popular religions of Sufi and shrine traditions (Verkaaik, 2004: 30-31).
Islamic modernists and revivalists, meanwhile, cooperated on establishing and strengthening a centralized state, making Islam a dominating presence in public life. To this day, Pakistani elite and state machinery appear inclined towards Islamic modernist traditions — this Islamic modernism helped the elite setup developmental goals for the state under tutelage of western powers in the Cold War era. This also helped in defining the cultural acceptance and to some extent cosmopolitanism in Islamabad and its officialdom, where the state officials, bureaucrats, generals and political leaders did not feel any inhibition in pursuing an alliance with “Western infidels” from America and “Islam conservatives” from Saudi Arabia and Iran at the same time.
The Islamic modernist and Islamic revivalist trends, which Pakistani state and society inherited at the time of independence, took birth in British India, after an encounter between traditionalist religious elites and Muslim elites or leaders having Western education and outlook. The modernists and revivalists reinterpreted Islamic precepts in the context of Western education and philosophies. While modernists argued that Muslims ought to reinterpret Islamic teachings in the light of new discoveries and inventions in Western societies, the traditionalists undertook to safeguard the teachings of Quran and Sunnah from outside influences.
The question is whether this Pakistani state machinery, which is imbibed in a modernist culture despite having relied incessantly on religious ethos for political purposes, is compatible with a religious-traditionalist movement like Afghan Taliban? The Afghan Taliban, according to popular perception, are a product of Deoband school of thought, a prominent revivalist movement of the British India. But that hardly changes the fact that the Taliban never had any systematic exposure to Western education and their contact with cosmopolitan culture is restricted to encounters with the diplomats and officials of Westerns and neighbouring countries. They belong to lower strata of traditional Afghan society, which is in struggle with the modernist segments of the Afghan society. Afghan society produced its own modernists and revivalists after state modernisation and expansion programs under King Amanullah Khan in the 1930s.
The stories of modernism and revivalism in Afghan society are similar to the stories of Western educated Muslim elites in the British India except that the Afghan state went into the Soviet orbit in the 1950s and hence produced communist or Marxists elites as modernists under the educational program sponsored by Moscow’s communist government.
Those leading the Taliban movement didn’t undergo trainings in the West-funded educational institutions in Kabul in the 1950 and 1960s. Islamic revivalists, who in fact underwent training in these modern educational institutions, led the Afghan struggle against the Soviet Union in the 1980s and 1990s. The revivalists like Hikmatyar, Rabbani and Ahmed Shah Masood cooperated with Pakistani military generals, who were influenced by the revivalist as well as modernist tendencies, during the times of “Afghan Jihad”. Even in those days there were powerful voices from Pakistani civil society that advocated against imposition of revivalist-traditionalist Islam on Pakistani society.
The Taliban lifestyle is completely incompatible with the culture of Pakistani officialdom, even though the latter have absorbed revivalist traditions more deeply in the last few decades. The present culture of officialdom in Islamabad is an incomplete and pragmatic (read opportunistic) synthesis of revivalist and modernist traditions. But it could be described as cosmopolitan culture, which is diametrically opposed to the Taliban lifestyle; the Pakistani foreign minister’s recent description of Taliban as being ‘world-savvy’ does not change that fact. This cultural difference is not an easy thing to forget in the strategic and military relations that some in our state machinery want to build with the Taliban-led Afghanistan.
Even the revival of the old dream of attaining strategic depth cannot remove the horrors of Taliban lifestyle from Pakistan’s collective memory. The two army chiefs that defined this concept in their own terms were putting forward different ideas; the military and physical strategic depth as propounded by General Aslam Beg, and political and diplomatic nature of the strategic depth as propounded by General Kiyani were distinctly noted by observers in the region. General Aslam Beg was more interested in physical and military strategic depth in Afghanistan, whereas General Kiyani talked about extending Pakistan’s political and diplomatic influence in Afghan society.
The physical/military version of the strategic depth may be an outdated concept even within the power corridors of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, but the political and diplomatic version of strategic depth may see revival of a kind in Islamabad as the Taliban’s position in the security architecture of the region becomes well entrenched. But the cultural differences will continue to trouble the relations between the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Pakistani security establishment (Farooq, 2021b).
3 Perceptions of Pakistan’s military & foreign policy establishment
Two elements in Pakistan’s Afghan policy have remained unchanged: First is to keep India out of Afghan chessboard; and second is related to the establishment of a centralised state dominated by Islamist-nationalists representing the Pashtun. Pakistan views its security interests in Afghanistan predominantly through the prism of its regional rival and neighbor India. To avoid a two-front situation in which Pakistan would be facing an enemy at both of its eastern and western borders, Islamabad has sought to develop “strategic depth” in Afghanistan by backing friendly governments in Kabul while limiting New Delhi’s influence.
Afghanistan blames Pakistan for much of the violence it has suffered over the past decades, alleging Pakistan for initiating proxy wars in the country. Pakistan in turn accuses Afghanistan and India of cross-border disturbance in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan and for supporting anti-Pakistan religiously inspired and ethno-nationalist militant groups. While Afghan-supported Pashtun separatism had added to Pakistan’s security concerns instantly after the independence, the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan brought an India-allied superpower on Pakistan’s western border. This exacerbated the ongoing tit-for-tat proxy war between Pakistan and Afghanistan that had started in early 1970s. Later, the US and Saudi Arabia also joined the fray. After the Soviet withdrawal, “Pakistan initially supported Hezb-e Islami in the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 but switched its allegiance to the Taliban as the group rose to prominence in the mid-1990s. The Taliban maintained close ties with Pakistan and remained hostile to India both because of religious differences and because of its provision of military and financial support to the competing Northern Alliance, a multiethnic coalition of opposition political and military leaders” (Threlkeld & Grace, 2021).
Many believe that the Pakistani military continued to support the Taliban even after Pakistan was formally allied with Washington in its war against terrorism in Afghanistan. Others argue that Washington was clearly inclined towards giving India an oversized role in Afghanistan due to which India established strong economic footprints in Afghanistan during 20 years of US presence there. This aggravated Pakistan’s threat perception and added to its sense of insecurity from a perceived two-front situation that its military planners had perennially feared (Sudarshan, 2019).
Islamabad’s and Washington’s views diverged on Afghanistan’s future right from the very beginning of US presence in the war-torn country. Pakistan always saw Afghanistan’s future from its regional security prism and thus always wanted India to be out of the Afghan game at every cost. Americans were, nevertheless, reliant on those military forces inside Afghanistan, which were perceived by the Pakistan military to be pro-India. Similarly, Washington right from the very beginning wanted to give India an oversized role in the Afghan’s reconstruction process.
Pakistan’s complaints over Indian presence in Afghanistan grew with the passage of time. Pakistani security establishment have always been accusing Indian presence in Afghanistan to be the cause of instability in Pakistan. Pakistan accused Indian intelligence of using Afghanistan as a staging ground for sabotage activity in Balochistan and providing financial and cross-border backing to the Baloch separatists (Khan, 2015).
The situation has markedly changed inside Afghanistan with the Taliban’s takeover as the Afghan government collapsed after Taliban’s military advances. India evacuated all its diplomatic, intelligence officials and citizens from Afghanistan after the situation turned chaotic in the wake of US decision to withdraw completely from the country (BBC, 2021).
4 India’s strategic fear
In February 2020, during his only visit to New Delhi, former US president Donald Trump reportedly offered Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi certain guarantees about the US decision to reconcile with the Afghan Taliban. “India need not worry” is how one Indian official, as reported in Indian media, described the US President’s message to the Indian government as the US started to plan its withdrawal from Afghanistan. Later, the US administration continued to make efforts to assuage the fears of Indian officialdom with regards to the security nightmare that US withdrawal would likely bring for India economic assistance and intelligence operations in Afghanistan.
According to Indian media, Indian officials believe that the US-Taliban agreement amounts to sell out and indicate US willingness to leave Afghanistan at the mercy of Taliban and Pakistan, something that causes great anxiety in the officialdom of New Delhi.
Indian fears are not restricted to what will happen to its $3 billion investment in the development of Afghanistan or what will happen to Indian economic interests in the country, but are much wider in scope. We can sum up these strategic fears under two headings in the light of what we gleaned from Indian media and papers written by strategic and foreign policy thinkers.
India perceives most of the Sunni militant and terror groups based in Afghanistan as a threat to its security. There has been a lot of mixing up of ideas and techniques among the militant groups based in Afghanistan which can be described as regional as well as global. For instance, Daesh is based in eastern and northern Afghanistan and has interacted thoroughly with Pakistan-based militant groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Alami, which is now based somewhere in southern Afghanistan and had carried out multiple high-impact sectarian attacks in Pakistan including in Sindh and Balochistan.
Similarly, Indians fear that the remnants of Al-Qaeda, which are shadow of their former self according to US officials, might get emboldened and try to become instrumental in terror attacks in Indian held Kashmir where there is a lot of indigenous political unrest going on. India also perceives Afghan Taliban to be a highly anti-India force. Indian officials have been visiting Tehran and Moscow recently after US withdrawal was announced in a bid to muster support against the threat of rise of Sunni militancy in Afghanistan. Reportedly, Taliban representatives were also present when Indian officials visited these capitals, indicating that India would be facing a different political situation and might face difficulty in building an anti-Taliban consensus in the regional capitals. But that doesn’t change India’s perception and strategy of projecting Sunni militancy as a brainchild of Pakistani ISI and trying to build a regional consensus against Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban.
India’s second strategic fear is related to Pakistan’s potential to be in controlling position in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan. The fear stems from their perception that Pakistan’s security apparatus is able to dominate Sunni militancy and terror emanating from Afghanistan. The Indian government has made massive investment in surface communication sector in Afghanistan in order to ensure its access to the landlocked country through Iranian ports, but it also has plans to get access to Central Asian oil and gas rich economies. In this way, India’s strategic planners aim to undercut Pakistan’s strategic importance. Now with Afghanistan drifting towards a total military control of Taliban, India’s heavy investment in roads and communication in Afghanistan is likely to be trashed—or so Indian officialdom fears.
Indian media and strategic thinkers feel that India has a lot of goodwill among the Afghan population. They think that they made the right investment and in the right country, but not at the right time. In the post-2014 situation the rise of the Taliban was clearly written on the wall; this was the year when the US and Western intelligence and diplomatic officials started engaging Afghan Taliban in backchannel talks. The reports about these engagements started to make headlines in newspapers and media outlets across the world. The Indians simply ignored these leaks and continued to pose themselves as the most potent advocate of anti-Islamic militancy and terror.
One continuous indication of this advocacy role was reflected in their media and strategic thinkers’ writings and blogs, where they started to put all their focus on American military power, South Asian regional politics and their propaganda efforts against Sunni militancy and terror.
Now that the US has made a deal with a paragon of Sunni militancy in our region, i.e. the Afghan Taliban, and has left the region militarily, India has been completely left high and dry. It will be alone, at least militarily, to feel the heat of remnants of Sunni militancy left in Afghanistan, which, according to Indian fears, could reach their territory within no time.
However, clearly, there is not much for Pakistan either in this situation and it should not try to exploit the situation. We have been and would be the first victims of Sunni militancy if this menace attempts to reach Indian territory. It would be better if we become advocate of a regional solution to meet this threat. Unfortunately, there is a sea of mistrust between the two countries that will prevent them from making a joint effort in this regard (Farooq, 2021c).
5 Euphoria and fears in Islamabad over Taliban’s ‘victory’
There appears to be a sense of elation in Islamabad’s power corridors over the victory of Taliban in Afghanistan. Self-congratulatory statements, which reflect a sense of vindication, are coming out of Islamabad (Dawn, 2021).
There seems to be a palpable sense of euphoria over the fact that “India has been completely excluded from the power game in Afghanistan.” But this is not the end of Pakistan’s Afghan worries. The Pakistani military and foreign policy establishment will clearly be looking at the possible scenarios which could have huge security implications besides entailing an enormous humanitarian crisis for the country. Most probable of these are as follows:
- A civil war in Afghanistan or political unrest, which can send a large number of refugees towards Pakistan besides emboldening anti-Pakistan militants;
- A humanitarian crisis including possibility of large-scale spread of COVID-19 and food shortages due to drought, which again can send large number of refugees towards Pakistan; and
- Spoiler’s violence, as Western security experts have feared, in which hostile intelligence agencies can use remnants of terror groups for terror attacks and sectarian violence inside Pakistan.
Large scale civil war seems unlikely in Afghanistan at present, but the possibility of political unrest could not be ruled out. There were several political protests in Afghanistan’s cities after the Taliban took over government powers in Kabul. These protests were peaceful in nature, however the Taliban in some cases resorted to use of force to quell these protests. A civil war also seems unlikely because none of the neighbours of Afghanistan seems willing to feed a rebellion against the Taliban. The regional response to the Taliban’s military takeover of the government in Afghanistan is mostly supportive. Iran has described withdrawal of US troops and subsequent events as good omen for the national reconciliation in Afghanistan. Russia doesn’t perceive any threat for itself or its Central Asian client states from the Taliban being in power. China wants to develop diplomatic relations with the Taliban-led government. And people in Pakistani state machinery are euphoric over their “strategic assets” taking over the reign of power in Afghanistan. This evolving regional response is highly favorable to the Taliban primarily because in the past civil wars in Afghanistan had always been fueled by one or more of the neighbours of this war-torn country by providing weapons, training and finances to the one or the other side. Now it seems all the neighbours are unfazed by the rise of the Taliban as a dominant military force in the country.
A report by Washington-based CSIS, titled “Taliban takeover: Humanitarian implications and recommendations for the United States,” paints a dismal picture of the impending humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan for which the Taliban appear ill-prepared. Forced displacement, refugees returning from Pakistan and Iran, COVID spread, and drought like conditions all could add up to a multilayer humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan (Kurtzer, 2021). The report also alludes to the government structures that are completely in disarray and there is hardly anyone on the ground to take care of Afghan people, raising concerns in neighboring countries especially Pakistan that the direction of any future exodus will be towards them.
In what Western intelligence officials are describing as spoiler’s violence, the neighboring countries of Afghanistan could use the remnants of international terror groups still hiding in different parts of Afghanistan to settle their scores with their rival countries. Indeed, there are dreadful forecasts about what transnational terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda, Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), and ISIS could do in the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan if the post-withdrawal Afghanistan plunges into a military chaos or anarchy. In this regard, Western intelligence is specifically mentioning the names of Pakistan, India and Afghanistan as countries whose security apparatus or intelligence agencies could initiate a new proxy war in Afghanistan.
American officials and leaders have variously described Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan as a shadow of its former self or very weak to carry out terror attacks in mainland America. ISIS saw its peak in Afghanistan in the period between 2014 and 2016 when there was a sudden rise in its profile and groups and bands from Afghan Taliban were defecting to join ISIS. ISIS in Afghanistan has also seen a significant decline in its strength and operational capability in recent years.
The spoiler’s violence could take the form of terrorist attacks inside Pakistan. If Western intelligence experts are to be believed, Indian intelligence could be instrumental in using remnants of Afghan-based terrorist groups against Pakistan. This doesn’t seem far-fetched when seen in the light of Pakistani allegations that Indian intelligence has penetrated Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and was instrumental in pushing the militant group to carry out terror attacks inside heartland Pakistan. There are countless reports indicating the webs that link TTP with international terror groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Similarly, this spoiler’s violence could take the form of Pakistan using terror groups to carry out terror attacks against Indian interests in Afghanistan. The bitter memories of the US administration holding Pakistani intelligence responsible for the terror attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul are still fresh in national as well as international memory.
This is another aspect of the Afghan conflict which festers like a bleeding wound. Pakistani and Indian security apparatuses don’t have some settled “rules of the game” to protect their interests in Afghanistan. Pakistanis are nervous Washington wants to give India a disproportionate role in post-withdrawal Afghanistan. Indians are nervous that their bitter enemies in the shape of Taliban could disrupt their economic interests in Afghanistan. Spoiler’s violence is not at all a far-fetched threat in this scenario.
Spoiler’s violence has antecedents on the Afghan land. One can look at how the US administration accused Russia and Iran of supporting Afghan Taliban to carry out violence against American troops in Afghanistan. Russia indirectly accused Americans of bringing and settling ISIS fighters in northern Afghanistan close to the borders of Central Asian states, which Russia considers within its security perimeters.
The remnants of Al-Qaeda and ISIS in Afghanistan are hosting terror groups which originated in Central Asian societies, and which have been engaged in military conflicts with the Central Asian governments. The Chinese are no less concerned about the developments in Afghanistan. They know that the Chinese separatist elements are in alliance with the ISIS, the Taliban and Al-Qaida. Some of these Chinese separatist elements are also in alliance with Pakistani Taliban and were being hosted by the latter until recently. So, the fears of spoiler’s violence reaching Chinese territory are real. Pakistan’s military establishment believes that a centralised Afghan state is necessary to control this threat. The international community must ensure that the regional countries don’t play dirty and don’t try to push forward their own proxies in Afghan power struggle (Farooq, 2021d).
A new regional response towards Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan is taking shape. This response is led primarily by Russia but also includes other important regional countries like Iran and China. According to Pakistani officials and experts, Russians are particularly concerned about the rise of ISIS in northern Afghanistan close to its border with Central Asian states including Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Russia still considers the security of Central Asia as its prime responsibility. However, Russians have been discussing this problem with Taliban leaders and view the Taliban as a potential ally against ISIS and other extremist groups emerging in northern Afghanistan.
Can Pakistan afford to go along with this developing and favorable regional response to Taliban’s military takeover of Afghanistan? Pakistan’s foreign policy establishment is confronted with a much more complex set of challenges in which Afghanistan is just one piece of the jigsaw puzzle. Taliban’s victory cannot overshadow all other aspects of Pakistan’s foreign policy and it is unlikely that it will get carried away and act under the sway of this victory of their strategic allies in Afghanistan. First, Pakistan has to take care of the viability of its financial situation, for which it always counts on the “yes” vote of Washington for funding processes of the IMF and World Bank. And this would remain a dominant factor in determining the country’s foreign policy directions and its position in the geo-political chessboard in the regional power struggles in the foreseeable future.
Pakistan cannot afford to fully align with the emerging regional block of Russia, China, Iran and Central Asia, which seem to be moving in the direction of completely excluding America from influencing events in Afghanistan and Central Asia. China and Russia are deadly opposed to any move to provide bases to US forces in Central Asia. At the political level, the protégés of Washington have been squarely defeated in Afghanistan’s power struggle and these pro-American forces are in complete disarray. The Taliban, who are in political ascendance, are in very thick relations with Iranian and Russian security establishments. Experts say that the Taliban leaders regularly consult Russian and Iranian officials before taking any major step or deciding on a new course of action.
One clear element that demonstrates that Islamabad doesn’t seem to be in the mood of completely breaking with Washington on Afghanistan is the latest Foreign Office comment on Afghan situation in which the mandarins of our foreign policy thought it appropriate to mention human rights and women rights as a determining factor in its policy and attitude towards the new Afghan government. Human rights and women rights are not a factor in responses of any of the regional countries including Russia, China and Iran towards the Taliban. This is exclusive to Washington and its Western cousins. How far Islamabad will go to implement its statement on human and women rights as its policy is difficult to predict but for the moment, we can say that Islamabad doesn’t seem to completely ignore Washington’s concerns.
There is also a possibility that Washington itself wanted the regional countries to take responsibility for managing the security of Afghanistan as it would have appeared natural for anyone making guesses about Afghanistan that the vacuum left behind by the withdrawing American forces would be filled by the regional powers. The regional powers now seem to be providing support to the Taliban’s military takeover by awarding them political legitimacy in the form of acceptance of their advances and victories. There are very strong voices in Washington accusing rising powers like China to be “free riders” as Americans sacrificed in blood and hard cash for providing regional security to their economic rise.
The objective that Afghanistan should not become a hot bed of terrorism and Sunni militancy is shared by all the regional players including Pakistan, Russia, China and Iran as well as the United States of America. An uncomplicated analysis would suggest that the future scenario would only see a change of guards in the region; previously it was American military handling the security in and around Afghanistan and now the regional militaries and security apparatuses would act as interlocutors of security in Afghanistan with Taliban acting as a surrogate of regional powers. All the regional powers have an interest in not letting Afghanistan become a hub of terrorism and militancy.
The last scenario may be hypothetical now, but the Pakistani security establishment will hit a goldmine if this materialises. Pakistani, Iranian, Russian and Chinese intelligence services have been coordinating their efforts in Afghanistan to prevent the rise of ISIS since 2018. Will that mean Pakistan be playing a central role in the regional efforts to prevent the rise of ultra-extremist Sunni groups in Afghanistan? That is possible for two reasons. First, Pakistan has more than normal influence on the Afghan Taliban, a factor which will make Islamabad an effective player. Secondly, Pakistani security apparatus has amassed demonstrable experience in tackling the militancy and terrorism in the region. Not surprisingly, both Russia and China have expressed the interest in learning from this experience.
The task before Pakistani foreign policy establishment will be to make all this acceptable for Washington. A destabilised Afghanistan will be a public relations disaster for Washington as well. However, a scenario in which the Taliban as winners take all is unlikely to be completely acceptable for Washington. Pakistani security establishment should aspire to achieve some kind of national reconciliation in Afghanistan where pro-American political forces are given legitimacy within the new Afghan system.
That means Pakistan would again be a frontline state with Beijing and Moscow assuming the larger role of the US. Will the wolf of Sunni militancy again turn against Pakistan? Not very difficult to guess, though.
BBC. 2021. “Afghanistan: India evacuates its stranded citizens.” August 23rd. <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-58301893>
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