Is Pakistan Prepared For The Consequences Of A Taliban Led Afghanistan?
US intelligence report has recently concluded that the Afghan regime would fall within six months. Districts often fall without a fight, as Afghan security personnel negotiate surrender deals with the Taliban who now control most of the rural and far flung areas. However, the situation is different in big cities where Taliban have been unable to occupy and hold any major city. Their recent march on Kunduz was a show to the world that they were capable of military victory. And if they gain power, a perturbing prospect is the rise of TTP in Pakistan, a new wave of cross border insurgency and inflow of refugees. It might be another “humanitarian crisis” for Pakistan, according to Raza Rumi, straining the economy of the country. In a video discussion, analyst Kamran Bukhari on NayaDaur TV said that a “storm” is likely to emerge from the western border. Is Pakistan ready?
As far as Afghan security forces are concerned, often unpaid for months, their morale seems to be falling and they leave behind military hardware in guarantees for sage passages from Afghan Taliban. The warlords are not relying on security forces either and are preparing their own local militias to fight against Taliban. The current scenario reminds us how Afghanistan descended into chaos after Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. The contending factions and militias at arms against each other – it worsened further in 1993 when the regime fell and Taliban took control over Kabul subsequently. Is history on the repeat, and if so, what will be the impact on the region as a whole?
US air force has been deterring Taliban’s advance into big cities. Also, an attack onto a large city requires mass mobilization which can be tracked by US satellites and thus retaliated, noted Kamran Bokhari, while cautioning that the US air assistance would be conditioned. If the Afghan regime provides no physical troop presence on-ground against Taliban – when the security personnel are surrendering and joining different local militias or the Taliban camp – in such a scenario, it would be harder for the US to provide aerial support. Moreover, the US has withdrawn half of its military as well. After the complete US withdrawal what will happen is not hard to guess. Taliban’s advance would pick up its pace as they are gaining leverage over power quarters in Afghanistan. Pakistan has a role, albeit limited, to influence the course of events.
Where does Pakistan stand ?
While there has been back-channel diplomacy with India for cease fire along LoC and Gen Bajwa has spoken of ‘geo-economics”, positive signals have been conveyed to India. The Pakistan military understands it cannot afford to be “sandwiched between two fronts”, notes Kamran. Regrettably, the IK government is preoccupied with its “domestic survival”, fearing to be ousted from power if the opposition could make a deal with the military establishment . Country’s political environment is marred with different political factions and parties poles apart from each other. There is no engagement or national dialogue and “only adults in the room” seem to be the military.
Another aspect is stability and order in the house which is in disarray. Today’s Pakistan is relatively weaker on two grounds as compared to the Musharraf era and the tenure of PPP. The relations with India were stable and normalizing back then, and secondly the economy was not in the falters as it is today. The army undertook first big operation against the TTP insurgents during PPP’s tenure. Kamran notes that at that time, there was an understanding with India at top military/intelligence levels and hence, our military withdrew significant personnel from eastern border to fight on the western frontier. Similarly, more clean-up operations were carried out during PML(N) tenure. Is the army prepared to carry out similar operations? Although many areas were “cleaned”, they have not been fully mainstreamed and writ of the state is not well established.
Given today’s position of Pakistan where government is playing politics with key issues, a chaotic situation in Afghanistan would bear serious repurcussions, warned Kamran and Rumi. Pakistan is not ready for the “storm” that is to come from Western frontier. In the next ten years, the regional situation is going to be transformed fundamentally.
Iran’s position and how far is the relevance of China
“Iran is going through a historical transformation”, says Kamran Bokhari. For Iran, the removal of sanctions is sufficient and it is not looking for increased engagement with the West fearing for regime’s collapse if “ideas” started flowing in. Secondly, while Iran has made a massive deal with China, and although there has been increased space for Russia in Central Asia which could benefit China, the insecurity in Afghanistan would adversely affect and halt any progress on the deal.
Moreover, China’s access to Central Asia would be restrictive due to lack of mainstreaming of Uighur. China has not succeed on the inclusion of these people who are under Chinese abuse, regardless of the fact that only they could offer footprints to the region. A third aspect limiting its role is that China lacks any military presence in the region and relies solely on either “diplomacy” or its “financial muscle”.
Keeping all these aspects in view, the deal with Iran would be highly difficult to materialize given issues of access to Central Asia. China can do very little and hence, in a way it “wants” US to keep hold on Taliban, according to Kamran.
The issue of US air bases and potential Taliban takeover – Pakistan should have well defined and clear position
Generally, there is a lack of agreement over Taliban in Pakistan. Some still view Taliban from the lens of “strategic depth”. Therefore, Pakistan does not want Afghan Taliban to be targeted fearing retaliation from TTP. So, differences exist on “targeting” as far as the issue of US air bases is concerned.
Overall, Pakistan should act as a responsible state and adopt a pragmatic approach with political expediency. Taliban is a group and not a state – the power corridors including the political parties need to adopt this perspective, for a start to building a cohesive response. Other measures should include: Stabilizing relations with India, weighing in the aspirations of the Afghan people as a political currency, learning from history and not rewinding “Jihadi culture”, and most importantly, the incumbent govt should build a national consensus and conduct national dialogue on the “storm” that awaits to hit us. Rather than giving sweeping statements like ‘we will close border with Afghanistan if Taliban take over”, or responding “absolutely not” to question on giving bases to US – the PM should engage all stakeholders and take public in confidence so there is no room for doubt on Pakistan’s position.