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Afghanistan Situation: Implications For Pakistan

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The modern Afghan state is said to have come into existence when in the mid 19th century, the expanding Russian Empire came across the possibility that soon both these empires will be confronting each other in the lawless tribal expanse somewhere in the territory of present day Afghanistan. This security dilemma was solved with an agreement on the independence of Afghanistan. Thus, Afghan became a buffer state between two empires.

With little resources of its own to meet the expenses of modern bureaucracy and a standing army, the rulers of Afghanistan started to depend on the cash flows and guns from British Indian Army. Both the Russian Empire and British Indian Empire continued to agree on the independence of Afghanistan as a buffer till the time British decided to quit India—leaving behind two independent states of Pakistan and India in its wake.

Even after that, Afghanistan continued to exist as a buffer between the Soviet Empire that had annexed Muslim Central Asia into its fold and American allied Muslim states in South Asia and South West Asia, during the Cold War. Soviet and American Empires continued to cooperate to facilitate the existence of Afghanistan as an independent state during the Cold War. However, this understanding fizzled out when Soviet invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Eve in 1979. Super Power cooperation which ensured the independence of Afghanistan gave wave to Super Power rivalry and super power proxy wars. This was the end of Afghan state when the forces bigger than the state started to operate on its territory. Armed struggle against Soviet occupation turned into a civil war when those fighting soviet forces started fighting each other after Soviet withdrawal.

Afghan state, however, never succeeded in regaining its former status. Every regional power had a proxy inside Afghanistan to which they were providing weapons, training, finances and intelligence and logistical support. The forces bigger than Afghan state, which entered its territory in 1979 never in actual terms withdrew from the unfortunate land. In 2001 Americans and their western allies occupied Afghanistan and promised the world and Afghan people that they would build a functional state. Americans pumped in trillions of dollars but didn’t succeed in building a viable state.

Present security situation inside Afghanistan

The security situation inside Afghanistan is in complete flux since the US Administration announced that it would unilaterally withdraw troops from the country. Afghan Taliban have launched an intensified campaign especially in the North of the country, which borders Central Asian states of Tajikistan. Taliban are said to have taken more than 100 out of the 400 districts of the war torn country. Taliban seems to have clear superiority over forces loyal to Afghan government as district after district falls to them like a house of Cards.

Top US general in Afghanistan, General Scot Miller has warned that US military can still carry out air strikes against Taliban if they don’t stop wave of violence, “What I like to see is no air strikes, but to get to no air strikes, you stop all violence,” General Scott Miller told reporters in Kabul on last Tuesday. “The best way to stop those, and I have actually told the Taliban this, is to stop the offensive operations and air strikes,” he said, insisting that the US military still has the firepower to conduct air strikes against the insurgents even as it continues the withdrawal.

Afghanistan has a 4 hundred thousand strong Army trained and equipped by US and other western powers. There are reports that the militias allied with strong warlords—the former Mujahideen commanders who fought against Soviets in the 1980s—have started operating in the countryside alongside Afghan land forces to prevent Taliban’s advance.

Many of the international and local military and security experts are warning of an impending civil War in Afghanistan as US troops’ withdrawal is nearing completion. There are no chances that Taliban will halt its military operations. On the other hand there are clear indications that forces loyal to Afghan government will respond—how effective their response will be is another matter.

At present Taliban are mostly operating in Northern Afghanistan—close to the border with Central Asian States and Eastern Afghanistan—close to the border with Pakistan.

Taliban have undergone a transformation of sort in the preceding three to four years—a part of them have been engaging in diplomatic activity in the capitals of regional countries, especially China, Russia and Iran. Taliban delegations have been engaging in talks with Russian, Chinese and Iranian security officials and diplomats. One of the issues discussed in these talks is the rise of ISIS in Northern and Eastern Afghanistan. Iran and Russia are particularly very sensitive about the rise of another Sunni militant organization in Afghanistan. Some old Salafi (extremist sect within Sunni Islam) groups based in Eastern Afghanistan have reportedly joined hands with ISIS. There are other radical groups rising in Afghanistan, after parting company with the more conservative Taliban.

Implications for Pakistan:

However, we should base our analysis on the assumption that regional powers are also surprised by the increasing belligerence of the Taliban in the wake of US withdrawal.

What will be the security implications for Pakistan if Taliban regain power in Afghanistan? Is there a danger of spillover effect into Pakistan of an impending civil war in Afghanistan? How will the Taliban behave if they come to power?

a)      Security implications for Pakistan: There are reports in local media which suggest that if Taliban regain power in Kabul there will be resurgence of tribal militants’ power in Pakistan tribal areas. This is based on the assumption that Pakistani Taliban share ideology and are organizationally linked. There, however, are clear indications that Taliban in Afghanistan are different from Pakistani Taliban organizationally. Whereas Pakistani Taliban are patently Anti-Pakistani military force—as they have been fighting with Pakistani military, Afghan Taliban are on good terms with Pakistani military leadership.

There are Pakistani religious clerics who claim that they had served as a link between Afghan Taliban leadership and Pakistani Taliban in the past. For instance of more than one Pakistan cleric claims that he brought a special message of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar to Pakistani Taliban not to carry out suicide attacks against Pakistani cities and Pakistani military installations.

The military situation inside Afghanistan is currently not clear. How the US will respond to Taliban’s advance and how the regional countries like China, Russia and Iran will respond to Taliban military campaigns remains to be seen. And what position Pakistan leaders will take vis-à-vis Afghan Taliban will determine the likely impact on Pakistani border areas. If regional countries accord legitimacy to Taliban’s advance then perhaps Pakistan could live with the impact and manage Pakistani Taliban effectively.

But if all regional countries jump into this foray with their own proxies, then the situation could get out of control for Pakistani in tribal areas, as there would likely be a spillover effect of this civil war.

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Naya Daur