Pakistan’s Afghan predicament by Zahid Hussain

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WITH the American forces racing to the exit, Afghanistan has further descended into chaos. There is an element of inevitability about the unfolding situation. The power vacuum widened by the withdrawal of foreign forces has encouraged the Afghan Taliban to accelerate their military offensive.

Heavy casualties suffered by the Afghan government forces in recent days underscore the fierceness of the insurgents’ assault. Fierce fighting is going on in 26 of the 34 provinces. With no sign of the two warring sides reaching a negotiated political settlement there seems little possibility of cessation of hostilities.

The growing violence threatens to push Afghanistan into a new civil war with serious consequences for the region. The deteriorating situation across the border has also worsened Pakistan’s predicament as the country is caught in the midst of a geopolitical crisis. It faces multiple security and foreign policy challenges with the threat of the Afghan conflict spilling over to Pakistani soil.

Despite the apparent tightrope walking it will be hard for Islamabad to escape the fallout. One is, however, not sure whether our policymakers have a clear grasp of the seriousness of the situation and a clear strategy to deal with these challenges.

Some of the comments emanating from Kabul are outright abusive and have crossed all diplomatic norms.

The Taliban’s military success across the border is ominous for Pakistan’s national security. It is bound to exacerbate this country’s own problem of militancy in the border areas and religious extremism inside the country. Most perturbing is the report of transnational militant groups stepping up activities along the Pak-Afghan border regions.

In its latest report, the UN Security Council’s Sanctions and Monitoring Committee warned that a significant part of the Al Qaeda leadership resides in the regions along the border with Pakistan, which have become the main centre of militant activities. The growing instability seems to have allowed various transnational militant groups greater space to operate in Afghanistan.

Most alarming is the escalation in the activities of the so-called Islamic State (IS) group. More than two dozen militant groups are reported to be active in the region including several factions of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The competition among them for territorial control makes the regional situation extremely volatile.

The Taliban’s commitment that they would not allow any militant group to use Afghan soil for attacks on any country had cleared the way for the Doha accord that led to agreement on the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan. But the latest UN Security Council committee report alleging some faction of the group still maintains links with Al Qaeda has raised questions about the Taliban sticking to the agreement. The Taliban have rejected the report as “based on false information”.

But the relentless violence involving transnational militant groups such as IS has raised serious concerns over the post-US withdrawal situation in Afghanistan. Most of the recent attacks have targeted civilian populations. Dozens of students were killed in an IS-claimed attack on a school in Kabul last month.

More disturbing for Pakistan is the report of splinter TTP groups based across the border in Afghanistan being reunited, backed by some transnational militant groups. The development has led to an increase in cross-border attacks in the former tribal districts, particularly in North Waziristan where Pakistan’s control remains tenuous.

Such attacks have become increasingly frequent in other northwestern border regions also with the growing instability in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban’s strengthening its military control across the border may give a boost to their supporters among right-wing groups in Pakistan.

Pakistan has long been a haven for Afghan Taliban fighting the occupation forces that had given Islamabad some leverage to bring the insurgent group to sit across the negotiating table with American officials. But that clout seems to have diminished with the exit of the American forces.

The Taliban’s refusal to join the proposed US-sponsored intra-Afghan talks in Istanbul and agree to a reduction in violence have also cast a shadow over the already tense relations between Islamabad and Kabul. Afghan government leaders have publicly accused Pakistan of aiding the Taliban’s offensive.

Some of the comments emanating from Kabul are outright abusive and have crossed all diplomatic norms. This hostile attitude of the Afghan government has complicated the situation further for Pakistan. The outburst of the Pakistani foreign minister in response to the Afghan national security chief’s anti-Pakistan comments should have been avoided. The point should have been made when a foreign ministry spokesman said that Pakistan would not interact with the Afghan national security adviser who is notorious for using undiplomatic language.

It is apparent that the American exit plan has been as chaotic as its invasion of Afghanistan was some 20 years ago. There was no clear objective when the world’s most powerful superpower went to war and 20 years later it’s leaving Afghanistan in a greater mess with warring Afghan groups fighting for domination.

Many analysts see the present Afghan situation as a return to the late 1980s after the withdrawal of Soviet forces. The looming civil war could have been avoided if the Americans had shown greater seriousness in getting a political settlement in place. But it’s too late now.

The Biden administration is reportedly thinking of a US intelligence presence for counterterrorism action. A report published in the New York Times reveals that the US is already engaged in negotiations with Pakistan and some other regional countries for a base for the CIA surveillance operation.

Interestingly, there has not been any denial from Pakistani officials of the reported negotiations. Although Pakistani leaders have categorically said that no US military base will be allowed, the report suggested that Pakistan could agree to give the US access to some facilities. The provision of any such facility even with conditions attached would pull Pakistan into a deeper quandary.

Pakistan needs to tread a very cautious path with the threat of Afghan civil war extended to its own territory. It could have more serious repercussions for our national security than in the past. The horror of the past four decades of conflict in Afgh­a­nistan continues to haunt the entire region.

The writer is the author of No-Win War — The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2021

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Disclaimer: Pakistan’s Afghan predicament by Zahid Hussain - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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