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Pakistan's Taliban Nightmare
Contrary to the general perception, Pakistan is not pushing for the return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Instead, the prospect of the Taliban taking over the war-torn country after the pullout of foreign forces is the biggest nightmare for the Pakistani security establishment.
A major worry is that Taliban control next door would give a huge impetus to Pakistan’s own militants seeking to establish retrogressive rule in the northwestern border regions. This would also make fighting local Taliban more difficult for the Pakistani Army.
Thousands of Pakistani troops are battling the militants for control of lawless border regions in northwestern Pakistan. Despite some successes, government forces have yet to establish their writ over the territory, which also provides sanctuaries to Afghan insurgents.
“If they [NATO forces] are leaving and giving a notion of success to the Taliban of Afghanistan, this notion of success may have a snowballing effect on the threat matrix of Afghanistan,” General Khalid Rabbani, Pakistani commander of frontline cops fighting the militants, told Reuters in a recent interview.
The concern stems from the fact that it’s ethnic Pashtuns on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border who have taken the lead in the insurgency – around 27 million Pashtuns live in Pakistan and 14 million in Afghanistan. A distinctive Taliban movement known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, has evolved into a formidable insurgent force, presenting a serious threat to Pakistan’s own national security.
Both the Afghan and the Pakistani Taliban are predominantly Pashtun movements and have close ideological and organizational ties. Despite differences on tactics, the two share an objective of establishing a harsh version of Islam. Moreover, both movements owe their allegiance to Mullah Omar, founder and supreme leader of Afghan Taliban movement.
In recent years, the insurgency in Pakistan has grown both in numbers and sophistication as several other Pakistani militant groups have formed an interconnected, coordinated web join the Pashtun insurgents in the tribal areas. More alarming is the nexus these groups have formed with Al Qaeda, which despite some setbacks remains deeply entrenched in Pakistani tribal areas.
The threat posed by this terrorist nexus to the Pakistani state was foreshadowed in 2009 when the militants not only established control over the entire tribal regions known as FATA, but also swept control of part of Northwest Frontier Province, since renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhawa, the land of Pakhtuns or Pashtuns. At one point the insurgents were 60 miles away from the capital, Islamabad, sending shudders across the country.
In a massive operation more than 100,000 troops pushed back the Taliban offensive, but the government’s control over the areas has remained tentative. Many insurgency leaders have now taken refuge on the other side of the border among Afghan insurgents and continue to launch cross border attacks on Pakistani security posts.
Pakistan’s role is, perhaps, the most critical in determining the course of the Afghan endgame sought by NATO. While Pakistan’s cooperation is key to winding down the war, geographical proximity and cross-border ethnic linkages also enable it to play a spoiler’s role.
Mired in mutual mistrust, there are substantial differences of opinion between Pakistan and the United States about the appropriate strategy in Afghanistan and how to address the wider insurgency.
Pakistan is reluctant to support any solution that doesn’t protect its interests in Afghanistan or fails to provide a non-aligned setup in Kabul with a dominant role for Pashtuns, putting it at odds with Western allies and the Afghan government. The US wants the present setup to continue until some kind of power-sharing agreement is reached with the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
Pashtuns constitute 42 percent of the Afghan population, and from Pakistan’s point of view, absence of adequate Pashtun representation in the future Afghan setup would be detrimental to the interests of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. With little movement in the talks between the United States and the Taliban, Islamabad’s worries have increased.
The talks, which had started last year, seem to have stalled after both sides stuck to their hardline positions. The Karzai government has also established contacts with the Taliban, but no headway has so far been made as the Taliban want only to talk with the US. The question remains whether the United States has a clear strategy for a political resolution of the Afghan crisis.
Islamabad maintains that ending the war won’t be possible without a power-sharing agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. A political settlement in Afghanistan could also help Pakistan to deal more effectively with its own Taliban. But Pakistani ambivalence about cracking down on Afghan insurgents operating from sanctuaries inside its territories – an unwillingness to burn old bridges – also raises questions about Pakistan’s cooperation in ending the war in Afghanistan and allowing orderly withdrawal of coalition forces.
Since the start of the war in Afghanistan, remote tribal areas along Pakistan’s border have become home for a lethal brew of Al Qaeda operatives, both Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, and other jihadi groups fighting on both sides of the border.
Meanwhile, North Waziristan, the biggest of the seven tribal territories, has turned into a base for the Haqqani network, the most powerful Afghan Taliban faction fighting the coalition forces. Led by legendary former Afghan Mujahideen commander Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin, the network has been blamed for spectacular attacks on Kabul in the last year.
The group’s close links with Al Qaeda have made the network the most dangerous outfit operating in eastern Afghanistan. The US pressures Pakistan to act against the network as violence escalated in the recent years. More than 1500 coalition troops and more than 2000 ISAF soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2009.
Pakistan’s refusal to act against the Haqqani network is a reflection of Islamabad’s worries about the events that could transpire after the eventual pullout of foreign forces from Afghanistan. The Pakistani military establishment is convinced that a renewed civil war will break out if the withdrawal takes place without a political settlement in place. There’s also fear of arch-rival India expanding its influence in post-withdrawal Afghanistan through a government dominated by members of the former Northern Alliance.
A decade-long war in Afghanistan has turned the country into a new battleground for Al Qaeda–linked militants, with devastating effects on Pakistan’s economy and politics, threatening complete destabilization.
Thousands of Pakistani civilians and military personnel have been killed in terrorist attacks and fighting against the insurgents in the country’s northwestern territories in recent years. Widespread violence has disrupted investment, pushing the economy toward the verge of bankruptcy.
Another serious concern is that withdrawal of NATO forces without a negotiated political mechanism in place could plunge tribal groups and factions of Afghanistan into a fierce contest over territory while also drawing surrounding countries, like Iran and Tajikistan, into the conflict.
Under such a scenario, the Pashtun-dominated Haqqani network remains a useful hedge for Pakistan against the uncertain outcome in Afghanistan and Indian influence.
This policy of using such a proxy in the civil war could be disastrous for Pakistan’s own stability. Civil war in Afghanistan could suck Pakistan deeper into the mire with disastrous consequences for the entire region.
(Zahid Hussain has covered Pakistan and Afghanistan for international publications and is the author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam (2007) and The Scorpion’s Tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan (2010).)