In areas where the writ of the state is weak, like Balochistan and the erstwhile tribal areas, Pakistan risks a resurgence of militant violence
Pakistan is readying to face the fallout from the re-emergence of the Taliban-Al Qaeda domination in Afghanistan after the American-NATO forces exit the country, leaving the Ashraf Ghani-led government having to contend with the onslaught of jihad.
This chaos will likely attract the sympathies of jihadi-religious outfits in Pakistan who have been temporarily restrained by the Financial Action Task Force, but would not hesitate to welcome insurgents over the wire-fenced Durand Line. In recent years, there has been a surge in radicalization among religious groups of Pakistan, with even tame Barelvi outfits like the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan having to be “banned” after riots that spanned the length and breadth of the country.
From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban held power over roughly three quarters of Afghanistan, and enforced a strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law. The Arab-dominated Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was also established when the Afghan capital was transferred to Kandahar next to the Durand Line. This Taliban government, led by Mullah Omar, was recognized by only three nations: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
Omar lived in Pakistan during the American invasion following the events of 9/11, and was succeeded by Mullah Akhtar Mansour (2014-2016). Pakistan then tasted the fallout of allowing jihadi organizations to proliferate on its territory. On Dec. 16, 2014, Taliban gunmen stormed the Army Public School in Peshawar, leaving 150 people dead, 132 of them children. Of the five killers who carried out the massacre, three were Arabs and one Chechen.
Pakistan in the past made significant investments in support of jihadi elements in Afghanistan such as the Taliban. Insurgents, including the Haqqani Network based in North Waziristan, were armed and funded through Pakistan’s assistance, and were also provided sanctuaries. During the years of Taliban rule, Pakistan’s Foreign Office even paid the salaries of the Taliban leadership, as claimed by Ahmed Rashid in Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia.
Mullah Omar’s successor Mansour was allowed free rein inside Pakistan; in fact he operated from inside the country while leading the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. Reports of Mansour freely roaming around Quetta, and gaining the allegiance of insurgent commanders in mass gatherings, had provoked the ire of the Kabul-based Ashraf Ghani administration.
Mansour was finally killed in 2016 while returning from Iran—where his family lives—and traveling on a Pakistani passport, which raised some serious questions about the Taliban’s Pakistan connections. His stay in Iran was secretly facilitated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard thus shedding new light on the Taliban movement’s complicated relationship with Tehran. Iran had also provided weapons, cash, and sanctuary to the Taliban despite the deep ideological gulf between a hardline Sunni group and a cleric-run Shia state. Zahid Hussain, in No-Win War: the Paradox of U.S.-Pakistan relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow, writes:
“The killing of Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a CIA drone trike on May 21, 2016, in Balochistan, near the border with Iran gave a new twist to the festering Afghan crisis. It signaled an aggressive U.S. policy stance, as hopes of the Afghan Taliban coming to the negotiating table had faded. The attack was carried out well inside Pakistan’s territory, which exposed Pakistan’s vulnerability in balancing an alliance with the U.S. along with maintaining relations with the Afghan Taliban.”
The world has look with suspicion on Pakistan’s claims that it did not know that Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden had lived in the garrison city of Abbottabad for eight years before being discovered and assassinated by American forces. The Taliban also found sanctuary in Karachi where the 9/11 attack on the U.S. was reportedly planned. And the infamous Quetta Shura have made the innocent Hazara of the Balochistan capital pay the price for Pakistan’s flawed polices by targeting them in sectarian attacks.
Pakistan has discussed the looming post-U.S. withdrawal situation with regional states Russia and China, with Moscow expressing concerns over the participation of its Chechen citizens in the war in Afghanistan as a potential precursor to the “liberation” of Muslims living in Russia. China, which owns the rights to a number of mineral deposits in Afghanistan, fears the spread of rebellion among its oppressed Uighur minority in its own Chinese Central Asia.
Pakistan has also been formally discussing the Afghanistan situation with the world powers but its main vulnerability springs from inside the former tribal areas and Balochistan, where the writ of the state continues to be weak. The regional situation has become complicated after U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to challenge China in Asia with the help of the Quad—India, Japan, Australia, U.S. All indicators point to the Afghanistan of tomorrow becoming polarized once again, this time between China-Pakistan-Russia and the U.S.-India alliance.
Pakistan is a nuclear power but is internally vulnerable. It has remained politically unstable and is haunted by issues of internal sovereignty. Its tribal areas—now formally a part of the country but still in administrative limbo—and Balochistan remain a kind of no-man’s-land of administration, easily penetrated from across the Durand Line. Add to that the “katcha” (underdeveloped) areas of Sindh, and recent bouts of violence by dacoits in Punjab’s Dera Ghazi Khan, and you have a state with diminishing internal sovereignty that must contend with defending its borders with India and Afghanistan.