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Is Pakistan Ripe for the Plucking?

by Khaled Ahmed

File Photo. Aref Karimi—AFP

After the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan’s security situation risks becoming more precarious

A recent assessment of post-withdrawal Afghanistan by Project Syndicate goes like this: “The U.S. military’s recent handover of the Bagram Air Base near Kabul to the Afghan government effectively marks the end of a 20-year war that has cost more than $2 trillion. With the Taliban, which had been removed from power by the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, now poised to regain control, many in Afghanistan and the region are bracing for further conflict and chaos.” An accompanying op-ed by former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer warns that “the humanitarian consequences of the West’s withdrawal could be catastrophic.” Former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt also agrees, arguing that “avoiding a new spiral of violence requires U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration to ensure that any exit strategy includes a plan for the country.”

Looking back, both the Soviet and American invasions have had consequences for Pakistan that no other neighboring nation has had to face: Iran kept refugees in sealed camps, preventing them from mingling with the civilian population, and avoiding post-invasion fallout. Pakistan, on the other hand, suffered a breakdown of the state as the Taliban—together with their Afghan militias in North Waziristan—asserted their authority to try and transform the country along their interpretation of the Quran and Sunnah. Unlike Iran, Pakistan had virtually no writ of the state in more than half of its territory where it was challenged; its Army suffering casualties at the hands of the Pakistani Taliban who killed former prime minister Benazir Bhutto at the command of Osama bin Laden from Abbottabad without any of the senior leadership, including the Army chief, being aware of it.

Shaukat Javed, a retired inspector-general of police and former caretaker home minister Punjab, wrote in daily The News on July 6 that Pakistan’s major problem was its weak writ of the state in the erstwhile tribal areas, as well as large tracts of Sindh being controlled by dacoits. His remark about Balochistan is worth recording: “In Balochistan, the police have control over only 16 percent of the total area. Only six districts out of 33—Quetta, Gwadar, Las-Bella, Naseerabad, Jaffarabad and Sohbatpur—are fully under police control while merely five percent of the bordering districts of Balochistan with Afghanistan—Zhob, Qila-Saifullah, Pasheen, Chaman, Noshki and Chaghi—have police presence. The police-controlled areas are mostly urban and are called ‘A’ areas. The remaining 84 percent non-police controlled areas are known as ‘B’ areas where the Baloch Levy is responsible for law and order.

“The Levies are ill-trained, ill-equipped, ill-disciplined and are under the influence of tribal chiefs. They have no system of intelligence collection and cannot conduct operations against terrorists or organized criminal gangs. This arrangement has burdened the Army and paramilitary FC to tackle internal law and order situations. In 2008, the then provincial government of Balochistan rightly decided to merge the B areas into the A areas; this was reversed when the political government came into power. Another decision of converting four districts to A areas every year was taken a few years ago but due to political expediency and bureaucratic vested interests this was also not implemented, leaving Balochistan as a no-man’s land of administration.”

It is not only Balochistan where governance is a problem. There are areas in the “wadero” hinterland of Sindh where the local police officer has to learn to take orders from the local strongman and compel government to back down. In the desert of Sindh, dacoits have first taken shelter then organized themselves as organizations amenable to Indian financial persuasion. Above all, the problem is the lack of writ of the state, which survives through compromise. A lot of trouble filters in through Balochistan, where smuggling of petrol and cars across the Durand Line continues even after the wire-fencing started by Pakistan. Together with the northern section of the border, Pakistani soldiers are regularly being killed by men coming from Afghanistan.

Judging from reports, Pakistan is being regularly attacked in Karachi through proxies by India. The criminal underworld of Karachi is amenable to monetary persuasion in Karachi and from Balochistan. Then there are madrassas found all over the country—and especially in Karachi and southern Punjab—where support can be mustered for the Taliban when they move against Pakistan. Given the extreme religious loyalty among those who serve in the Pakistan Army, confronting the new jihad in an already politically unstable Pakistan is going to be difficult.

What Pakistan will do in the face of the new wave of Afghan refugees knocking at the door at the various entry-points is unclear. It is not difficult to imagine the desperate Afghan population preferring assaulting the wire-fenced Durand Line over facing death at the hands of the Taliban. It is difficult to imagine who will come to Pakistan’s help—apart from China—if its border fence is breached and Afghan men and women and children enter the country begging to be protected. The Arabs stand divided over the issue and help to Pakistan might not be forthcoming from Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. Pakistan’s move away from its old benefactors in the direction of Turkey would also have consequences. Will Pakistan be strengthened by joining the anti-Saudi-U.A.E. camp?

The latest Pakistan-Turkey joint military exercise, Anatolian Eagle 2021, was held between June 21 and July 2. Pakistan’s Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Zaheerud Din Babur also visited the third main jet-base in Konya to view the multinational air exercises. This year’s exercise included the participation of Azerbaijan and Qatar and NATO AWACS. It has further contributed toward the development of defense synergies and cooperation between Pakistan and Turkey. Many other countries were there as observers as well, and Pakistan’s JF-17 Thunder, Turkey’s F-16 C/D, Qatar’s Rafale, Azerbaijan’s MIG-29 and SU-25, and NATO’s E-3A AWACS aircraft were all featured.

Who will help the Taliban apart from the Arab backers of Al Qaeda who no longer favor Pakistan? Despite denial from a Taliban spokesman on a Pakistani TV channel, Al Qaeda remains the main backer of the insurgents. The West still thinks in the old groove: Pakistan remains the Taliban’s primary backer and primary safe haven. Iran has helped the Taliban to a lesser extent. Al Qaeda, which was never defeated in Afghanistan, has also played a key role in Taliban’s success. Al Qaeda has fought alongside the Taliban both before and during the current offensive.

A report in Long War Journal on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan concludes: “Al Qaeda provided the Taliban with military and political advice (including strategy sessions on talks with the U.S.), and helped the Taliban integrate regional jihadist groups to fight under its banner. In the north, Al Qaeda helped the Taliban organize groups such as the now-defunct Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Jamaat Ansarullah, Kataib Imam Bukhari, and the Turkistan Islamic Party to fight in the Taliban’s ranks. In the east and south, groups like the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Harkatul Mujahideen have aided the Taliban’s offensive.”

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen says the Taliban have cut themselves off from Al Qaeda but no one outside Afghanistan believes it. It is quite clear that after getting control of Kabul the Taliban would need funds to run the country. India has been ousted from the scene and the Pakistani media has made much of the ending of its Kandahar consulate after discovery by the Taliban that Delhi was secretly sending arms to the Kabul government while holding talks with the insurgents. The fact is that sooner or later the Taliban would be inclined to accepting financial aid from India to the detriment of Pakistani interests. And 60 percent of “nuclear” Pakistan’s territory, with thin writ of the state, would then risk being targeted from Afghanistan.

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