Connecting dots flowing from recent statements and incidents provide an understanding of the dilemma faced by Pakistan on ties with India and Afghanistan, especially with the ongoing withdrawal of US and NATO forces. Currently, a ceasefire, part of backchannel talks, is underway between India and Pakistan, while the US withdrawal has opened doors for internal strife in Afghanistan which could spill across the Durand Line into Pakistan. Pakistan cannot risk two active frontiers alongside increasing internal turmoil.
This scenario could break Pakistan’s economy and overstretch its military capabilities. The emerging scenario in Afghanistan and its impact can best be summed up by statements from Pakistani politicians. Foreign Minister SM Qureshi mentioned during a discussion in their senate, “what we were fearing and are concerned about is that a vacuum created in Afghanistan can drag the country back into the 1990s. There could be anarchy and God forbid, a civil war.”
Qureshi had earlier threatened the US that unless Kashmir was resolved, Afghanistan would remain in turmoil. He tried pushing the US into viewing Kashmir through the Afghan prism. The recently concluded Pakistan corps commanders’ conference resulted in the military leadership expressing concern on, “regrouping of terrorist leadership and outfits across the border”. Prime Minister Imran Khan, addressing the Economic Cooperation Org-a-nisation summit last week, stated, “It is imperative that there should be a pea-ceful transition in Afghan-istan, otherwise 1989like chaos will occur when Sov-iet Union’s forces had left.”
An editorial in Dawn of 3 June states, “What Pakistan and many other regional states fear is a return to total anarchy in Afghanistan.” Pakistan knows what a civil war in Afghanistan will imply. It has faced it earlier. This scenario is Pakistan’s own creation. It was warned on multiple occasions that it was backing the wrong horse (Taliban) but refused to listen. Hillary Clinton had stated, “snakes are going to turn on whoever has them in the backyard.”
Pakistan’s Afghan narrative stemmed from fear of growing Indian influence in the country. Hamid Karzai, the exAfghanistan President stated in a recent interview, “Pakistan actually would like Afghanistan to break off relations with India.” Finally, snakes are returning to bite.
The US withdrawal, announced by President Joe Biden without any preconditions, has pushed any peace deal between the Taliban and Afghan government further away. Violence levels are rising as the Taliban assumes it possesses the upper hand and can take Kabul. Despite reports of the Afghan army abandoning some posts to the Taliban, the road to Kabul continues to be littered with roadblocks. The Afghan government currently controls 50 per cent of the country.
Realistically accepting the possibility of a civil war, Afghan President Ghani stated in an article last month, “If the Taliban choose the latter path (chaos and violence), Afghan Forces will fight them.” Pakistan’s NSA, Moeed Yusuf, stated “US has assured that Pakistan will not be made a scapegoat amidst the withdrawal, but only time will tell whether they stick to their words.” Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghanistan, in an interview, mentioned, “Pakistan will be blamed (for the civil war) because much of the Taliban’s leadership lives in Pakistan.”
Global pressure is already increasing on Pakistan to rein in the Taliban and push it for talks. An editorial in Dawn last week stated, “while Pakistan can urge the group to make peace, the decision would be that of the Taliban alone. Indeed, the situation does not look promising.” Added to this is the reality that even if the Taliban does reach Kabul, there are collections of militias and terrorist groups willing to challenge it. Most challengers of the Taliban will be funded from abroad increasing instability.
Afghanistan will witness violence for a prolonged duration. Last month there were multiple attacks on Pakistani troops from across the Afghan border. The worsening security situation in Afghanistan opened space for antiPak terrorist groups to enhance attacks on its army. Some of these groups are being supported by the Taliban to maintain pressure on Pakistan. The targeting of the Chinese ambassador in Quetta, in April, was claimed by the anti-Pak Tehreek-iTaliban Pakistan (TTP), backed by the Haqqani network.
Pakistan’s fear is that the CPEC would become a major target, and this would stall investments from China, adding to their economic woes. Fahd Hussain writing for Dawn stated that a civil war in Afghanistan could impact Pakistan in multiple ways. It could enhance influx of refugees as also regenerate violence and militancy in border areas, including Baluchistan. The TTP, currently sheltering on Afghan soil, could gain fresh traction and enhance attacks on Pakistani forces. The Baluch freedom groups would exploit this opportunity to target the Pakistan army and CPEC. Thus, for Pakistan, securing is western borders and provinces is gaining greater strategic prominence than backing terrorism in the Kashmir valley.
Pakistan currently has no choice.
Its only option is to seek peace with India along the LoC and reduce support to Kashmir militants. It was with this background that backchannel talks with India gained steam. Pakistan’s serious intentions can be gauged from the fact that no terrorist leader has made any counter comment on the ceasefire. The ISI has tightened its leash over them. Pakistan Army Chief General Bajwa admitted backchannel discussions are ongoing, adding that article 370, India’s red line, is of no concern, while the country’s polity opposed it.
Imran Khan and Qureshi initially insisted on restoration of article 370 as a prelude to talks; however, in a climbdown, possibly prompted by the army, Imran mentioned that Pakistan is willing for talks even if India gives a road map for restoring the article. With no comments flowing from India, the message conveyed is that statements by Pakistani politicians are solely for domestic consumption, as discussions are ongoing between the Pakistan army and the Indian government.
The ceasefire continues to hold, despite the odd incident along the Jammu border. Pakistan, which had claimed that the US must view Afghanistan through a Kashmir prism is now itself compelled to view Kashmir through the Afghan prism.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)