With the Afghan Taliban taking control of the country in the aftermath of the withdrawal of US forces, neighboring Pakistan appears to be worried over the likely security implications. This blog post highlights how the situation in Afghanistan might affect the security situation in Pakistan.
Afghanistan has experienced turmoil since its part in the ‘cold war’ fought between the former Soviet Union and the United States. Washington’s intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 marked the start of the longest ever war in the history of the US. Since then, political stability in the country has been a mirage, unachievable under any circumstances. With the Taliban now in control of Afghanistan, there have been debates and analyses with disquieting predictions regarding security implications for both neighboring and regional countries.
Nearly two decades ago the US invaded Afghanistan as an act of revenge after Al-Qaeda terrorists staged 9/11 on US soil using Afghanistan as their operational base. American forces along with their NATO allies stayed in Afghanistan for two decades battling against Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants. However, the US soon began deviating from its original goals and instead started spreading its political and ideological influence not only in Afghanistan but in the wider region. Through military interventions, it tried to establish a centralized democracy. Soon, Afghanistan became a hot ground to secure women’s rights, to advocate for education —to fix everything in the country. But how far did the US succeed in bringing stability during its two decades long presence in Afghanistan?
With the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan they left behind a feeble, fragile, and embattled Afghan government under President Ashraf Ghani to manage an uncertain and unstable political environment. The situation on the battlefield did not favor Afghan security forces, as their own capacities could not compensate the withdrawal of US and NATO forces, leading to the recent fall of Kabul. Now, with the Taliban having control over the country, they are looking for a global acceptance from the regional and global powers. To get the global acceptance, especially from the US, Taliban leadership will have to make sure that Afghanistan’s soil is not used to threaten the security of the United States and its allies as agreed by both actors in the Doha Accords. However, it is too early to say if the Taliban will be able to gain global acceptance and legitimacy. In any case, there will definitely be countries willing to work with them. For instance: China has already expressed its desire for maintaining friendly relations with them.
On the other hand, Afghanistan’s neighboring countries are watching the situation carefully, not only concerning the security situation but also about their own national interests. Of all the neighboring countries, it has been mostly Pakistan that has been bearing the brunt of instability in Afghanistan. During the ‘cold war’ era, Islamabad supported American policy to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan by training Mujahideen (with help of the US) and sending them to Afghanistan, but later on, gradually, it fell victim to former Mujahideen and now Tahreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an armed Islamist group based along the Afghan–Pakistani border that aims to overthrow the Pakistani government. Most of its members currently operate from Afghanistan, though it is not part of the Afghan Taliban.
To counter TTP, Pakistan launched massive military operations against the TTP militants in 2014. In 2015, the Pakistani government established special military courts and introduced new legal bills in the constitution of the country. As a consequence, to avoid being arrested at the hands of Pakistani security forces a number of terrorists affiliated with TTP slipped into Afghanistan. Islamabad has its reasons to believe that the said terrorists have been orchestrating terror acts in Pakistan while being based in Afghanistan.
Security Implications for Islamabad
Islamabad is currently worried about the repercussions that might emerge in the wake of the US and NATO force’s withdrawal. A dominant Taliban, being Islamist in outlook and perception, may encourage the TTP militants to reorganize themselves and pose a security challenge to Pakistan again. Starting in 2010, Pakistan has put major, mostly military, efforts in fighting terrorist networks based in provinces such as Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). One of its major military operation was Zarb-e-Azb (2014–2017) – conducted by the Pakistani Army against various militant groups, including the Tehreek-e-Taliban. In this military operation, 490 soldiers were killed, while more than 3,500 militants were killed in various counter-terrorism activities of the operation. As a result of which Pakistan’s law and order situation saw some drastic improvement. According to the South Asian Terrorism Portal, the civilian fatalities in terrorist violence in Pakistan at the beginning of the operation in 2014 were 1781 which decreased to 540 at the end of the operation and stood at 97 in the year 2019.
Considering the rapid speed with which the Afghan Taliban has recently taken over the country, it seems that they might have a stronger say in any next governmental dispensation. The success of the Afghan Taliban has already emboldened militant groups like Tahreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and others in Pakistan, and even those whose networks have been disrupted in Afghanistan may yet have the potential to revive and pose a security problem to Pakistan. That said, since the Afghan Taliban took control over the country they have already released around 2,300 TTP commanders. These recent advancements in Afghanistan have boosted the morale of the TTP raising concerns that Kabul might become a space for them to regroup since both Afghan and Pakistani Taliban share a similar ideology and objectives. Different media reports suggest that last month alone, TTP claimed responsibility for 26 terrorist attacks in Pakistan. In fact, Pakistan has also accused TTP behind a July blast that killed nine Chinese workers, a claim the group denied.
Besides this, the Pakistani government is estimating a problem in the expected influx of refugees fleeing from increased violence in Afghanistan. The primary worry it has is that TTP elements presently hiding in Afghanistan might sneak into Pakistan under the garb of refugees. On the other hand, it is also possible that the expected refugee influx would further complicate the identity politics in the country where parties like the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), in English known as “Pashtun Protection Movement”, a political party working to protect the rights of Pashtuns, would oppose any action to restrict the inflow of refugees from Afghanistan. Therefore, PTM might take this opportunity to use the issue of Pashtun Afghan refugees to reinvigorate their political base with an ethnicity-based politics in Pakistan by critically targeting the Pakistani military’s role in War on Terror across the border, which has ravaged Pashtun areas not only in Pakistan but also in Afghanistan.
Future Recognition of Afghan Taliban
Though Islamabad says that it did work to achieve peace in Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani’s government was never satisfied. Months before Ghani fled the country, he said that “intelligence estimates indicate the influx of over 10,000 jihadi fighters from Pakistan and other places in the last month.” He further added that Imran Khan’s government failed to “negotiate seriously” with the Taliban. Pakistan believes that it had a small influence over Taliban leadership, which it used at the behest of America, persuading the Taliban to sit across the table for a negotiated end to the Afghan imbroglio.
Although Afghanistan is now in the hands of Taliban, Pakistan still favors an inclusive political settlement representing all Afghan ethnic groups and believes that there was never a military solution to the issue. On the other hand, it also seems likely that sooner or later Pakistan will accept a Taliban led government and establish ties with them, provided that they do not let their soil be used by anyone, including TTP, for any sort of terrorism against Pakistan. Once the Taliban led government is accepted, as a quid pro quo, the Taliban may less likely to support Indias efforts to play proxy wars in Pakistan using its soil. That said, the recognition from Pakistan and other regional actors such as China would only come if the practice of allowing foreign insurgents and terrorists by Afghanistan comes to a halt. In fact, the principle of non-interference is one of the key points of the Doha accord signed by the Afghan Taliban.
Pakistan’s concerns regarding possible security challenges to emerge from the unsettling circumstances in Afghanistan are not unjustified, and Islamabad seems to be preparing to tackle the spillover effects in its security domain. Islamabad does not want to see a situation that might threaten the peace it achieved after a long bloody struggle against terrorism in its own country. This is the reason that it cannot go with a ‘stay-away’ policy. To quote, Touqir Hussain, a former Pakistani ambassador: “Pakistan might think it would be a good policy to stay away from the Afghan conflict, but the Afghan conflict will not stay away from Pakistan”.