America’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan presents Pakistan with a historic opportunity to settle conflict on its western border and lead a new era of peace in Central Asia, but it’s not clear to most that is how the situation will play out.
Pakistan is now caught in the middle of the battle between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government and its rising mujahidin allies and the Taliban, a struggle for power that threatens to explode into a new destabilizing phase of civil war.
At the same time, anti-Pakistan militant and jihadi groups aligned in varying degrees to the Taliban on both sides of the border are angling to carry out new lethal attacks inside Pakistan, a drive that could intensify if Islamabad allows the US new access to its military bases.
According to a recent UN report, at least a dozen different militant groups are now active in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, with at least 6,500 Pakistani nationals reportedly involved.
According to the report, Pakistan-based jihadi groups such as Jaish-i-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba continue to fight alongside Taliban groups against Afghan national forces. If and when Afghanistan’s conflict intensifies, Pakistan will inevitably be drawn more deeply into the fight.
Islamabad’s response so far has been to literally fence itself off against the rising threats that exist on both sides of the border.
While fencing stretches of the 2,670-kilometer border may curb cross-border infiltration to a degree, the multi-billion dollar policy will ultimately have a limited impact on preventing groups from launching attacks in Afghanistan and fleeing back to sanctuary in Pakistan.
With anti-Pakistan Taliban-aligned groups already active in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, the escalating situation presents a huge dilemma for Pakistani policymakers who had earlier hoped to shape Afghanistan into a satellite state that it controls to its advantage vis-à-vis rival India.
While Pakistan has historically followed a “strategic depth” policy towards Afghanistan, whereby it attempts to control the country as a political pawn and strategic hedge vis-a-vis India, a role the militant Taliban served in the 1990s, in the present context Islamabad can’t readily revert to the doctrine as Taliban-influenced groups are pitted against the Pakistan state.
Indeed, the Taliban’s drive to re-establish an “Islamic Emirate” in Kabul will provide new ideological fire for the thousands of Islamic militants in border regions to pursue similar objectives in Pakistan.
Afghanistan could thus quickly morph into a proxy theater for India-Pakistan rivalry after US and NATO troops fully withdraw by September 11 this year. India has a reputed history of providing material support to anti-Pakistan militant groups in Balochistan and could be tempted to ramp up that support in the post-US vacuum emerging in Afghanistan.
Islamabad is already reportedly applying pressure on both sides of Afghanistan’s political divide to cut ties with New Delhi, so far with no meaningful success.
“Pakistan wants Afghanistan to break off relations with India. That is impossible. If we give in to this, we would give up our sovereignty and independence,” said former Afghan president Hamid Karzai.
“If we want to send our police or our army or our boys to and girls to India for training because it is good for our country, we should do so,” he said.
At the same time, Pakistan cannot afford to completely antagonize the Afghan Taliban, which is closing in on a total victory as US troops retreat and withdraw. Any move that alienates the militant group, including revived ties with US forces, could push Pakistan-based Taliban groups to resume extreme militant action against Pakistan state targets and forces.
Pakistan is clearly struggling to strike a balance between Ghani’s government and the Taliban that prevents new waves of terrorism inside its borders while also keeping Afghanistan as an ally that does not move too close to India in the emerging post-US era.
A power-sharing government between the Taliban and Ghani would likely limit the extent to which pro-Taliban groups could destabilize Pakistan, especially in restive Balochistan where Baloch militant groups have recently intensified attacks including against China’s interests in the restive province.
Islamabad will be hard-pressed to bridge its deep trust deficit with Kabul, a divide created first and foremost by Pakistan’s historical support for the extremist Taliban against the Afghan political elite now largely represented by Ghani’s US military-propped government.
The duality of Pakistan’s objectives is leading to contradictory signaling. For instance, while Pakistan supports calls to preserve Afghanistan’s post 9/11 gains and prevent the emergence of a new Taliban-led emirate, it has equally advocated the Taliban’s political integration with Kabul through a political settlement.
The net effect of this dual policy has been strained ties on both sides. Sensing Pakistan’s double game, the Taliban has increasingly resisted Islamabad’s attempts to push them to the negotiating tables in Doha and Istanbul.
The Taliban is also reportedly quite apprehensive of US-Pakistan talk of a new military alliance after US troops withdrawal from Afghanistan, which could allow the US use of Pakistan’s land and air space for counterterrorism operations inside Afghanistan including against groups aligned with the Taliban such as al Qaeda.
Pakistan’s overtures to the US stem from the ruling regime’s growing political insecurity over its consistent failure to turn around the moribund economy.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s regime hopes a new accommodation with the US will allow for greater access to International Monetary Fund (IMF) lending, and secure a possible exit from the Financial Action Task Force’s money laundering and terror-financing “gray list” designation, which limits the nation’s access to multilateral finance.
Pakistan’s approach has pushed the Afghan Taliban to expand their own political links with regional countries not only to strengthen their position in the region but also to hedge Pakistan’s still overarching influence. That’s included overtures to other Central Asian states as well as China, Iran and Russia.
The Taliban’s growing autonomy not only diminishes Pakistan’s ability to shape the group’s war and peace politics, but also makes it necessary to increasingly coordinate, unlike the 1990s, its own Afghan policies with regional stakeholders, not least Russia and China.
Both Moscow and Beijing are wary of a post-US scenario in Afghanistan that sparks new regional instability that spills over their respective borders.
While the ideal Afghan scenario for Pakistan remains a hybrid political set-up that includes the Taliban as a legitimate political force, it also wants a configuration that is inclusive enough to curb the influence of hard-core ideological Taliban leaders and gain international legitimacy.
But it’s not clear yet Ghani or the Taliban see Afghanistan’s future in that same dual light.