A scary future awaits Pakistan post foreign troop withdrawal from Afghanistan

But Pakistan runs the risk of its Pashtun-dominated areas joining up with the Afghan Taliban, especially since the overbearing Punjabi domination is disliked in Pakistan and Pakistan can’t possibly control the Afghan Taliban completely after foreign troops exit Afghanistan, writes Lt. Gen. Prakash Katoch (Retd) for South Asia Monitor

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Foreign troop withdrawal from Afghanistan (File)

The newly appointed Pakistani National Security Advisor Moeed Yusuf would be feeling smug having met his US counterpart Jake Sullivan in Geneva since both countries agreed to develop "practical cooperation" on bilateral, regional and global issues. In the wake of all foreign troops slated to leave Afghanistan latest by September 11, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan had appointed a 14-member committee in March 2021, headed by his Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, to steer Pakistan-US relations from geostrategic to geoeconomics. This signaled an acknowledgment that Pakistan’s strategic value to the US was declining.
 
Pakistan’s commerce ministry has proposed establishing a US-Pakistan Economic Zone near Karachi port. This is an amusing proposal since Karachi port is linked to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the entire Pakistani coast would eventually be at disposal of the Chinese navy. But the Biden administration’s future cooperation with Pakistan would likely hinge on how Pakistan can help usher an Afghan peace deal that brings stability to Afghanistan, not the US-Taliban fraud peace deal signed on February 29 last year. Pakistan realizes this is an impossibility since the US exit from Afghanistan shut the doors for any concession whatsoever by the Taliban.
 
As Pakistan prepares for the next Financial Action Task Force (FATF) review to wriggle out of FATF’s Grey List with a slew of whitewash measures as on previous occasions, ground reports are emerging of heavy recruitment being carried out by Afghan Taliban, with clerics openly collecting donations and luring people to join it, especially in areas of Balochistan, North and South Waziristan to Kurram and Khyber in Pakistan.          

Muhammed Sarfraz Khan, former director of the Area Study Center of Peshawar University, told Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW) that withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan will have a severe impact on the northwestern and western provinces of Pakistan which are home to tens of thousands of Afghan Taliban supporters. What would be disconcerting to the Pakistani government are reports that Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leaders and prominent members like Adnan Rasheed and Asmat Ullah Mauvia having joined the Afghan Taliban.

Taliban a creation of Pakistan

When the US sent troops to Afghanistan in 2001, it found Pakistani regulars and Pakistan Taliban fighting alongside the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan. On then Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf’s plea, the US permitted them to be airlifted out of Kunduz and Khost. Pakistan brought along hundreds of Afghan Taliban by design to train them for future use.

Both the Afghan Taliban and the TTP are the creation of Pakistan’s ISI. At a time when the Afghan Taliban did not have much influence in northern Afghanistan, ISI had used the TTP to recruit youth from the Badakhshan region. ISI’s masterstroke was to link the Afghan Taliban and the TTP through the Haqqani Network, which has four-decade-old roots in Pakistan in running the network like a mafia, maintaining several townhouses, including in Islamabad and elsewhere, and visiting military facilities in Rawalpindi.

The relationship between the ISI and the TTP went awry when Pakistan launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb killing thousands of civilians and families, many of them belonging to TTP cadres. The operation eventually displaced over 1.5 million people with 250,000 refugees having crossed into Afghanistan by November 15, 2014, itself. The TTP retaliated by storming the Army School in Peshawar on December 16, 2014, killing some 150, including 134 students. The TTP issued a statement saying this was revenge for their families and children being killed by the Pakistan Army. 

Pakistan also organized a brigade worth of Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) in Peshawar which included Pakistan regulars and ISI personnel, pushing it into Nangarhar province of Afghanistan which has expanded its influence considerably with the support of the CIA, adding ISIS cadres from Iraq-Syria. The US intelligence assessment released in February 2016 stated that the Khorasan branch of ISIL, formed in 2015  in Afghanistan, comprises disgruntled elements of both Taliban and will probably remain a low-key threat in 2016. It made no mention of Pakistan establishing the ISKP brigade which Afghan security forces referred to as the “Peshawar Brigade”. Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan estimated ISIS strength in Afghanistan at about 10,000 including supporters in 2016.

Cross-border linkups 

Pakistan has been supporting and arming the Afghan Taliban all these years to have a government in Kabul that is aligned with Pakistan, if not subservient. When President Barack Obama announced drastic US troop reduction in Afghanistan, Scottish journalist Myra MacDonald wrote an article titled ‘Explaining Pakistan’s Confidence in War on Rocks' on December 10, 2014, where she said: “When Assad Durrani, former DG ISI delivered a talk in London in November 2014, it was like a victory speech leaving little doubt that Pakistan’s aim in Afghanistan all along has been to turn the clock back to Sept 10, 2001 – when it exercised its influence over the country through the Taliban and allies.”  

Thousands from Pakistan will likely join the Afghan Taliban, a movement already in motion though Pakistani authorities will play the façade of not allowing cross-border movement. The Afghan Taliban will aim to take over Kabul but whether they can also capture areas under influence of the erstwhile Northern Alliance is debatable, especially since anti-Taliban militias are already mobilizing.

But Pakistan runs the risk of its Pashtun-dominated areas joining up with the Afghan Taliban, especially since the overbearing Punjabi domination is disliked in Pakistan and Pakistan can’t possibly control the Afghan Taliban completely after foreign troops exit Afghanistan. An editorial in the Express Tribune on April 4, 2012, ominously said, “What is scarier for the world is the perception that Pakistan doesn’t control its non-state actors hundred percent, as demonstrated by the Punjabi Taliban fighting the Pakistan Army in parts of FATA.” That will remain Pakistan’s dilemma in the coming months.

(The author is an Indian Army veteran. The views are personal)  

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