Situation in Af-Pak Going South: Likely Implications for India

Sub Title : Linkages between situations on either side of the Durand Line and the probable fallout

Issues Details : Vol 16 Issue 6 Jan – Feb 2023

Author : Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM & BAR (Retd)

Page No. : 18

Category : Geostrategy

: February 6, 2023

The Afghan Taliban is largely ignoring the international community and  the leverage of Pakistan with Taliban seems to be slipping fast. Pakistan itself has witnessed rapid deterioration not only in the security environment but virtually in its very existence. The article assesses the linkages between the two situations on either side of the Durand Line and the probable fallout

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan on 31 Aug 2021 was with the intent to dilute tensions, limit its resources and reduce turbulence in the Af-Pak region. After 20 years of active expeditionary deployment, it would then have the time and energy to focus on many other areas of emerging interest. Among these was the Indo-Pacific to which the US was clearly unable to give its attention. However, despite the withdrawal from Afghanistan the post pandemic state of the world has been in sufficient disarray adding to the turbulence in geo-economics and geopolitics. The ongoing Ukraine-Russia war is now adding more complexity to it. The abysmal state of the international economic and energy scene is proving a major challenge. The last thing the US, its allies, partners and other stakeholders, would wish at this time is the emergence or return to another source of international instability. The Af-Pak region gives shivers to international analysts and observers because of the sheer unpredictability, viciousness and the magnitude of state of disorder that the region is known for. There have been observations and predictions that the cycle of global terror, which in all earnest commenced from this region, had come to an end and it could be some time before it could again pose a major threat to international peace. Considering the recent flow of events in the region none of these assumptions seem to stand on reason any longer. The region could well be headed for a catastrophic turn of events and needs a serious review to identify the factors which cause this and what could be done to meet the challenges.

What is clear is that the unplanned, poorly negotiated and badly executed US withdrawal from Afghanistan was responsible for this very early turnaround of the situation. The Taliban had given some assurances of not allowing Afghan soil to be used for terror attacks anywhere in the world. White House spokesperson Ned Price recently remarked that the Taliban has been “unable or unwilling”

to fulfil its commitment and called on the group to “uphold the very commitment they have made to see to it that Afghan soil is never again used as a launch pad for international terrorist attacks”.

Emerging Situations

Two parallel situations linked with each other are emerging in the region. The first concerns the Afghan Taliban and its growing propensity to ignore the international community and also keep itself outside the ambit of the control of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). That situation concerns Afghanistan. A second situation on the East of the Durand Line has witnessed rapid deterioration not only in the security environment of Pakistan but virtually in its very existence. Not just the internal security environment of Pakistan but also its relationship with Afghanistan has unexpectedly taken a downturn. Both situations and the linkages need analysis.

How the Situation in Afghanistan Developed after 31 Aug 2021

It’s important to get a feel of what the real situation was in the period prior to the US withdrawal, and what it is now when the Taliban rules. As is well known the writ of the US and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) did not run beyond the important urban centers in Afghanistan, at least in the last five years or so before final withdrawal. This had led to the existence of wide-open uncontrolled spaces in the rural countryside and some smaller urban centers from where the rebel Taliban Forces drew their sustenance. Some spaces were left undominated. The latter became the area to which various global and terror groups gravitated, treating these as sanctuaries; North Afghanistan became the hub of such global terror networks. Post US withdrawal, even before the Taliban forces could rally to locations, the global jihadis led by the Islamic State had embedded themselves there. The terror groups had an ambition of spreading their wings into Central Asia where they perceive exist weak governments, gullible populations and ample opportunities for extortion and holding entire governments hostage. This included some Pakistani anti-India radical groups such as LeT (known these days as Jamat ul Dawa) and JeM. Their intent is to gain a greater international reputation of notoriety. Most of the Pakistani groups had lost their significance due to the turn of events in Kashmir after 5 Aug 2019 (when Article 370 was amended by India’s Parliament and the Separatists and terrorists both lost their erstwhile significance) and were seeking alternative missions and relevance for their existence. These groups also knew that the Af-Pak region is just too dynamic to settle down so easily and that opportunities would eventually come their way. While the Taliban fought against some of these groups it did so without a serious commitment and more for purposes of demonstration; we need to recall that the Taliban’s funds are still locked up in the US and it was necessary to project commitment, right at the beginning. That commitment has disappeared faster than one could envisage. It seems the Taliban has resigned itself to existing in isolation and depend on the largesse of some nations to bail out the populace with basic needs. While not a single nation has recognized the current government in Kabul, the pre-US withdrawal leadership of the Taliban received almost 1.6 billion US$ annually through various means. Post 31 Aug 2021 the figures have gone up with the revival of opium cultivation, and its global sales, mining, extortion and illegal taxation. Covert donations are also being received from sources who play a dual game at the international level, keeping identity under wraps. Recent Taliban decisions to ignore the international community and proceed with its decisions affecting Afghanistan’s internal social environment appears to indicate its ambition to go alone and rally radical forces to its cause. While US and other international players are tied up in the serious conflict situation in Ukraine the Taliban probably perceives it a golden opportunity to develop its networks, take likeminded elements under its wings and commence its riposte against the forces it considers anti-Islamic. That it considers itself as the ultimate messiah of Islam is not in doubt. There seems no inclination to follow any of the commitments that it gave while negotiating the US withdrawal. Perhaps this was the reason for the US to off late return its attention to Af-Pak and do a turnaround in its approach to Pakistan six months ago; a positive stance towards Pakistan has been progressively developing over this period. The 400 million US$ F-16 refurbishment package given by the US to Pakistan was virtually an appeasement package to retain influence over the critical strategic space of Af-Pak, keeping the Pakistani leadership on its side.

The Afghan Taliban-Pakistan relationship remained intact over 20 years. Yet within a year of US withdrawal things seemed to crash and go southwards; the DG ISI’s visit notwithstanding. The Afghan Taliban, a protégé of the ISI itself does not wish to be controlled. It has its own aspirations and considers the Pakistan establishment insufficiently radical to provide the required leadership for the Islamic cause the Afghan Taliban promotes. Things had to come to a head with the Afghan Taliban accosted with a choice of ignoring or supporting the revival of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The Pakistan originated TTP is one of the most radical and extremist outfits which the Pakistan Army claimed to have vanquished as part of Operation Zarb-e-Azb (2014-18). The TTP is now seeking revenge and revival and in no small measure it is getting the support of the Afghan Taliban.

Besides the revival of the TTP that the Afghan Taliban seems to be supporting, there is also the touchy issue of the Durand Line and the fencing that Pakistan has carried out. To the Afghans of every hue the Durand Line has no finality.

Situation in Pakistan

The situation in Pakistan must not be seen in isolation from the one in Afghanistan. A blow back is being witnessed in the internal security environment but this time the impact could be larger than what has happened ever since 2007. Pakistan is straining under the burden of an incompetent political leadership, a corrupt and inept bureaucracy, a failed economy which needs a complete overhaul and not just infusion of short-term capital, a rising tide of internal dissonance driven by rapidly embedding radical ideology. This entire state of affairs is given even greater negativity by the presence of a self-serving Pakistan Army which knows neither administration nor strategic national security. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg; the TTP is making a comeback with an intent of rolling back all the Army’s gains from Operation Zarb-e-Azb. Pakistan’s larger situation needs to be understood and how this could pose a serious threat to India’s security concerns. The questions which need to be asked at this stage are as follows: –

  • What are the factors which are giving the commonly understood perception that Pakistan is heading to be a failed state which will shortly be under implosion? What makes this situation particularly grave for international security?
  • Is there a chance of Pakistan imploding? If so, what will be the consequences of it and which nations and regions will be adversely affected?
  • What should India prefer – a festering Pakistan teeming with jihadi groups or a Pakistan broken in four or more parts?

These questions have several answers based upon the interests of organizations and personalities. We have seen Pakistan in the condition of a near failed state for a fairly long time. It has borrowed from the IMF 21 times since 1958 when its Army first came to power. The leadership has paid no notice to land reforms or looked towards genuine policies which will enhance its economic condition. The state of corruption is too well known to repeat and the Army rules by proxy propping up different politicians and political parties after short intervals. That is why no PM has completed the tenure that the Pakistan Constitution grants him. Pakistan’s favorite game led by its Army and supported by many politicians from time to time, is India bashing. The unpublished and unstated Zia Doctrine seeks retribution against India for the ignominy of 1971. It aims at keeping India engaged in a hybrid proxy conflict in perpetuity in the fond hope of exploiting India’s numerous fault lines – caste, religion, regions etc. The hybrid proxy conflict it initiated in J&K has drained not India but Pakistan itself leading to the following:-

  • The progressively increasing radicalization of society.
  • Internal threats by the constantly increasing footprint of radicals.
  • Over militarization of the country.
  • Economics and nation building receiving short shrift with religion taking center stage.
  • Minimal development activity and little focus on growth.
  • Climate change is now threatening to create more refugees than the war in Afghanistan did.

Pakistan’s economy is in such doldrums that by mid Jan 2023 it had just 4.3 billion US$ in foreign exchange reserves, just enough to pay for three weeks of imports. It’s happened in the past too but the situation was never so dire that food riots have broken out in some parts. If foreign aid does come in the near future, it will be conditional and Pakistan will have to stare down an abyss for fairly long before it can get any growth back on the road.  Its known friends – China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the US have made no commitments. A 4 billion US$ package has been promised by the UAE but much more will be needed to overcome the current crisis and kickstart the economy.

Hand of Friendship towards India

Pakistan’s esteem problems in the context of India do not permit it to extend a hand of reconciliation without qualifying conditions. Thus, Sharif, in an interview with a Dubai-based Arabic news channel, stressed that Pakistan has learnt its lessons and wants to live in peace with India. “My message to the Indian leadership and Prime Minister Modi is that let’s sit down on the table and have serious and sincere talks to resolve our burning points like Kashmir,” Sharif said. The Indian response is based upon its now seven-year-old policy of ‘terror and talks cannot go on together’. If Sharif sincerely wishes to bring India to the table for talks, he has to display sincerity of purpose in his proposal for talks and not follow each such utterance with more advice to the Indian Government to stop ‘excesses’ in J&K or restore Article 370. Unfortunately, no Pakistani politician or political party can hope to survive on a plank of peace with India. Enmity with India draws power in Pakistan and it’s even competitive.

Apart from the economic chaos that could hit Pakistan any day there is the whole problem of the TTP and the Afghan Taliban. In all probability the TTP will be used by the Afghan Taliban to keep Pakistan under pressure and hope to revive and also promote Islamic radical ideology. This could see the beginning of the coming of the second cycle of global terror plunging the Af-Pak region in chaos. This is the situation of the proverbial implosion. Although Pakistan could well wriggle out of this one too, yet the level of seriousness about implosion has never been higher.

10 million refugees from East Pakistan into India were sufficient to trigger the Indo-Pak War of 1971. 4-5 million refugees from Syria’s civil war created hell across Europe. In the case of Pakistan (population – 220 million), we are likely to witness an unimaginable number of displaced people heading to borders across which some humanitarian assistance will be available. The outcome of this is not easily imaginable.

Then there are the nuclear assets. They could well act as objects of exploitation; of keeping the world on tenterhooks, contingent upon who eventually controls these. The US should already be worrying and discussing contingencies and we should be sufficiently concerned.

India should prepare itself and do some comprehensive wargaming to determine contingencies and potential responses. One of these contingencies which keep cropping up in most such discussions is whether we would be better off with an imploded Pakistan which has split into four independent nations or with a united one. I have always held that this is an unlikely contingency unless the Pakistan Army itself splits up; the unimaginable could well happen in certain circumstances. These circumstances and the outcome would be unfortunate because a united but weak Pakistan may pose less of a threat than a frittered and battered Pakistan with existential threats looming over it.

Can India offer any concessions to Pakistan? This is very unlikely. A full admission of past mistakes as done by PM Shahbaz Sharif would be useful but is unlikely in view of the impending elections in Jammu region. Anyway, making peace proposals in one breath and laying age old conditions in the next is unlikely to make any impact on India where the leadership is adamant to see Pakistan weaken if not dismember.

So, what is the likely progression from this juncture? Going by history Pakistan may recover tactically through some artificial propping up. Sooner than later the entire cycle will repeat itself. In other words, instability in Af-Pak will continue bringing with it the same threats if not some more. Before anything else India needs to be prepared for a fresh round of irregular and below threshold threats from the Af-Pak region. We need to seriously commence wargaming our responses to a fresh round of proxy war; these will have to be much more comprehensive than just ground or air strikes against military targets.