December 4, 2022

Taliban: A strategic challenge for Pakistan?

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Common perception has been Taliban returning to power in Afghanistan would create a win-win situation for Pakistan. Even certain section in India believes so. But strategic issues and ever-changing global interests are not simple arithmetic. Projection regarding Pakistan is a fallacy and drawing conclusion keeping aside logical purviews in the given time

By Shibdas Bhattacharjee

As per apprehensions, upsurge of Taliban in Afghanistan has changed regional dynamics. The situation that evolved since US army began withdrawing from Bagram airbase was just the formal beginning of the drama, script of which was written much before during the time of President Trump. Apprehension had been larger because all are aware of the previous Taliban regime. In fact during the last few decades, Taliban became synonymous with terror, violence and killing of innocent people and running State affairs with worst fanaticism. Obviously, the development and follow-ups indicated re-emergence of the menace with larger gravity for the international community. For the Americans, this was much more as the memory of 9/11 terror strike is vivid the plot of which was made and executed under the then Taliban regime by none but Osama bin Laden as per reports of the CIA and Pentagon. The proceeding started with increasing offensives of Taliban in Afghanistan and bordering nations. As Taliban progressed from northern Afghanistan to Kabul, restlessness grew among the foreigners living in Afghanistan. The US and European nationals were rather more concerned. Who can forget the way people made desperate attempts to leave Afghanistan at that time? Crowded Kabul & Kandahar airports and concerned people jostling to get air ticket to leave Afghanistan indicated another human catastrophe. All these ultimately proved yet again that no foreign power can ever rule Afghanistan. History got repeated.

Taliban regaining control of entire Afghanistan has great strategic ramifications. Naturally, all began to perceive it from different parameters. But despite this one perception seemed rather stereotypical to me; this is regarding Pakistan.

Common perception has been Taliban returning to power in Afghanistan would create a win-win situation for Pakistan. Even certain section in India believes so. But strategic issues and ever-changing global interests are not simple arithmetic. Projection regarding Pakistan is a fallacy; drawing conclusion keeping aside logical purviews in the given time. But how can Pakistan be in trouble because of Taliban? After all, Taliban is the brainchild of Pakistan. In fact, Taliban and fanaticism were first experimented in the laboratory of Pakistan under the direct patronisation of former military junta of Pakistan’s Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and then transferred to Afghanistan. Concept of Jihad (holy war in Islam) got institutionalised as fighting against USSR was propagated as Jihad by Pakistan. Financial assistance of the United States, arsenal and military training of Pentagon, plot of the CIA for the Afghan Jihadis reached Kabul through Islamabad. During and after US military action, Pakistan provided asylums to Afghan Taliban for nearly two decades. All these prove one point: congenial relationship between Pakistan and Taliban. Then how can Taliban returning to power in Afghanistan be challenging one for strategic and security interests of Pakistan? This is logical argument. But how? Let me decode please.

With due respect to the existing perception regarding the equation between Taliban and Pakistan, I must say that Pakistan is under tremendous pressure these days and the reason is obviously Taliban. Reason is simple; strategic affair is never stagnant. If vested interests of nations, groups or others formulate strategic agenda, this has obviously brought about noticeable changes in case of Taliban as well. Time has changed since the days of Mullah Omar. Today’s Taliban has learnt the art of diplomacy which became evident as the leadership of new age Taliban made extensive efforts to get larger global consensus regarding new Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Latest one was of course European Union inviting Taliban delegation. Talks between Taliban and NATO and erstwhile European Union regarding various issues including reconstruction of war-ravaged Afghanistan figured prominently. This was beyond imagination just a few months ago.        

With due respect to the existing perception regarding the equation between Taliban and Pakistan, I must say that Pakistan is under tremendous pressure these days and the reason is obviously Taliban. Reason is simple; strategic affair is never stagnant. If vested interests of nations, groups or others formulate strategic agenda, this has obviously brought about noticeable changes in case of Taliban as well         

Now see the diplomatic maturity of Taliban and homework it had done to deal with the situation after US withdrawal from Afghanistan. As far as Islamic terrorism is concerned, Taliban tried to convince global community that it will not allow Islamic terror outfits using Afghan soil. This again proves that Taliban has rightly measured the pulls of the existing international politics. Gaining substantive through give and take is new age Taliban ploy. Importantly, Taliban’s guarantee does not include issue of enacting Sharia fanatic law in Afghanistan. This is subtle diplomacy of the Taliban. Its position against terror ultimately compels international community ratifying Sharia law in Afghanistan. Thus Taliban has enlivened mounting international pressure on the one hand, and on the other sent message to its cadres and workers that existing leadership of Taliban will never compromise with the laws of Islam. Point is: international community can put pressure regarding terror outfits operating from Afghanistan. But can they put pressure to restrict imposition of Sharia law in Afghanistan? Never.

But what about Pakistan? Yes, this is the centre point of discussion. The situation prevailing in Pakistan particularly in the Durand Line shows the gravity of Taliban offensives against Pakistan. Strategic interests of Pakistan have got jeopardised across the entire western Pakistan bordering Afghanistan. Similarly, in mainland Pakistan things seem going beyond control of Pakistan’s civil and military administrations. Anti-Pakistan terror outfits demanding sovereignty have become more active since Taliban had come to power in Afghanistan.  Let me be precise:

Taliban’s and Ethnic Enigma of Pakistan

In case of both Afghanistan and Pakistan ethnic identity affiliations bear great significance. In Afghanistan, Pasthun community is the dominating ethnic group. Substantial section of Pasthuns also lives in Pakistan. Here the ethnic identity of Taliban is an important point. Taliban is an organization represented by Pasthun ethnic group. Age-old relationship between Afghan and Pakistani Pasthuns has always been a matter of serious security concern for Pakistan. Pakistani administrative machinery has always suppressed the Pasthun community which has proved to be boomerang for Pakistan now as Afghanistan in the form of Taliban’s rule came under the control of Pasthun community. This provided fuel to the existing resentment in the Pasthun ethnic community of Pakistan. Afghan Taliban’s support to the causes and concerns of Pakistani Pasthun community against present administration and security establishment of Pakistan increased volatility in Pakistan which also encouraged other ethnic groups of Pakistan; be in Gilgit Baltistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; other parts of POK, Baluchistan or Sindh.   

Taliban and Pak-Afghan border row:

Durand line that demarcates western Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan has been a disputed border since Pakistan came into existence in 1947. Afghanistan does not admit this as the actual boundary contrary to Pakistan’s stand on Durand Line. Successive, Afghan regimes took stand regarding this and continued rejecting Durand Line as the boundary between the two countries. This was the reason Afghanistan voted against Pakistan in the United Nations General Assembly in 1947. But as Islam remained the prime issue behind the formation of Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s; boundary dispute remained in the back burner for a certain period. So also, Taliban’s dependence on Pakistan did not allow the Mullah Omar regime raising the Durand Line issue with that much prominence. But existing situation is different.  Today’s Taliban knows that its stand regarding Durand Line should be as per traditional Afghan policy to be relevant in the perception of Afghan masses. This is the reason; Afghan Taliban has virtually taken the hold of entire Durand Line and showed offensives against Pakistan. Situation is becoming bad to worse for Pakistan across the entire Durand Line that has proved to be strategic nightmare for Pakistan. Pakistan has already lost a large strategic ground as Islamabad has no control on Durand Line these days. Re-demarcation of Pak-Afghan border in west Pakistan looms large in the given time; if not today, tomorrow.     

The situation prevailing in Pakistan particularly in the Durand Line shows the gravity of Taliban offensives against Pakistan. Strategic interests of Pakistan have got jeopardised across the entire western Pakistan bordering Afghanistan. Similarly, in mainland Pakistan things seem going beyond control of Pakistan’s civil and military administrations. Anti-Pakistan terror outfits demanding sovereignty have become more active since Taliban had come to power in Afghanistan

Taliban and anti-Pakistan Sectarian upsurge:

Time has proved that identity of Islam has failed to provide solidarity in Pakistan. Reason is Pakistan nurtures only fanaticism and does not follow great values of Islam. This rather exposes the difference between agenda of Pakistan and rest of the Islamic world. This is the reason no Islamic nation is with Pakistan today. One may argue regarding aid of Saudi Arabia to Pakistan. But here the question is taking position in favour of Pakistan in the strategic gambit. Following the path of Zia-Ul-Haq and the blasphemy law, Pakistan got divided as per sects of Islam; Shia, Sunni, Deobandi, Barely and lots other. As a Sunni dominated nation, Pakistan has always denied the rights of other sects of Islam. Series of Kafir Fatwa (declaring someone as non-Muslim) divided Pakistan further in several parts. But its strategic implication is larger. On the one hand, this radicalized Sunni population of Pakistan and on the other hand created terror network among other sects of Islam.  Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba the largest Sunni Students’ organization exists in Pakistan since 1947 with the objective to eliminate non-Islamic factors from Pakistan and its aggressive standpoint against Shia is loud and clear. So also, the sectarian agenda of the outfits like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen-Al-Alam and others. Another    prominent Shia terror group is Shia Toolbar Action Committee of Gilgit Baltistan. Here, 70% people belong to Shia sect of Islam. Their effort of self defence ultimately converted into anti-Sunni and anti-Pakistan network.  Activities of sectarian rebels have got enhanced after Taliban had regained power in Afghanistan. In this context, actual state of Gilgit Baltistan region bears special importance that is under illegal occupation of Pakistan. People of this region are suppressed in Sunni-dominated Pakistan. Shia revolt against Pakistan has been a contentious issue. This is true that Taliban also belong Sunni sect of Islam. But Taliban upsurge created virtual anarchy in Pakistan for which Pak-army has remained busy in different frontiers. This naturally provided opportunity to the Shia terror groups escalating violence. So also, Shia-dominated Iran evolved strongly in Afghan affairs that subdued the interests Sunni Pakistan substantially. The new chemistry between Iran and Taliban provided fresh oxygen to Shia Muslims of Pakistan. Fact is: Taliban has not seemed that much pro-active against Shia this time. This instigated Shia rebel groups enhancing operation against Pakistan. This may encourage other suppressed Islamic sect taking stand against Pakistan. Resentment among Ahamadia community cannot be overruled who despite suppression constitutes nearly 2% of Pakistan’s population.    

Taliban and anti-Pakistan terror network

When Pakistan decided to support United States in the war against terror in Afghanistan in 2001, almost entire terror network of Pakistan took stand against Pakistan. Following years witnessed larger terror upsurge and subversive activities within Pakistan. Fanatic Sunni terror outfits naturally become rejuvenated after Taliban capturing Pakistan. Apart from Tehrik-i-Taliban-Pakistan that have displayed much escalations, other terror outfits and fanatic Islamic organizations are mounting pressure on Imran Khan government to impose Sharia law in Pakistan like the one in Afghanistan. Imran Khan had to compromise for the survival of his government and Islamabad’s compulsion to compromise with fanatic political outfit Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan proves a lot. The way Imran government released leader of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Saad Hussain Rizvi on 12th November, 2021 and lifted ban from Rizvi who was detained under Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997 as per deal between Pakistani government and Tehreek-e-Labbaik exposes the level of concern for Pakistan.

Taliban and Pakistan’s Integrity

After Taliban had got control in Afghanistan, different parts of Pakistan enhanced subversive activities for sovereignty. Things have turned dangerously in the Baluchistan province of Pakistan. However, demand of sovereign Baluchistan is nothing new. But here the important point is intensity of the rebel movement in Baluchistan. In present Baluchistan, there are several anti-Pakistan terror groups; Baluchistan Liberation Front, United Baloch Army, Baloch Republican Guard and others. They have increased escalations against Pakistan. Recent one was attacks on security forces’ camps in Panjgur and Naushki of Baluchistan province on February 3 last. So also, on January 28, Baluchistan rebels attacked on a Pakistani army post near a southwestern port. Not only Baluchistan, Sindh is on the boil in Pakistan because of separatist movements of the rebel groups like Sindhudesh Liberation Army (SLA)and others. The organizations like Hizb-ul-Tahir; fanatic Sunni Islamic rebel group has been reported having support of Pakistan army, politicians, bureaucrats, judges and others for the cause of enactment of Sharia law in Pakistan. All these indicate level volatility against Pakistan as all are trying to fish in this troubled water in the name of Islam challenging integrity of Pakistan.

Taliban and status of Pakistan army 

Pakistan has been a country dominated by its army in the State affairs since 1947. But the way Taliban displayed offensives against Pakistan army has demoralized the entire security establishment of Pakistan. Upsurge in terror activities against military bases of Pakistan shows the intensity of challenge before Pakistan army. Similarly, the section that is demanding enactment of Sharia law is also challenging Pakistan army. But more importantly as results of all these, status of Pakistan army has declined in public perception. People of Pakistan no longer regard army as the stakeholder of Pakistan. Naturally, things have gone beyond control of General Bajwa and company in almost entire Pakistan.

Pakistan seems on the verge of collapse in the given time. A state of civil war is going on in Pakistan. Fact is: subtle diplomacy of Taliban has compelled Pakistan to subdue. This was beyond expectation of Pakistan. But this is diplomacy and here chemistry is built to be broken further

Taliban and Pakistan’s Foreign Relation

Since Taliban got control of Afghanistan, Pakistan is facing much trouble in maintaining its foreign relations. Present Pakistan seems bewildered whether to enhance ties with the United States or China. This is true that Imran Khan recently visited China and made some agreements. But these are not going to be easy to implement. Pakistan’s relation with the West is perceived as anti-Islam by the fanatic groups. Similarly, people of Baluchistan and Sindh in particular are not ready to accept Chinese intervention. After all, the militant attack security forces’ camps in Panjgur and Naushki had happened hours before Imran left for China. Message is loud and clear; this is really challenging to take forward Pak-China relations. Similarly, Pakistan cannot take forward its relations with the Islamic world sitting on the lap of China because excluding Iran; USA dominates rest of the Islamic world today.  

All these prove that Taliban coming to power have proved to be strategic disaster for Pakistan. In fact, Pakistan seems on the verge of collapse in the given time. A state of civil war is going on in Pakistan. Fact is: subtle diplomacy of Taliban has compelled Pakistan to subdue. This was beyond expectation of Pakistan. But this is diplomacy and here chemistry is built to be broken further. I have tried to explain what I perceive. Someone may have different opinion and respect that. But I must not accept logic on the ground as someone is saying so. Readers my priority is not “who” but “what”. Rest may be debated.    

Shibdas Bhattacharjee is an Assam-based strategic affairs analyst. He writes his article under a specific category of “Sagacious Beholding.” The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of https://www.strategicaffairsindia.in 

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