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Why is Pakistan concerned about Afghanistan? Bharat Shakti 30 Jun 2021
In an interview to Tolo News of Afghanistan last week, Pakistan Foreign Minister, SM Qureshi stated, ‘if you try and create this impression that violence is high (in Afghanistan) because of the Taliban…again, that would be an exaggeration. Why do I say that? Aren’t there other elements over there who are playing the role of a spoiler.’ He accused other groups including ISIS for the violence. In addition Qureshi blamed India for having a larger than required presence in the country and carrying out terrorist activities. Pak politician, Afrasiab Khattak, tweeted on Qureshi’s statement, questioning if Taliban truly needs another foreign minister as they already have Qureshi. Qureshi was possibly playing to his domestic audiences, ignoring the fact that the global view is vastly different. Hamdullah Mohib, the Afghan NSA stated, ‘Qureshi is either ignorant, uninformed or an accomplice.’ He blamed Pakistan for the violence in Afghanistan.
Within Pak there is a fear of civil war post US withdrawal from Afghanistan. In a discussion in the Pak senate on 25th May, Qureshi stated, ‘what we were fearing, and we still fear and are concerned that a vacuum created in Afghanistan can drag or suck the country back into the decade of 1990s. There could be anarchy and God forbid, a civil war.’ For Pak, the US withdrawing from Afghanistan, is not a sign of victory, but possibly trouble. US airpower had partially subdued the Taliban. Their withdrawal would open doors for enhanced confrontation between the Afghan armed forces and the Taliban.
The Pakistan army has been attacked by terrorist groups from across the Afghan border. There are also reports of regrouping of anti-Pak terrorists belonging to the Baluch freedom movement and Tehreek-e-Taliban, Pakistan (TTP). Credit for the attack on the hotel in Quetta, in Apr, targeting the Chinese ambassador, and killing five security personnel, was taken by the TTP. Pakistan fears that if civil war breaks out in Afghanistan, the CPEC could become a major target. It cannot let this happen.
The same day as Qureshi spoke in the senate, a Corps Commanders conference was held in Rawalpindi. Reports in Pak media stated that senior military commanders took ‘serious note of recent cross-border firing incidents emanating from Afghanistan and regrouping of terrorist leadership and outfits across the border.’ The collegium of corps commanders, as per a press release, requested Afghanistan to ensure its soil, ‘will not be used against Pakistan.’ In the same breadth they, ‘reaffirmed Pakistan’s support for regional peace and stability.’ The military hierarchy is aware that it is now essential for Pak to secure its western flank before it spirals out of control.
The Afghan government and the Taliban do not appear willing to move forward on talks. Differences between them are vast. Currently, heavy fighting continues in multiple provinces. The Pak foreign office in a statement of early Jun mentioned that Pakistan was worried about a security vacuum in Afghanistan after the US pull out as the already dim prospects of successful reconciliation between warring Afghan groups were growing dimmer with every passing day.
President Ashraf Ghani, in an article, titled ‘Afghanistan’s moment of risk and opportunity,’ stated the US decision (to withdraw) has surprised ‘the Taliban and their patrons in Pakistan and has forced them to make a choice. Will they become credible stakeholders, or will they foster more chaos and violence? If the Taliban choose the latter path, the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) will fight them. And if the Taliban still refuse to negotiate, they will be choosing the peace of the grave.’ He hinted at a civil war engulfing the country and that Afghan forces will not back down before the Taliban.
Challenging Pak, Hamid Karzai, the ex-President of Afghanistan, stated in an interview to German Website, Der Spiegel, that Pakistan must realise that it cannot win by force as dominating Afghanistan from the outside has never worked. Evidently, the Afghan government is confident of keeping the Taliban at bay. This, despite reports flowing of few Afghan army outposts and bases in some provinces being surrendered to the Taliban. A report in The Dawn states, ‘50 per cent of the area of Afghanistan is currently under the control of the government, 30 per cent under Taliban control and the remaining 20 per cent is hotly contested between the two.’ However, it is unlikely that the Taliban will find an easy road to Kabul.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghanistan, stated in an interview to German Website, Der Spiegel, ‘If this peace effort doesn’t succeed, and if there is no agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Pakistan will suffer. Pakistan will be blamed because so much of the Taliban’s leadership lives in Pakistan.’ The Pak NSA also commented on similar lines when he stated, ‘The US has assured us that Pakistan will not be made a scapegoat amidst the withdrawal from Afghanistan, but only time will tell whether (they stay true to their word) as history suggests otherwise.’ The US silence for the moment is on account of it desiring a peaceful withdrawal. Pressure would build on Pak once it completes its withdrawal.
Pakistan is equally concerned that China would add pressure as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), comprising of Uyghur militants, which targets China, would gain space and enhance its cadre, in case Afghanistan descends into turmoil. China also seeks to expand the CPEC into Afghanistan. Hence, stability in Afghanistan, despite any group ruling the country, is essential. Such is the level of Chinese concerns that its foreign minister is requesting the UN to play a larger role. There were also reports that China was volunteering to deploy peace keeping troops in Afghanistan in case the situation so demands.
To divert attention from itself, Pak seeks to push the blame on India for the ensuing violence. India has always backed calls for a ceasefire and talks involving all stakeholders. It has never backed a Taliban ruled state, though it has opened channels of communication with the Taliban. The Indian foreign secretary, Harsh Shringla stated over the weekend, ‘We have always called for a ceasefire, we have always advocated that there should be talks between the government and the Taliban and others that are involved in this process, involving all the neighbouring countries.’ He added, ‘I think the levels of violence and the fact that despite talks going on in Qatar and other places, their (Taliban) relentless pursuit of power through violence has made it an uncertain environment in any sense.’
Currently, India should do nothing, except observe the situation as it unfolds. It supports the Ghani government as also trains the Afghan army and police forces. There is no doubt that Indian assets, goodwill and close bonding with the Afghan educated elite has provided it with sufficient leverage, even if there is a regime change. Its relations with multiple warlords and militias are at a satisfactory level, which any future head of state would be compelled to consider. Its re-opening doors to the Taliban reaffirms its role in the region. This has irked Pakistan no end and as ex-President Hamid Karzai stated, ‘Pakistan actually would like Afghanistan to break off relations with India.’
India is aware that as the US withdraws, with both sides maintaining strong unrelenting positions, a civil war is inevitable. If the Afghan army, with a nascent air force, can hold the Taliban for a reasonable amount of time, the world will push Pak to act, stop support to the Taliban, whose leadership it houses, and ensure peace in the country. This could add to Pak’s woes as the Taliban would not succumb to its pressures.
Further, as long as violence rages, there would be mass influx of refugees into a cash strapped Pakistan, as also increased violence in its western provinces. The CPEC will become a target. Pakistan’s clergy will begin protesting to pressurize the government to support the Taliban. In such a scenario, Pakistan would prefer a peaceful Eastern border with India. Hence, Kashmir will not be high on Pakistan’s agenda, except being occasionally raised for satisfaction of domestic audiences or in international forums, where it has little value. The snakes which Pak reared in its own backyard to ensure its strategic depth in Afghanistan are now its cause of worry and tensions. The US decision to withdraw has hurt Pakistan the most.