The complexity of the situation in Afghanistan is intensifying by the day and Pakistan is battling the odds to secure itself from the toxic fallout of the escalating chaos across the western border.
Pakistan is hosting a delegation of important leaders from Afghanistan this weekend in Islamabad in line with its efforts to facilitate an arrangement that avoids a civil war between the Taliban and the Kabul government led by President Ashraf Ghani. With the Taliban advance gaining momentum, there are credible reports that many of those coming to Islamabad over the weekend are already in quiet backchannel talks with Taliban leaders and have expressed a willingness to become a part of the Taliban set-up if and when they form the government.
But this may take a while. The Taliban hardcore fighters number just over 100,000. They have no shortage of people willing to be recruited due to the widespread support they are garnering in their southern strongholds. The Taliban retain a stockpile of their old weapons which has been replenished with new modern weapons that have been captured from the surrendering Afghan National Army troops, or bought from some regional countries. However, given the sensitivity of the situation, Pakistan is not providing them any tangible support in order to play the role of a facilitator between all sides.
The Afghan National Army in contrast is much better armed. The forces number more than 200,000. In addition, there are nearly 50,000 better-trained special forces. They also have fighter aircraft and attack helicopters that can be used with deadly impact against the Taliban.
Many experts who are watching the situation closely believe that the Kabul government could hold on for quite a while against the Taliban. Even though the Taliban have successfully captured seven international border crossings — and reaping the revenues — they are nowhere near taking over key urban centres. According to estimates, Taliban currently control 45 per cent of the territory, Ghani government 31pc while 24pc is contested.
Pakistan is bracing for the worst, including a spillover of violence. Terror outfits like the TTP, Al Qaeda and Islamic State in Khurasan Province (ISKP) are concentrated in areas opposite the border with Pakistan and estimates put their numbers at 12,000. Even though Pakistan has completed 2,042km of the planned 2,273km of border fencing, these terror groups can wreak violence through various means, including slipping their people into Pakistan with the refugees fleeing the conflict.
The recent increase in terror attacks on security personnel and foreigners has already raised concern in government circles. Wednesday’s attack in Dasu on Chinese workers was initially described by Pakistani officials as an accident but on Thursday Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said terrorism could not be ruled out. However, Red Zone insiders have been able to piece together details of the attack which explains the initial confusion that was reflected through contradictory statements. The convoy of four cars had left the gated compound for the site early on Wednesday morning. The lead car carried security personnel which was followed by two buses with Chinese on board.
As this convoy came onto the road that was open to traffic, another car manoeuvred itself between the convoy. This vehicle was laden with explosives. The driver then rammed the car into the first bus and there was an explosion. However, the detonator malfunctioned and the explosives did not go off with full force. The driver of the second bus, on seeing the bus in front of him hit, tried to swerve but lost control and the bus plunged into the ravine, killing most people on board.
The initial confusion about the cause took place because there were no bullet holes on the vehicles and no IED was found. The bus that fell into the ravine was not hit either. It was only much later that the details were pieced together and the conclusion was reached that this was a well-planned terror attack. According to insiders, the Chinese authorities have been kept fully briefed on the facts. The body of the attacker has also been found and DNA sent for identification.
As the violence in Afghanistan picks up, and the terror outfits remain active, Pakistan faces considerable challenges in managing the spillover. In essence then, Pakistan is following a two-pronged approach: first, facilitate peace efforts in Afghanistan to the best of its ability; two, prepare to check and manage the spillover of violence and instability into its own territory.
The refugee issue is one such major challenge. According to Islamabad’s estimates, refugees could number between 500,000 to 700,000 and the majority would flow into the Balochistan area. The Ministry of State and Frontier Regions has been put in the lead to manage the refugee situation. Pakistan has approached the UNHCR, WHO as well as Unicef in this regard and also communicated that the refugees should be camped on the Afghan side of the border or just across, and categorised as externally displaced persons instead of as refugees which entails a huge responsibility on the host country.
The bigger challenge for Pakistan however is to manage rising expectations — many of them unrealistic — from the United States and other important countries while jealously guarding its ‘red lines’. Red Zone insiders are emphatic that these red lines are non-negotiable. These include (a) no use of the Pakistani soil by either the US or the Taliban for any activity (b) no drone strikes inside Pakistani territory (c) no kinetic action by Pakistan against the Taliban.
The relationship with the United States is a key factor within this complicated situation. It has now been confirmed that the United States never formally asked Pakistan for bases, but the deep engagement between the two sides is reflective of the concerns that bind Washington and Islamabad in a tricky scenario. Senior US officials have told their Pakistani counterparts that they intend to retain counter-terrorism capacity in the region around Afghanistan. This translates into the use of air power and armed drones. Pakistan has said it cannot allow the US drones to operate from its territory but the old ground and air lines of communications (GLOCs & ALOCs) agreement remains in force. There is a caveat though. If the Americans want to use the ALOCs to fly their drones over Pakistani airspace (assuming they are based outside of Pakistani territory), the present ALOCs agreement will need to be re-negotiated.
The Americans have other options. Insiders say they are already talking to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan for basing their counter-terrorism operations there. They also have at least 22 bases in the region where their F-16s, F-15s and armed drones are parked in hangars ready for combat. They also have an aircraft carrier in the region.
What they don’t have — that’s what they say — is the leverage with the Taliban that Pakistan has. This could also be a recipe for scapegoating Pakistan if things go wrong. Pakistani policymakers are treading carefully. They know everyone expects them to bridge the gap between the Taliban and the Kabul regime. The Taliban initially insisted they would not compromise on establishing an Islamic emirate, but with lots of persuasion by Pakistan, they are reported to have agreed that they are fine with an Islamic system, and will not insist on an Islamic emirate. This is the first major sign of flexibility and shows that the Taliban acknowledge the requirements of engagement with the international community. However, a realistic assessment is that they will not absorb other ethnicities into their set-up before they come into power.
It is a fine balancing act for Pakistan: gently persuade the Taliban, try and co-opt other Afghan leaders into some understanding by playing an honest broker, deal with the international community on the issues of refugees, keep Russia, China and Iran on board on all initiatives, and last but certainly not the least, engage constructively with the US in order to maintain a good relationship despite the challenges that the withdrawal of American troops have thrown up in Afghanistan and the region.
Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2021