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Commentary

The Taliban really do worry Islamabad

Contrary to the perceptions, Pakistan is not pushing for the return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Instead, the prospect of the Taliban taking over the war-torn country after the pullout of foreign forces is the biggest nightmare for the Pakistani security establishment.

A major worry is that Taliban control next door would give a huge impetus to Pakistan’s own militants seeking to establish retrogressive rule in the northwestern border regions. This would also make fighting local Taliban more difficult for the Pakistani Army.

Thousands of Pakistani troops are battling militants for control of lawless border regions in northwestern Pakistan. Despite some successes, government forces have yet to establish their writ over the territory that also provides sanctuaries to Afghan insurgents. “If they [NATO forces] are leaving and giving a notion of success to the Taliban of Afghanistan, this notion of success may have a snowballing effect on the threat matrix of Afghanistan,” General Khalid Rabbani, Pakistani commander of front-line cops fighting the militants, told Reuters in a recent interview.

The concern stems from the fact that it is ethnic Pashtuns on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border who have taken the lead in the insurgency – around 27 million Pashtuns live in Pakistan and 14 million in Afghanistan. A distinctive Taliban movement known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, has evolved into a formidable insurgent force, seriously threatening Pakistan’s national security.

Both the Afghan and the Pakistani Taliban are predominantly Pashtun movements and have close ideological and organizational ties. Despite differences over tactics, the two share an objective of enforcing a harsh version of Islam. Moreover, both owe allegiance to Mullah Omar, founder and supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban.

In recent years, the insurgency in Pakistan has grown both in numbers and sophistication as several other Pakistani militant groups forming an interconnected, coordinated web join the Pashtun insurgents in the tribal areas. More alarming is the nexus these groups have formed with Al-Qaeda, which despite some setbacks remains deeply entrenched in Pakistani tribal areas.

Pakistan’s role is, perhaps, the most critical in determining the course of the Afghan endgame sought by NATO. While Pakistan’s cooperation is key to winding down the war, geographical proximity and cross-border ethnic linkages also enable it to play a spoiler’s role.

Mired in mutual mistrust, there are substantial differences of opinion between Pakistan and the United States about the appropriate strategy in Afghanistan and how to address the wider insurgency.

Pakistan is reluctant to support any solution that doesn’t protect its interests in Afghanistan or fails to provide a non-aligned setup in Kabul with a dominant role for Pashtuns. This has put it at odds with Western allies and the Afghan government. The U.S. wants the present setup to continue until a power-sharing agreement is reached with the Taliban and other insurgent groups.

Pashtuns constitute 42 percent of the Afghan population. From Pakistan’s viewpoint, absence of adequate Pashtun representation in a future Afghan setup would be detrimental to the interests of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. With little movement in the talks between the U.S. and the Taliban, Islamabad’s worries have increased.

Islamabad maintains that ending the war won’t be possible without a power-sharing agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. A political settlement in Afghanistan could also help Pakistan to deal more effectively with its own Taliban.

But Pakistani ambivalence about cracking down on Afghan insurgents operating from sanctuaries inside its territory – an unwillingness to burn old bridges – raises questions about Pakistan’s cooperation in ending the Afghan war and allowing an orderly NATO withdrawal.

Since the start of the war, remote tribal areas along Pakistan’s border have become home for a lethal brew of Al-Qaeda operatives, both Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, and other jihadist groups fighting on both sides of the border. Meanwhile, North Waziristan, the biggest of the seven tribal territories, has turned into a base for the Haqqani network, the most powerful Afghan Taliban faction fighting coalition forces. Led by legendary former Afghan mujahedeen commander Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin, the network has been blamed for spectacular attacks on Kabul in the last year.

The group’s close links with Al-Qaeda have made the network the most dangerous outfit operating in eastern Afghanistan. The U.S. has pressured Pakistan to act against the network as violence escalated in recent years.

Pakistan’s refusal to act against the Haqqani network reflects Islamabad’s worries about the events that could transpire after the eventual pullout of foreign forces from Afghanistan. The Pakistani military establishment is convinced that a renewed civil war will break out if the withdrawal takes place without a political settlement in place. There’s also fear of arch-rival India expanding its influence in post-withdrawal Afghanistan through a government dominated by members of the former Northern Alliance.

A decade-long war in Afghanistan has turned the country into a new battleground for Al-Qaeda-linked militants, with devastating effects on Pakistan’s economy and politics, threatening complete destabilization. Thousands of Pakistanis have been killed in terrorist attacks and fighting against the insurgents in the northwestern territories in recent years. Widespread violence has disrupted investment, pushing the economy toward the verge of bankruptcy.

Another concern is that the pullout of NATO without a negotiated political mechanism in place could plunge tribal groups and factions of Afghanistan into a fierce contest over territory while drawing surrounding countries, like Iran and Tajikistan, into the conflict.

Under such a scenario, the Pashtun-dominated Haqqani network remains a useful hedge for Pakistan against the uncertain outcome in Afghanistan and Indian influence. This policy of using such a proxy in the civil war could be disastrous for Pakistan’s own stability. Civil war in Afghanistan could suck Pakistan deeper into the mire with disastrous consequences for the entire region.

Zahid Hussain, an award-winning journalist and writer, is the author of “Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle With Militant Islam” (2007) and “The Scorpion’s Tail: The Relentless Rise of Islamic Militants in Pakistan" (2010). This commentary is reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online (www.yaleglobal.yale.edu). Copyright © 2012, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 07, 2012, on page 7.

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