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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Pakistan’s Continuing Challenge: The Afghan Gordian knot – Lt. Gen. Tariq Khan

Gen. Tariq Khan who led Frontier Corps to victory against the Pakistani Taliban argues that with the US defeat and exit Afghan Taliban are now unstoppable, and may take control over Kabul soon. He predicts that Chinese BRI will fill the vacuum created by the US exit. However, US and India may end up fighting Chinese influence by supporting terrorism and ethnic instability across Pakistan to disrupt CPEC & BRI.

Afghanistan is unfolding exactly as had already been generally analyzed and predicted; the Americans would leave just as the Soviets did, civil war would commence with the Taliban eventually getting the upper hand and the sitting Afghan government likely to be ousted, sooner or later.

There would be no compromise by the Taliban in accepting the newly structured constitution, and they would enforce an Islamic System and Islamic Law and they would insist on calling the State by the name that they had earlier given, i.e: “The Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan”.

US Withdrawal was inevitable: Why expressions of surprise? 

Yet we see amazement amongst our surprised Pakistani intellectuals as if they are suddenly confronted with something wholly new and unexpected. If this really is true, that these stalwarts were taken by surprise, then we are actually surrounded by the most ill-informed gentry who remain clueless and confused about the whole Afghan Spectacle.

Headlines in papers now scream that if the US withdraws, Afghanistan faces civil war – a blatant statement of the very obvious and that too after the fact.

This was bound to happen and when Pakistan eagerly put its best foot forward and facilitated the US-Taliban dialogue the possible implication should have been clearly understood then by everyone.

Read more: Peace in Afghanistan in interest of Pakistan, Iran: PM Imran Khan

First, that if there was no agreement, a status quo would remain in Afghanistan and that the Americans would have to choose between continuing to stay till stability was achieved or to leave despite the violence it would be subjected to.

In the second case, if an agreement was arrived at, the implications were very obvious: Given the clearly stated Taliban position on their aversion to the new Constitution, their own perception on a power-sharing formula, the name of the State, Islamic Law and system of governance, etc., there was very little to negotiate or discuss.

However, an agreement was reached despite the Taliban’s inflexible position on their principal points. Such an agreement was predictably limited to a ceasefire arrangement between the Taliban and the US (not the Taliban and the Afghan Government) and that the US would be allowed and facilitated to withdraw unhindered from Afghanistan.

Read more: “Pakistan will not be bullied” – Lt. Gen. Tariq Khan

Thus Pakistani intellectuals should have realized that any negotiated settlement between the US and Taliban exclusive of the Afghan Government would mean civil war in which the Taliban would never reconcile with a Government that they felt had facilitated foreign occupation and that strongly opposed everything the Taliban stood for by way of governance, constitutional codes and human rights – especially emancipation of women.

Taliban are now unstoppable

The Taliban now want to wrest total control and there is no one to stop them. There is also an element of vindication in an ethnic as well as ideological conflict that can only end when the last man standing is finally down from either one of the sides or Afghanistan, is divided to accommodate both warring parties. This is the nature of the civil war that is likely to unfold and there is nothing that can stop it, moderate it, or influence it.

The Taliban have seen off the combined forces of the International Coalition and the United States; they sense victory and correctly feel that the little that remains by way of resistance will be easily overcome. The collapse of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the US-framed security apparatus that was constructed almost overnight was bound to fail.

Having now fought for the better part of 20 years, for us to expect that the Taliban will put down their arms and look for a political solution in a conflict where victory and success seem to appear so close at hand, is not just unrealistic but indicates a lack of understanding of the ground situation.

This was a conflict waiting to happen in the wake of the US attempt at fiddling with the very essence of the Afghan National character and nature that was based on history, tradition, culture, and geography.

These elements the US ignored as they patched together an unrealistic “Afghan Unity Government” and gave them a Westernised Constitution to put into practice which was obviously neither acceptable to the Afghan people nor did it have any place in the Afghan ethos.

Read more: Pakistan, Iran agree to facilitate legal trade in border region

Pakistan’s warnings to Taliban against takeover are irrelevant 

Thus when Pakistan appears to show displeasure in a Taliban takeover of Kabul by force, it appears not only misplaced but totally irrelevant; after all, what exactly does Pakistan want: to support a hostile government that did its damnedest to harm Pakistan and work with the Indians towards this end?

Most here in Pakistan would say good riddance!! To have apprehensions of a total Taliban success is natural but given the choices, the worst Taliban scenario is still better than having the best representatives of the present Afghan sitting Government.

A fact that has been demonstrated time and again through deep-seated hatred for anything Pakistani, with the latest insult passed on by the Afghan National Security Advisor, Hamdullah Mohib, stating that Pakistan was a brothel, just because he can.

Anyhow, why would the Taliban do anything any differently on the eve of a historical military victory and why would Pakistan assume that having ousted the United States, Pakistan would have a say in the matter?

The other confusing thought doing the circles is that civil war would impact negatively on Pakistan? How would it – would the warring parties fight it out in Pakistan?

Dealing with its extremists is Pakistan’s responsibility

Yes, the fillip to extremists and fundamentalists in Pakistan would put pressure on conventional governance to follow suit and bring in an Islamic system of Government here as well.

That is not a product of an Afghan Civil War but Pakistan’s own ambiguous state of dealing softly with such elements. Mullah Aziz on the loose in Islamabad, killer of Governor Taseer, Mumtaz Qadri becoming a hero, succumbing to TLP, etc. are not Afghan Civil War issues but a consequence of tentative and weak law and order enforcement by Pakistani governments.

For Pakistan to weather the storm till Afghanistan stabilizes or settles down to reasonable levels depends on the measures and steps that should be taken which would be basically Pakistan’s own internal actions. These include Madrassa Reforms, sanitizing Islamabad of dubious elements, border management, and enforcing the law.

It must be understood that the Afghan War is coming to a close at a very critical time in the region and its actual impact lies in a different domain. CPEC is coming of age and regardless of hiccups and glitches, it is moving on.

US and India may attempt to disrupt CPEC 

CPEC’s implication is connectivity between 2/3rds of the world through the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) from Africa to Europe. China has already cobbled together a consortium of nations in a Trans-Pacific Partnership (RECP) with a total value of 29% of the global GDP.

In the meanwhile, the United States having been ousted from Afghanistan and is no longer relevant in the region and is trying hard to find a way to re-establish its presence. India is now United States’ New Strategic partner.

Both countries had a stake in Afghanistan, the United States could challenge Chinese regional dominance and India could prosecute war from Afghan soil against Pakistani Baluchistan.

Strategic objectives for both countries coincided by containing China by disrupting CPEC through destabilizing Pakistan. Thus with one global super-power upset and another regional aspirant disappointed in the outcome of the Afghan civil war, both are, likely to resort to other disruptive activities which would focus on CPEC’s weakest link i.e. Pakistan.

Pakistan has now been put into a highly vulnerable position and could be subjected to, amongst many other things, violence through militancy and terrorism, global isolation, structural breakdown, social polarization, political destabilization, and financial blackmailing into compliance. Pakistan thus needs to take preventive measures and take appropriate safeguards.

US expected Pakistani bases

Looking ahead, the US on the eve of its departure has requested for bases from countries within the region, so they can continue to operate against the Taliban if and when they, the Taliban, get out of hand.

Pakistan was a natural choice for such bases but apparently, to the United States’ surprise and disappointment, Pakistan, refused to consider extending any such facility.

Furthermore, The United States, offended by the Taliban military advances threatened to slow down their withdrawal but did not state the purpose of such a slowdown: implying, that they might contain the Taliban’s progress in the wake of an ANA rout.

The implied sense of any slowdown in the US withdrawal envisaged, does not seem to be based on reason or logic. After all, no one asked the US to withdraw in the first place it was their decision to do so having concluded that this was a never-ending war that was not winnable.

In their haste to withdraw they abandoned their allies: the sitting government of Afghanistan as well as let down their strategic partners, the Indians.

Read more: FATF: A bully with no legal authority?

In their eagerness to negotiate some sort of settlement with the Taliban that a safe passage be arranged for them to exit Afghanistan, even untrustworthy Pakistan was pressed into service to convince the Taliban to talk to the US.

Finally, having secured a ceasefire between themselves and the Taliban but pointedly not the Afghan Government and the Taliban, the United States decided to withdraw – leaving Afghanistan to its own devices.

To now believe that they may slow down the withdrawal when their remaining forces amount to only 2500 personnel makes little sense with the limited capacity that they project, just as the recent threat to not recognize the Taliban Government if they entered Kabul forcibly sounds so hollow.

It’s a weak response, a laughable and childish one at that too, where one’s response is reduced to telling one’s enemy that one will not recognize the ground they had won, even though the enemy had taken it by use of force and was now in the occupation of it.

The US may not recognize Taliban Govt

Non-recognition of the Taliban Government by the US is not a new act and was a policy in vogue even during the Taliban’s last stint in power. That of course did not stop Madeline Albright from making an official State visit to the Afghans during the Taliban rule or for UNOCAL to fly Taliban leaders to Texas in 1997 in an attempt in setting up oil pipeline deals.

Ronald Reagan invited the Afghan Militants to the Whitehouse in 1983 and compared them to the founders of America – so the threat was not recognizing the Afghan Government may be taken with a pinch of salt.

The Taliban Government, for some time to come, will have very little needs and will remain in a position to provide the basic necessities to sustain life; then there is the poppy crop, anything plus $70 Billion spread over an international market with powerful stakeholders.

Afghan minerals and Rare Earth reserves surveyed to be 60 million tons of copper, 2.2 billion tons of iron ore, and 1.4 million tons of rare earth elements, remain a potential for which there is likely to be an international scramble – recognition or no recognition.

China has already signed a $3 billion mining right agreement with the Taliban as early as 2016 and is now poised to do more. Anyone who willfully wishes to stay away from this potential will be a loser.

However, at this time, Afghanistan is more likely to look inwards rather than towards the globe in search of peace and stability and may focus on establishing some sort of governance means and methods.

Read More: Panic in Kabul as Taliban advance continues

Pakistan needs to conduct itself cautiously 

Having taken stock of the situation as it stands today, Pakistan has to be very careful how it conducts itself. It’s very well to play to the galleries and announce how the United States was humiliated by a strong refusal by Pakistan to extend any base facilities, and though the decision was not at fault in any way the way Pakistan handled it was not only in bad taste but lacked grace. It showed us as a childish, unsophisticated nation hooting in the wind. The refusal could have been proffered in a dignified manner as well.

Furthermore, to compare such a refusal with Pervaiz Musharaf’s cooperation with the international coalition was uncalled for and based on ignorance.

The obtaining environment at the time was totally different and the decision was an outcome of the UN Resolution 1377 which was signed unanimously and became a National Law by virtue of international practices.

The alternative was to fight against the Coalition on behalf of the Taliban. The fact that the Pakistan Army was the only Army in the world, participating in this conflict, that did not have a single man under US Command and that it operated in its own area speaks volumes for the administration then. They managed to preserve Pakistan’s independent stand on not venturing into Afghanistan or Iraq or functioning under US Command.

The war in FATA which is now being criticized by so many was an outcome of a proposal that the Pakistan Government had made to all foreign fighters (residue of the Afghan-Soviet War) to disarm and register for citizenship or then be prepared to return to their own countries.

They refused and said they wished to exercise the right to conduct Jihad from Pakistan. This obviously led to a conflict in which the Government’s only objective was to establish its writ.

The Pakistan Government bent over backward to give peace a chance, so much so, that they surrendered the people of Swat to the Constitution of Sufi Muhammed while the Supreme Court, always eager to take suo-moto action, remained criminally silent.

Read more: Pakistan will help US for Afghan peace, no do more: PM Khan

Agreements after agreements were signed and violated from 2001 till 2008 till the Mehsuds publically declared war on Pakistan in January 2008 – that is when the shooting war began with Operation Zalzala.

What was done then was needed then, and it is unrealistic now to condemn it as “so wrong”. And what is the need to be so critical when there is so much still to be done and where the real focus should be to do it correctly?

It was famously said by Mark Twain, ‘Get your facts first and then you can distort them as you please’. Any criticism of the Musharaf regime regards the War on Terror is justified in terms of how agreements were concluded and executed but not in the intent.

The rest is hindsight wisdom. To brag that we have established our sovereignty is another slogan without substance. As long as IMF and the World bank remain our benefactors, we cannot claim sovereignty.

United States & India embarrassed: New Challenges for Diplomacy

So having seen the United States ousted and the Indians evicted from Afghanistan, it is time to show a little humility and grace. It will help us in dealing with the comity of nations from a higher moral plane.

In no way does this imply that Pakistan should be pliant or acquiesce to its legitimate claims but simply suggests, ‘speak softly but carry a big stick’. We talk of political solutions and promote a belligerent orientation as if we are in search of a challenge and a conflict.

In no way is it suggested that one should not be firm where it matters but then in this light, there is too much rhetoric and no substance on Kashmir as it is devoured before our eyes. Here lies a genuine case where one needs to be more aggressive and where our claim to sovereignty may be justifiably invoked.

One only needs to study and learn from Azerbaijan and its recent conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region to understand what sovereignty really means and how one acquires it; it was not a political solution just as the Taliban have rightly discovered long ago.

Instead, it is sad to witness mullahs challenging the writ of the Government every day, yet that obsession with sovereignty is lost in the cacophony of ideological restrictions imposed upon one’s own society in general and the country at large.

Self-righteous attitudes are not the methods to acquiring sovereignty but a road to conflict and division. Too many sermons and even more preaching will not bring Pakistan the sovereignty it’s in search of.

Thus with the annoyed United States and a bitter India what can one expect. Some of it has already been seen in the form of the Lahore blast, the uptick in violence along the western border, the result of the FATF, and suddenly out of the blue declaring Pakistan a Child Recruiter.

The Indian military build-up in Kashmir is not co-incidental and the staged drone attack on an airbase in Srinagar was not something that was past Indian machinations, especially when we note the timing of the incident. The US is likely to encourage India to assert itself.

There will be claims to Gilgit-Baltistan and Indian protests that the CPEC route is going through a disputed territory.

This may become a casus belie for an Indian military adventure into Skardu and surroundings to disrupt CPEC progress. The United States is likely to put sanctions on Pakistan for one reason or the other, so as to disrupt economic growth and development. The Government will be embarrassed by hostile flyovers by fighters to bomb Afghanistan and one may expect Cruise Missiles to violate Pakistani airspace on their way to targets in Afghanistan.

Baluchistan Separatist Movement will pick up and political polarization will increase as some politicians and leaders will sell themselves out for pennies. Foreign travel restrictions may be applied to Pakistan’s senior leadership and some so-called dissidents will be allowed political asylum and encouraged to criticize Pakistan freely on the international plane.

Keeping this situation in mind, it is recommended that Pakistan must up its diplomatic game. An attempt at convincing the United States to remain relevant by partaking in a similar project such as CPEC. They need to be convinced that economic competition is another route to global dominance as opposed to military conflict.

Furthermore, Pakistan should use all its resources to keep the US-China conflict out of its space. If this does not happen, regardless of who is the victor, Pakistan stands to lose. Such a conflict must be taken away into the South China Sea or East of Pakistani territory. It’s a big ask but it should be the focus of Pakistan’s diplomatic offensive.

Read More: US interests in post-exit Afghanistan can have serious implications!

Nevertheless, if a conflict is imminent and unfolds as analyzed above, then Pakistan needs to seriously review its Law enforcement capacity. The Intelligence Agencies have to be up to speed. The Government must be prepared to declare an emergency and suspend the parliament. The National Security Council under the Prime Minister should govern aggressively and deny any anti-state movements from within. Borders must be secured.

Indian adventurism must be responded to with well-prepared plans deterring any further aggressive initiative by them. Logistics will take on a new meaning if put under sanctions and stocks of fuel and food must be bolstered now. Alternative lines of communication must be established for maintaining continuity and stability within the country in case of disruptions. Infrastructure protection plans must be made in detail and implemented.

Difficult times may be coming Pakistan’s way in the immediate future but Pakistan has the capacity and the capability to handle them. It requires forward-thinking and planning.

These difficulties will not be on account of the Afghan Civil War but because of an Indo-US nexus that has arisen on account of being evicted from Afghanistan with their common strategic objective to contain China.

Pakistan must ensure that it takes every precaution to avoid getting dragged into a war, not of its making, but if it comes to that it must take measures to not only survive but to show a good account of itself.

Lieutenant General Tariq Khan, HI(M) was the Commander of Pakistan’s 1st Strike Corps based at Mangla, near Jehlum. He has been the Inspector General of the Frontier Corps from September 2008 until October 2010 and gained fame, as a war hero, when he led the Frontier Corps to victory against the Taliban in the Battle of Bajaur in 2009.  He has also commanded the 1st Armoured Division in Multan from 2006 to 2007 and then the 14th Infantry Division in South Waziristan till 2008. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.