Pakistan's “strategic depth” in Afghanistan morphs into an infernal nuisance that fencing frontiers can’t mitigate.
Durand Line: Image source- globalsecurity.org
Progeny of Pakistan’s Intelligence, the Taliban is swiftly transcending its proxy status to gain global recognition. This process gained momentum following the Doha Agreement, which provided Taliban legitimacy as an important stakeholder. Further, the recent Taliban delegation to China emboldens the Taliban’s independent status. Such a recognition on the world stage dramatically changes the patron proxy dynamics between Pakistan and the Taliban, putting Pakistan in a difficult position with impending security threats.
Pakistan's deep state has contributed to make the Taliban a formidable militant group. As a part of its Strategic Depth Policy, ISI created the Taliban to turn Afghanistan into a strategic hedge vis-a-vis India and curb sectarian Baloch- Pashtun ethnic nationalism along the Durand line. Pakistan was among the few countries that recognized the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 1996 and provided a haven for its leadership for the last 20 years. However, the rapid advances of the Taliban towards absolute power create multiple fault lines in this relationship. Pakistan's primary concerns include - a resurgence of Tehrik-i- Taliban, instability in the Baloch and Pashtun belt, refugee influx, and the consequent economic fallout. In an attempt to mitigate this impending crisis, Pakistan is drawing fences over its 2,252 km shared border with Afghanistan, being oblivious to the fact that ideological churning can’t be averted through barbed wires or even an iron curtain for that purpose.
GALVANIZE RADICALS AT HOME
Taliban’s swift territorial gains in Afghanistan and the ensuing instability in the region facilitate the resurgence of terrorist groups in Pakistan. This primarily includes the Tehrik -i- Taliban(TTP), an anti-government militant group initiated in 2007 with a vision to usurp the Pakistani state and establish absolute Sharia rule. The insurgent group wrecked-havoc in the country, targeting civilian facilities until it was driven out of Pakistan following the Zarb-e- Azb military operation in 2014. This counter-terrorism campaign uprooted it considerably but wasn’t successful in exterminating the organization with its leadership finding a haven in the fringes of eastern Afghanistan. The “glorification syndrome” following Taliban triumphs in
Afghanistan reinvigorates TTP, evident from its increasing activity in Waziristan. Under the leadership of Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, the militant group is reconfiguring itself by recruiting Baloch dissidents and forging an allegiance with sympathizers like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Musa Shaheed Karwa. The recent bomb blast on a bus in Dasu, which killed 9 Chinese engineers, exemplifies its strength.
The TTP is likely to attack critical Chinese hydrological generation and infrastructure projects to influence Islamabad's policy. It will also monetize the Balochistan issue by manipulating sectarian ambitions to bring the dissident under its fold. These developments will likely raise concern for ambitious CPEC, which is a fundamental requisite for fulfilling the Belt and Road initiative.
THE BALOCHISTAN CONUNDRUM
Balochistan province hosts myriads of natural resources and variegated ethnic groups, making a perfect cocktail for trouble. Insurgency in Balochistan is a historical affair and stems from nationalist separatist ambitions compounded by lack of development employability and rising poverty. For Pakistan, Balochistan is a critical element safeguarding its sovereignty, and it has been constantly engaged in suppressing the dissidents in the region to avoid foreign intelligence materializing the situation. When the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in 1996, it carried out sustain campaign in Baluchistan, turning it into a strategic base. In 2021 when Balochistan with its Gwadar port is a critical lynchpin for CPEC, protracted instability in the region is bound to create considerable disturbances, fuelling militancy.
The troubled status quo in Balochistan has worsened following the US withdrawal. The region has turned into an operational ground for resurgent groups who wishes to capitalize on the vulnerabilities. Additionally, such instability in Balochistan endangers China’s US$60 billion Belt and Road Initiative, a critical element in Pakistan economic recovery and China’s advancement in Central Asia
The retreat of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989 was followed by a wild scramble for power, forcing millions of Afghans to evacuate and find refuge in adjoining Pakistan. At present, Pakistan sustains around 1.4 million Afghan refugees and its faltering economy can't afford a fresh influx. Estimates suggest that Pakistan is bound to receive half a million Afghan refugees due to increased militancy and instability in Afghanistan. A new bout of immigrants will increase instability in the tumultuous Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan region, which is already engulfed in ethnic conflicts and witnessing the resurgence of terrorist groups. Islamabad plans to mitigate this situation by expeditiously fencing the Durand Line, the porous entry frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Further, the nation plans to adopt the ‘Iranian model’ and establish refugee camps near the border. These strategies may reduce the refugee influx but will not avert the impending humanitarian crisis and its destabilization effect on the long-contested border. This vulnerability could be manipulated by the resurgent militant groups turning it into a strategic operating ground.
The Taliban gaining absolute power in Afghanistan or a protracted civil war, both scenarios, are ominous for Pakistan's internal security. The triumphant Taliban will incentivize a myriad of militant groups in Pakistan to pursue their jihadist goal. At the same time, an intermittent civil war will destabilize the region, which is likely to cause economic fallout that Islamabad can ill afford. Path for Pakistan from here is mired with difficult choices and is bound to create difficulties for the nation. A complex mix of diplomacy, alliances, and military actions can provide an effective strategy for Pakistan, but coming to a consensus regarding a unified policy approach is an arduous process within Pakistan’s deep state.
About the Author
Samreen is a research intern at Ytharth.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ytharth.