Pakistan’s Afghan problem

Published: August 26, 2019
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The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and has served as vice-president of the World Bank

The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and has served as vice-president of the World Bank

These are tense times for Pakistan. Islamabad’s policymakers have to deal with a great deal of uncertainty. This is not because of internal developments, but is the consequence of what is happening in the area in which the country is located. Pakistan is one of the rare countries in the Muslim world that is moving in the right direction in terms of political development. It has begun to develop a participatory political system that provides adequate space to all segments of the population. The urban youth see hope for themselves in the future. That is not the case in many parts of the Muslim world. The youth in several Arab countries are back in the street demanding change in the way they are governed.

Countries around Pakistan’s periphery are unsettled and in turmoil. Afghanistan and Kashmir are facing uncertainty. If both or one of the two erupts, there may be movement of millions of refugees into Pakistan. Iran is dealing with an increasingly hostile United States. This could lead to an open conflict between the two countries. India has moved decisively towards creating a Hindu extremist state. This would affect the 200 million Muslims who live in that country of 1.3 billion people. They have been called “termites” by Amit Shah, the second most powerful politician in India after Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The United States and China are engaged in a trade war that has already begun to negatively impact the global economy. All these developments would be consequential for Pakistan. In my column last week, I dealt with the problem of Kashmir and suggested how Islamabad should approach the worsening situation in the state. Today, I will discuss the direction or directions in which Afghanistan could move in the next few months.

Afghanistan could go in one of the several ways. I will identify four different directions the country could take, moving from the least likely to the most likely. At the time of writing, the United States and the Taliban are engaged in finding a solution to the decade’s old problem which would make it possible for Donald Trump’s Washington to disengage from the country after invading it 18 years ago. The Americans went in after the terrorist attacks mounted on their country on September 11, 2001. What came to be called 9/11 was the brainchild of the Islamic group, al Qaeda, headed by the Saudi Osama bin Laden. The Taliban want the Americans to leave; the United States would agree to do that provided the insurgent group starts talking to the government in Kabul and commit that they would not play host to al Qaeda again.

What are the various roads Afghanistan could travel in the years ahead? It could achieve political stability after establishing a political system that accommodates various ethnic and ideological groups. In such a system, the differences among different groups are discussed and resolved in a representative body such as the national assembly. Pakistan’s political evolution could serve as an inspiration. Or, unable to agree on a system of governance the conflict between the Taliban and the authorities operating out of Kabul would continue, returning the country to the situation that followed the departure of the Soviet troops in 1989. The inter-group rivalry then led to a multi-dimensional civil war. That was resolved by the rise of the Taliban. This would mean the repeat of history. Or, with the inability of a central authority to deal with the various dissident groups, some of the warlords already not subject to control by Kabul could develop their own fiefdoms. Or, new dissident groups could rise to challenge both, the Kabul government as well as the Taliban. This too would be the repeat of history. The last seems to be the most likely outcome. The Islamic State under pressure in Syria and Iraq has already established itself in some parts of Afghanistan.

The August 17 attack on a Shiite wedding party in the heart of Kabul left 63 people dead and 190 injured. The responsibility for sending a suicide bomber to do the killing was taken by the Islamic State. Did this incident mean that the Sunni extremist group that had suffered a major setback in Syria had found a home in the troubled state of Afghanistan? Afghan officials don’t believe that was happening. “We have eliminated their bases in the East, and they are concentrated in very small areas. They cannot fight our forces face to face,” Fawad Awan, a spokesman for the Afghan Defence Ministry, said in a conversation with two American journalists who were investigating the Kabul incident for their newspaper, The Washington Post.

But the journalists on a visit to the provinces in the country’s southeast, close to the border with Pakistan, got a different impression. “But local leaders in the border provinces of Nangahar and Kunar tell a different story. They say Islamic State forces continue to terrorise villagers in areas under their control, forcibly recruiting boys and banning girls from school. They and US officials say that Taliban and Islamic State forces have continued to fight each other, but that they also fear that some Taliban fighters will join the more ruthless Islamic State forces if Taliban forces make a deal with US officials,” wrote the journalists in The New York Times.

There are some among the senior leaders of the Taliban who suggest that the rise of the Islamic State is being facilitated by some interests in Pakistan. This view was advanced in a conversation Abdul Rasul Muslimdost had with The New York Times. In a report based on that conversation the writer suggested that Muslimdost had a score to settle with Pakistan. In the interview, the Afghan leader, who had served three years in the Guantanamo Bay prison after he was handed over to the Americans by Pakistan, claimed that he had helped create the Islamic State chapter in Afghanistan — mostly, he said, from Pakistani and Afghan Taliban members. He said he had since disassociated himself from the organisation.

If the last of these four outcomes result from the departure of the US troops from Afghanistan, it will have grave consequences for Pakistan. The Pakistani military will have to guard the border so that the Islamic State operatives don’t come across and attempt to create a presence in the country’s northeastern side. Continued fighting will most likely produce another wave of Afghan refugees into Pakistan. These developments will need to be watched carefully by Islamabad.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 26th, 2019.

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