Pakistan’s evolving strategic paradigm

Uncertainty and what might it throw up shall be the country's bigger test

Shahzad Chaudhry April 30, 2021
The writer is a retired air vice marshal and a former ambassador. He tweets @shazchy09 and can be contacted at [email protected]

It essentially revolves around what may become of Afghanistan and what may befall Pakistan as its western neighbour takes another turn in events. And what may become of yet another India-Pakistan attempt at a rapprochement and what may it portend for Pakistan. True, there are other dynamics as China’s hand and how it may continue to protect its interests here and in the region, and in how the US might just keep its finger in the pie of this ever-evolving dynamic — sometime as a spoiler to Chinese intents and at another to pursue its own interests. Keep in mind the larger ongoing play of China-US-India-Russia which may impact even if insignificantly the many minor turns in play in the region. The flux thankfully has its own set of stabilisers but even those might be in for a change over the long run in how the nations of the world, especially developing, plug into the changing construct of the modern economy. This largely will determine the stability or otherwise of the new paradigm as it seeks a new balance.

So back to Afghanistan and its impact on Pakistan. Rather than waste time over if the US will leave or really means to leave — because if it doesn’t things will stay the way they are, and we have lived this for too long now — it is saner to assume she will and that will turn things around quite wholesomely. A vicious dynamic is likely to unleash forcing the region into another whirl. The local stabilisers being attempted include an agreement of sorts through an intra-Afghan dialogue where competing factions may find some concurrence but for the sake of argument, and in assuming the worst, say it fails in implementation if not in enunciation. That means that regular US forces have left and Afghanistan is now largely to itself.

In the absence of a central authority a large-scale strife will ensue. Factions will struggle to carve their respective fiefs and enlarge them till a status quo gets established. Who will go and who will remain will be irrelevant but for the larger sense the Taliban, a skeleton ANSF — withered by another civil war in trying to exercise a central authority, and numerous warlords — as have emerged and existed over decades in the Afghan milieu will remain the noted forces. Afghanistan will be back to square one minus an effective central government; perhaps as was in the times of Zahir Shah minus his stabilising presence. Possibly, that is when a true Loya Jirga will occur and a solution of sorts with accommodations resolve the instability not without its own whimpers. A coalition of sorts created of the Afghans’ own will, rather than the one imposed, will manage the strife helping Afghanistan find its new normal. We should be ready for this more likely scenario and prepare to deal with its fallout as it plays itself out.

What will surely come our way given the probability of such unfortunate deterioration of the Afghan political and security state will be augmented by the various militant groups and malicious actors who have mushroomed in this milieu on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border in the last four decades. Most prominently, breakaway factions of the Taliban, the TTP or those identifying themselves as Khorasan-titled groups such as the ISIS. Because the last four decades have rendered the Afghan economy into a war economy such groups have thrived on perpetuating war. Such efforts to perpetuate war will not only increase but in a sad repetition of time will cast their shadow deep into Pakistan. Our tribal regions and the ongoing tensions in Balochistan will enable them a fertile land to exercise their malice. Pakistan may thus find itself engulfed into another inferno finding renewed instability. Taliban at the helm or not in Afghanistan will not matter. Only the duration of the instability might be of a lower order if Afghanistan is in some degree of control. The turmoil across and its projection inside will still need to be fought out by Pakistan.

Thus, preparing for it and minimising the avenues for such malignant seepage should be our first order of concern. A better way is to begin eliminating forthwith all known footholds that are likely to provide either succor or hideouts to such elements as disorder spawns. And complete the fence and man the pickets, posts and the forts in strength, early enough. Our final frontier should be the clearing phase of this war than be embroiled in another. It might entail offensive-defence; we needn’t shy off it especially when all breaks loose in Kabul. One hopes not but Afghanistan has all the makings of another Libya. We need to know how to contain its malign outflow than become a part; more a la Egypt than Turkey.

The other more promising turn of events is becoming possible on our eastern borders with India. For a whole lot of strategic compulsions on both sides of the border there is a shift in how both sides want to do things differently. Since the earlier currency was war only and everything else stood down — the two sides haven’t yet resumed full diplomatic relations since August 2019 — there is an effort now to return to normalcy with slight tweaking of the narrative on the issues. For example, India will desist from demographic changes in Kashmir even if it holds onto its stance on Article 370 which Pakistan never endorsed and wouldn’t much bother with its further definition while Pakistan will stand by its commitment to the UNSC resolutions on Kashmir. Once this beast is tamed to acceptable domains other issues can be worked towards resolution over time.

Given time for such change of interaction to mature not only can other outstanding issues find resolution, the two nations can begin routine neighbourly interaction of trade, travel and tourism and then extend the benefits to the entire region. This is the plan. Whether it gets implemented is another question. There are many spoilers on both sides who can fish in troubled waters including entrenched lobbies who shelter in the status quo. This includes the segments within the political establishment on both sides for their paltry gains and the popular media including members of the intelligentsia who have pitched their stakes in keeping the iron hot. Rightist militant groups are another one to tame as a larger redrawing of the strategic mosaic is attempted not for the first time one may add but with the hope that this might work, if the earlier ones didn’t. If not, we know which posts to man. That is the irony of familiar comfort and failure of strategic thought to evolve. One hopes for the sake of our progeny that it will be different this time round.

Iran and the situation in the Gulf are the other variables that can complicate the canvas even more but what lies at our doorstep is what beckons immediacy. While we know what to do in the east if things head south, we do not know what might emerge in the west. Uncertainty and what might it throw up shall be our bigger test. It needs timely focus.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 30th, 2021.

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