Multiple security challenges for Pakistan as Afghan war comes close to borders
Escalation of violence in Afghanistan has worsened Pakistan’s predicament as the country is caught in the midst of a geopolitical crisis. It faces multiple security and foreign policy challenges with the threat of the Afghan conflict spilling over to Pakistani soil. Despite the apparent tightrope walking, it will be hard for Islamabad to escape the fallout.
Taliban’s military success across the border is ominous for Pakistan’s national security. It is bound to exacerbate this country’s own problem of militancy in the border areas and religious extremism inside the country. Most perturbing is the report of transnational militant groups stepping up activities along the Pak-Afghan border regions.
Taliban’s military blitz has been more spectacular than was expected. Heavy casualties suffered by Afghan government forces in recent days underscore the fierceness of the insurgents’ assault. Fierce fighting is going on in almost all 34 provinces. With no sign of the two warring sides reaching a negotiated political settlement there seems little possibility of cessation of hostilities.
It has been in the northeast where insurgent forces have gained more ground though the region has never been considered their stronghold. There has been a near meltdown of Afghan government forces. Taliban now control border crossings and main trade routes with all the neighboring countries. That also denies the Afghan government a major source of income from custom duties and transit fees.
Taliban forces have achieved their most important victory in southern Kandahar province as they establish their control over Spin Boldak, one of the key border crossings with the region, and the birthplace of the Taliban movement. The latest Taliban advance has helped them consolidate their hold over southern Pashtun-dominated areas.
It has put Kandahar, the second biggest town in Afghanistan, under siege. Taliban now claim to have control over 150 out of 460 districts. Most of them have fallen to the insurgents in the last one month after the withdrawal of residual US forces began. Pakistan feels the heat of the escalating violence across the border.
Pakistani authorities said they will confine the refugees to certain areas and not allow their free movement, but it may not be possible with the same tribes straddling the border.
More disturbing for Pakistan is the report of splinter TTP groups based across the border in Afghanistan being reunited, backed by some transnational militant groups. The development has led to an increase in cross-border attacks in the former tribal districts, particularly in North Waziristan where Pakistan’s control remains tenuous.
Such attacks have become increasingly frequent in other northwestern border regions also with growing instability in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban’s strengthening its military control across the border may give a boost to their supporters among right-wing groups in Pakistan.
Pakistan has long been a haven for Afghan Taliban fighting the occupation forces, which has given Islamabad some leverage to bring the insurgent group to sit across the negotiating table with American officials. But that clout seems to have diminished with the exit of American forces and the Taliban winning greater international legitimacy.
Taliban’s refusal to agree to a reduction in violence has also cast a shadow over the already tense relations between Islamabad and Kabul. Afghan government leaders have publicly accused Pakistan of aiding the Taliban’s offensive. The tension has further mounted with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s latest statement that thousands of Pakistani militants have crossed over the border to fight along the Taliban against Afghan forces.
Some media reports of bodies of Pakistani fighters killed in Afghanistan being brought to their hometowns for burial reinforces the Kabul government’s allegation. Growing hostility between Kabul and Islamabad is also impacting an extremely dangerous situation in Afghanistan.
With the intensification of fighting in Afghanistan, there have also been reports of displacement of people in conflict areas. That could lead to an influx of refugees into Pakistan. Pakistani authorities said they will confine the refugees to certain areas and not allow their free movement, but it may not be possible with the same tribes straddling the border.
The influx of refugees, however, is only one of the challenges that Pakistan would be facing with the outbreak of a new Afghan civil war. The fallout of the conflict is ominously evident inside Pakistan’s borders with the rise of militant activities in parts of the former tribal areas.
The rising power of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the war extending close to its frontiers presents a serious threat to Pakistan’s stability. It could have more serious repercussions for the country than in the past during various Afghan wars over the last four decades. There is a need for a more proactive approach on the part of the Pakistani state to minimize the effects of the fallout of the new Afghan civil war.
– Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year.