DPakistan’s Afghan challenge National security remains a major concern

IN a historical first, an elected civilian government in Pakistan surprisingly survived its full term of five years – even though its record was uninspiring. Elections were held reasonably smoothly and the transition to a new government has been hassle-free. This has led to the hope that the Nawaz Sharif government will be able to stem the rot in Pakistan. In the recent past, governance has been abysmal, the economy is in a shambles and sectarian violence and creeping Talibanisation have shaken the very foundations of society and are eroding the idea of Pakistan as an Islamic state.
The greatest challenge that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will face will be on the national security front. Fissiparous tendencies in Balochistan and the restive Gilgit-Baltistan Northern Areas are a perpetual security nightmare. Karachi remains a tinderbox that is ready to explode. Al-Qaida has gradually made inroads into Pakistani terrorist organisations like Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Harkat-ul-Jihad Al-Islami (HuJI), Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), and while it is still far from forming an umbrella organisation encompassing all of them, it is moving perceptibly in that direction. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has consolidated its position in North and South Waziristan despite the army’s counter-insurgency campaign over the last two summers and appears capable of breaking out of its stronghold to neighbouring areas. Only concerted army operations launched with single-mindedness of purpose can stop the TTP juggernaut.
However, the fallout of the draw-down of the US-led NATO-ISAF forces by the end of 2014 will pose the most complex challenge to the new government as it is an external security threat with internal security linkages. The security vacuum that will be created by the departure of foreign troops from Afghan soil is likely to lead to a Taliban resurgence as the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF – army plus the police) will be incapable of independently assuming responsibility for security for all of Afghanistan. Though the numbers of the ANSF have gone up to the planned figure of 3,52,000, these are insufficient for the task at hand. The ANSF are inadequately equipped – they lack heavy weapons, artillery, air support and helicopters for logistics support. They are poorly trained, badly led and lack the motivation necessary to sustain complex counter-insurgency operations on a prolonged basis. Fratricide and desertions with weapons are commonplace.
The present situation is best described as a stalemate at the tactical level as the US-led forces are not exactly losing and the Taliban are not winning. A stalemate between a superpower and a motley array of rag-tag militiamen of a non-state actor will be seen as a moral victory for the Taliban. The US strategy to clear-hold-build-transfer-exit has succeeded only partially as al-Qaida has not been completely eliminated. Hence, no matter whether the Afghan government agrees to limit the US presence to 10,000 to 12,000 soldiers or a lower number, special forces and drone strikes against the remnants of al-Qaida and the leaders of other organisations considered inimical to US national interest will continue, including on Pakistani soil, with or without the concurrence of the Pakistan government and the army. The recent killing of Wali-ur-Rehman, the deputy chief of the TTP, is a case in point. This will pose a dilemma that Nawaz Sharif, who seeks to bring the army and the ISI firmly under the control of the civilian government, will find hard to resolve.
The Karzai government is seen as an obstacle to the realisation of Pakistan’s key objectives in Afghanistan due to its steady rejection of Pakistan’s overtures, including the use of its good offices for reconciliatiory negotiations with the Taliban. The Afghan Security Council has called for Pakistan’s ISI to be blacklisted and, in a weaker moment, President Karzai urged the Taliban to turn its guns on Pakistan. India’s commitment to a strong and stable Afghanistan and its US$ 2 billion investment in the country’s reconstruction are a cause for concern in Pakistan, particularly among the security agencies. They resent Afghan calls for military aid from India due to fears of military encirclement – even though the Pakistan army appears to have realised the folly of seeking ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan. To counter the perceived attempts at encirclement, the Pakistan army and the ISI have begun to reach out to members of the erstwhile Northern Alliance.
Another bone of contention is Pakistan’s accusation that insurgent groups like the TNSM of ‘Radio’ Mullah Fazlullah, are operating out of secure bases in Afghanistan. At present the Pakistan army lacks the capacity to fight these groups across the Durand Line. However, it may have no option but to attempt to do so in case these groups step up their attacks post-2014 and the Afghan government is powerless to stop them. Such a scenario could even lead to state-on-state conflict in the worst case.
There are approximately 1.6 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan today. Most of them are Pushtoons. Besides being an economic burden, they are seen as a national security threat since the Afghan government does not recognise the Durand Line as the boundary with Pakistan. Though the Pushtoons in Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa are fairly well integrated with the national mainstream, separatist tendencies can come to the fore again. If the post-2014 security situation deteriorates into a civil war four to five years later – a probability that cannot be ruled out – Pakistan will be deluged with hundreds of thousands of additional refugees, further exacerbating the problem.
Pakistan is hesitant to back Mullah Omar’s Taliban fully because it is unsure of getting its unfettered support if the Taliban comes back to power sometime in future. The Nawaz Sharif government faces manifold security challenges from Afghanistan, but has very few arrows in its quiver to deal with them effectively. Its inability to do so will lead to further instability in the region. It must consider cooperating with other regional powers, including India, to prevent Afghanistan’s slide into a civil war, which will be disastrous for the region.
The writer is a Delhi-based strategic analyst.