Last week, Pakistan’s military and intelligence chiefs briefed the country’s top civilian leadership about the emerging threats from Afghanistan amid the withdrawal of the United States from that country.
The meeting was important for several reasons. For one, rarely does Pakistan’s military leadership invite leaders of political parties for a briefing on national security. The timing of the meeting, and the issues discussed, underscore the growing concern in Pakistan over the fast evolving situation in Afghanistan and its own tribal areas along its western border.
For several months now, Pakistan’s opposition leaders have been calling for such a meeting to understand Pakistan’s strategy in Afghanistan, including its policy on the issue of giving military bases to the U.S.
From the military’s perspective, the meeting was aimed at building some sort of consensus with the political leadership before the potentially messier phase of the Afghanistan crisis, including the likely worsening of the refugee situation, the rise in cross-border attacks, and further speculations on the provision of military bases, gains momentum. For more than a year now, Pakistan’s politicians have dragged the military into politics to settle scores, and at times, have even questioned Pakistan’s foreign and security policy.
It is possible that the likely inflow of Afghan refugees in the coming months will complicate Pakistan’s domestic politics. Political parties, including the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), which are critical of the military’s counter-terrorism approach in the tribal areas, are likely to oppose any efforts to prohibit Afghan refugees from entering Pakistan. They could very well use the issue of Pashtun Afghan refugees to revive their political base and to target the military for its controversial policy across the frontier region.
The inflow of refugees is expected to undermine Pakistan’s counter-terrorism efforts, particularly in the tribal regions. An Afghan national was found to be involved in an attack last month in Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province. This has given credence to the voices calling for the repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan and could result in a closure of the border along the Durand Line if another refugee crisis erupts.
For this reason, it is important that the military takes into confidence all major political parties to gain support for its policy.
The meeting revealed important changes that appear to have come about in the military’s perception of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). In the past, Pakistan has always pitched the Afghan Taliban as an acceptable entity while the TTP has been depicted as a group which is working against Pakistan’s interests. Now the military has come around to acknowledging that the TTP and the Afghan Taliban are ideologically the same.
This means that Pakistan has virtually reversed its “good” and “bad” Taliban policy, and may now consider both groups a threat to its national security, which means that the Afghan Taliban are not Pakistan’s favorites anymore.
According to Pakistani journalist Saleem Safi, the military leadership asked the political leaders at the meeting to suggest policy options in the event that the Afghan Taliban’s actions in Afghanistan create instability in Pakistan. The military even asked if military action against the Afghan Taliban could be taken if they continued to reject Pakistan’s efforts to stabilize the country.
This is probably the first time that military options, including counterterrorism operations, across the Durand Line in Afghanistan have been proposed.
However, any such plan is is not devoid of risks, and may pose a whole new set of challenges for Islamabad, including starting a new wave of anti-Pakistan sentiment and turning the Afghan Taliban against Pakistan.
The military leadership reportedly acknowledged that Afghan Taliban’s attempt to takeover Kabul by force will strengthen militant groups in Pakistan, including the TTP.
The briefing itself, and the many issues discussed in it, show that the implications for Pakistan of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan are huge. If nothing else, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan gave Pakistan some sort of assurance that the country would not fall to groups like Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, or become a haven for militant groups like the TTP.
In the past, although Pakistan may not have carried out direct counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, it did use U.S. drone operations to target militants in the country and, perhaps, to carefully avoid being held responsible by the Afghans.
However, this facility is not going to be available anymore, meaning TTP and other anti-Pakistan groups are likely to gain more maneuverability, freedom, and battlefield advantages against Pakistan.
It is important to note here that over the last few months, more than 50 Pakistani soldiers have died in attacks by groups that are based in Afghanistan. As instability grows in Afghanistan, Pakistan cannot expect to remain unscathed by the violence there.