Updated: May 23, 2020 9:25:02 am
The recent violence in Afghanistan has highlighted its multi-pronged conflict. The IS or Islamic State may hate Shias just as the Taliban does but they hate each other too. Pakistan may hate the Pakistani Taliban that the Afghan Taliban doesn’t hate but it can hardly get the “friendly” Haqqani Group to be an arbiter in the Afghanistan negotiations. Its own suppression of Pashtuns will not endear it to anyone in the Pashtun south in Afghanistan. India, recently rejected as a party to talk to by the Afghan Taliban, is all over the place with its investment in projects that the Afghans can’t ignore.
What is happening in Afghanistan is going to affect Pakistan and since Pakistan is no longer clear whom it can support, the coming post-US withdrawal days will mean trouble for it. Because the Americans leaned on it for getting the Taliban to talk peace, Pakistan appears to outsiders as a strong influence in Afghanistan. But one should sit back and ask: Who is being backed by Pakistan in Afghanistan in these days of utter chaos?
There were days when the Afghan Taliban was in North Waziristan with al Qaeda. The latter could be led by Pakistanis like the erstwhile champion of Kashmir jihad, Ilyas Kashmiri, who then blew up the naval base in Karachi because the Pakistani naval chief was not releasing several navy men more loyal to al Qaeda than to Pakistan. (Mehran naval base was destroyed and all the terrorists involved in the action were naval employees.)
There was a time when Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan favoured the Pakistani Taliban against the US, declaring himself against the “American war” in Afghanistan. In time, he was disembarrassed when the Pakistani Taliban attacked an army public school and killed over a hundred children there. Pakistani and Afghan Taliban were then ousted from North Waziristan and forced to take refuge in Afghanistan, and there is no proof that they have been spurned by the Afghan Taliban to retain Pakistan’s friendship.
The IS in Afghanistan is killing Shias there and in Pakistan, and it doesn’t get along with the Taliban. This doesn’t mean that the IS is free of all kinds of “warriors”, including Pakistanis who have links back home through such Shia-killing outfits as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. ISIL and al Qaeda are both in Afghanistan and are at cross-purposes while fighting the American Satan. Both contain terrorists from other nationalities like Sinkiang Uighurs and Indian Muslims, which gets both China and India worried about what Pakistan will do next.
The US counted on Pakistan to “deliver” the Taliban — especially the powerful Haqqani Group that has influence with the Taliban movement — but Pakistan is not certain whether in a crunch even the Haqqanis will stand by it. The vulnerability comes from madrasas in Pakistan spawning jihadi militias and owing loyalty to the Taliban-al Qaeda combine. Pakistan has to work to break this nexus made strong by the penetrability of the 2,430-km Durand Line. While threatened by the Taliban, Pakistan also makes a “deal” over their availability in “peace talks” with the US. In Afghanistan, no one believes in this “arrangement”.
Sectarianism in Pakistan has complicated its relations with Iran. The other factor is Iran’s outreach to India with the construction of the Chabahar Port on the Iranian coast next to Pakistan. The highway that goes up from Chabahar to Afghanistan worries Pakistan and is one of the reasons it is fencing its borders. Pakistan has been attacked through the Iran-Pakistan border by groups who have targeted both Pakistan’s strategic port of Gwadar in Balochistan and Karachi in the south through agents said to be on the take from India. Last week, a group of policemen acting as alleged Indian agents were arrested in Karachi.
Indian influence in the Gulf, Iran and Afghanistan is palpable and there is a promise of extending it to the friendly Central Asian states through Chabahar and potentially through Pakistan. In normal times, the moment would have been ripe for an Indo-Pak “normalisation” and opening up of trade routes to ward off the economic uncertainties of a changing global order.
This article first appeared in the print section of May 23, 2020, under the title ‘Question in search of answer’. The writer is consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan
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