Wednesday, 22 September 2021 02:24 GMT

Pakistan Gains from the Taliban’s Rise in Afghanistan, But Must Be Wary of Blowback


(MENAFN- Syndication Bureau) The Taliban’s coming to power in Afghanistan is a strategic gain for Pakistan. Yet, if Islamabad does not play its cards right in managing this new geopolitical reality, it could face an intense blowback with grave consequences for its own stability.

For starters, now that the India-friendly Ashraf Ghani government is no longer in power, Pakistan gets its much-vaunted “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. This means that Islamabad will no longer have to dedicate extra effort to manage threats from its east and west. Meanwhile, many of its home-grown jihadis, belonging to internationally designated terrorist outfits like Jaish-e-Mohamed (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), have moved base to southern Afghanistan. Indeed, there are reports of LeT and JeM jihadis being seen on the streets of Kabul.

The other fallout of the Taliban’s victory is that Pakistan gains an ally in the Muslim world to speak up on the issue of Kashmir. Yet, were Afghanistan-based jihadis to make their way toward Indian-administered Kashmir, with or without Islamabad’s abetment, and were there to be a terror attack inside Indian territory, this could bring both nuclear-armed neighbors to the brink of war.

Indeed, shortly after the US and Taliban struck a deal last year, Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent signaled its intent to shift its focus from Afghanistan. To commemorate the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan in late August, Al-Qaeda released a statement calling for the continuation of global jihad to liberate Islamic lands. The statement mentioned Kashmir, but omitted Chechnya and Xinjiang. New Delhi thus believes this was done at the behest of Pakistan. Further, this is a sign that not only is Pakistan now firmly in the Russia-China orbit, but that it maintains considerable sway over Al-Qaeda, which has itself sworn allegiance to the Taliban.

The upside for Islamabad is that it now emerges as a critical player in the Russia and China-led alternative security and economic order being constructed across Asia. Moscow will only be too pleased to see central Asian states get access to Pakistan’s Arabian Sea ports via Afghanistan. Moscow has long viewed the lack of economic growth and jobs in central Asia as a key reason for the radicalization of the region’s youth — some have joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Pakistan’s role in stabilizing Afghanistan and making it key to central Asia’s economic development will draw it closer to Moscow.

Much to Indian and American dismay (both of whom are firming up their own mutual alliance), Russia and Pakistan are likely to increase their cooperation on security and economic matters. A stable Afghanistan under Pakistani tutelage will also provide security for China’s considerable planned investments in Afghanistan’s minerals, energy and infrastructure sector. It could also allow China and Iran to put into operation their murky 25-year cooperation program. Pakistan would emerge as the lynchpin of these plans.

Nonetheless, it is not a foregone conclusion that Pakistan will hold sway over the emerging government in Kabul. Despite its close ties to the Haqqani network, Pakistan’s spy agency was unable to install anyone from that group as head of the new government this week. This shows the limits of Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban; it is likely to be guided by its own strategic interests.

Chief among them is to stop the migration of fighters toward Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and ISIS-Khorasan. While the Taliban are staunchly opposed to the latter, they have shown remarkable accommodation toward the former. There are reports that TTP militants fought alongside the Taliban; the latter returned the favor by releasing TTP militants from Afghan prisons. This has raised the ire of Islamabad, which views the TTP as a threat. It even prompted the Pakistan army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, to say that the Taliban and TTP were “two faces of the same coin.” The trick for Pakistan will be to get Kabul to do its bidding without Islamabad being seen as solely supporting the Haqqani network, lest this further fuel factional infighting within the new government.

Pakistan’s gains from the Taliban’s victory could be outdone if it were to face jihadi blowback from across its eastern border. Already, several leading members of Pakistan’s extremist political firmament have publicly called for Taliban-style rule to be brought to Pakistan. The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, a far-right Islamist party affiliated to the Barelvi school of thought (as opposed to the Taliban’s Deobandi affiliation), has already begun engaging in the politics of competitive extremism in response to the Taliban’s victory. And in July, nine Chinese nationals working on a dam in northern Pakistan were killed in a terrorist attack. Chinese experts believe the TTP or the East Turkestan Islamic Movement was responsible. Should security within Pakistan deteriorate in the near term, this could imperil China’s Belt and Road Initiative-related investments in the country, threatening both Pakistan’s future economic development and its potential role as the stabilizing fulcrum of a changed regional geopolitics.

Islamabad must manage the new geopolitical reality with care. If it handles it well, Pakistan will gain enormously. Failing this, the consequences could be very grave.

Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst who focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. He also consults on socio-economic development for government and private-sector entities.

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