Supporters of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement pictured during a protest in Karachi, Pakistan in January 2020. Courtesy of Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo
Pakistan will spend many years regretting its success in Afghanistan. A genuinely inclusive government in Kabul would have been a far better outcome for all concerned.
One of the inevitable consequences of the Afghan fiasco of recent days has been a deluge of gleeful WhatsApp messages from friends in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
Let’s be fair. The same euphoria and hubris gripped Washington in the days after the final Soviet BTR-80 Armoured Personnel Carrier crossed the Amu Darya (Oxus) river on 15 February 1989. The West had successfully sponsored mujahideen forces to inflict a defeat on a superpower. The ironies are legion.
Another reason not to be too harsh on Pakistan for our Afghan defeat is that the West came between Pakistan and its longstanding national interest to keep Indian influence out of Afghanistan. Why did UK ministers and diplomats think they could sweet-talk a country away from a core national strategy; and one which had been so similar to British imperial policy up until only 75 years ago?
That British policy had been intended to keep Russia (and later Germany) out of Afghanistan. The ‘Forward Policy’ (which was heatedly debated throughout the 19th century) argued that it was better to defend British India in Afghanistan than in India itself. For that reason, Afghanistan has become one of those countries (Poland and Yemen are others) where powers offshore their conflicts.
However, more thoughtful Pakistani officers fear the consequences of this triumph. They remember the humiliation of 1971 and the loss of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Some spent two years in Indian prison camps. A consequence of the war was not only a burning desire for revenge against India but also the notion that the army was now the champion of Pakistan’s territorial integrity.
The first worry is that the Pashtuns of the Afghan Taliban will, after a few years in power, find common cause with their Pashtun kinsmen in Pakistan. There is no formal frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan; only the Durand Line imposed by the British in 1893 without Afghan agreement. Even a moderate Pashtun, Hamid Karzai, used to say that the Afghan border should be at Attock Bridge on the Indus River. Such an idea, if ever implemented, would remove a very sizable chunk of Pakistan including the city of Peshawar. There are plenty of Pakistani Pashtuns who would prefer the whole of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province) to be part of a wider Pashtunistan. Now, Pashtuns make up between 26% and 33% of the population of Balochistan and nearly 25% of the huge and vital commercial city of Karachi.
A connected but separate concern is that the same sort of militancy which has swept through Afghanistan could be attractive in Pakistan. There are plenty of rural and urban Pakistanis who look at the Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore elites in much the same way as rural Afghans viewed the kleptocrats in Kabul. The VIP culture – with children educated abroad, large houses with servants and, in some cases, a taste for Scotch – is shared by both elites. There are politicians in Pakistan who openly espouse the idea of ditching what they regard as an imported quasi-colonial ‘Western democracy’ in favour of something more consistent with local culture and the Islamic faith. Even the Westernised Prime Minister Imran Khan has spoken of Afghans having ‘broken the shackles of slavery’ and earlier described Osama bin Laden as a martyr.
This is frightening for a middle class that remembers all too well the assassination of the governor of Punjab in 2011 and the huge crowds that emerged to acclaim his killer. It is ironic that the new softer image of Talibanism which Pakistan has helped present in recent months, however spurious, actually represents a bigger threat to Pakistan than the brutal, medievalist movement of the 1990s.
The Pakistani army itself, although splendidly smart and reminiscent of the British Army of yesteryear, is no longer the Westernised organisation which was still visible even in the 1990s. It is increasingly austere and, although not exactly Islamist, is critical of civilian politicians, press freedoms and the West in general.
The third anxiety concerns terrorism. The Pakistani army has asked the Afghan Taliban to close the camps of the TTP (also known as the Pakistan Taliban) which have mounted murderous attacks inside Pakistan, including the notorious public school massacre in Peshawar in 2014 in which children of Pakistani army officers were killed. Pakistan has long suspected the former Afghan security service and the Indian intelligence service of supporting this group. However, in recent weeks, Pakistani officers have expressed concern that the two Talibans are more closely connected than previously thought and might eventually collaborate.
Quite separately, India will worry that the Kashmiri militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed which have been kept busy supporting the Afghan Taliban will now be at a loose end, gravitating naturally back to big cities of the Pakistani Punjab where they will plot attacks against India in Kashmir or even across the international border.
So, Pakistan’s moment of triumph needs to be quickly replaced by a sober analysis of how events will play out. The West, too, needs to pick itself up from this knock-out blow and remind itself of some key regional concerns which have not gone away. If serious insurgency into Kashmir were to gather momentum, the world could soon be facing another standoff between the two nuclear-armed powers similar to the crisis over Pulwama and Balakot in 2019. Furthermore, the future possibility (however remote) that a Taliban-type government could come to power in Pakistan emphasises the question of the fate of Pakistan’s large arsenal of nuclear warheads falling into the hands of people who despise everything about Western values.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Tim Willasey-Wilsey CMG
Senior Associate Fellow