Afghanistan could once again become a security headache for powerful regional players. The inability and incapacity of the Afghan Taliban to contain and control violence within the borders of Afghanistan could pose as the greatest challenge to regional security. Iran, Russia, China and India—none can afford to remain aloof. Since the Taliban victory in August 2021 there have been two huddles of regional intelligence chiefs reviewing possibilities of how the security situation will develop in the wake of this victory, indicating the anxiety that exists in regional capitals about Afghanistan.
Two possibilities or possible threats pose a primary challenge: Firstly, the implosion of Afghan Taliban from within: there are a variety of reports in the international media about the conflicts that exist in Taliban ranks between the conservatives and moderates. It is an established fact that during the past five years the ranks of more radical Sunni groups in Afghanistan have swelled because of defections in Taliban ranks. Secondly, the rise of ISIS-Khorasan in Afghanistan; the Russian government recently informed the Taliban regime in Kabul that there were now 6000 ISIS-Khorasan fighters in Afghanistan.
Regional pressures from countries including Russia, China, Iran and Central Asian states all might push the Pakistani military towards close cooperation with the Afghan Taliban in order to deal with the threat of ISIS in Afghanistan. Military experts say that the Pakistan military and government as well as the Afghan Taliban have a long history of security cooperation and this factor might also push the two towards closer cooperation in the future. The Pakistani intelligence services are the major channel through information and intelligence from the regional countries reaching the Afghan Taliban. The intelligence agencies and six regional countries decided in July this year that they would provide intelligence information to the Taliban on a timely basis for action against ISIS. For the past two years Pakistani military leaders have held extensive negotiations with regional partners over the possibility of playing a central role in preventing the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan—a development which is posing a severe threat to Pakistan’s own security as well. Russians and Iranians have regularly interacted with Pakistani military leaders during the past two years and in the process shared information about the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan’s eastern and northern parts.
Pakistani political and military elite, on account of the lessons it has learnt because of its 30 years involvement in Afghanistan, is deeply averse to any direct military intervention in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. However, with each passing day the possibility of Pakistan’s political and intelligence in Afghan’s internal affairs is rising—a role which could possibly make it play a role of security assistance to Taliban in dealing with the threat of ISIS.
India is the only regional country, which claims to have security interests in Afghanistan and yet it is not interacting with the Pakistani military and its intelligence apparatus on the situation in Afghanistan. Contrast this with the Chinese military’s over-reliance on Pakistani military for dealing with the threat of religious extremism. In a recent visit to China, the Pakistani Chief of the Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa was formally requested by Chinese military leaders to share Pakistan’s forces vast military expertise in dealing with extremism, terrorism and militancy at a more formal and institutional level. Many experts of military affairs are of the opinion that this only one aspect of Pakistani military’s rising regional profile. “Afghanistan could become a one of their success stories… even if they don’t directly play a role in Afghanistan… intelligence cooperation and building the capacity of Afghan Taliban are ways through which Pakistan military could influence the events in the war-torn country” said a military expert on the condition of anonymity.
This regional acceptance and legitimacy contrasts starkly with the situation Pakistan military is facing on the domestic political scene. Two major political parties of the country—PMLN and PTI—one after the other launched frontal attacks on the role of the military and its intelligence services in picking favourites in the political process and conspiring against their respective governments. Slogan raising against the military and its leaders became commonplace in Punjab—a region in Pakistan from which the military draws most of its political legitimacy and strength. Social media campaigns and political rallies specifically targeted military leaders as the main culprits in international conspiracy against their government. This is not a new situation that the Pakistani military and its leaders have faced, but mostly they have faced this situation on the periphery—in areas such as Balochistan. But in the heartland Punjab military’s acceptance and legitimacy remained absolute until recently, when former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif designated military leaders (who have not staged a coup) as the main accused of conspiracy to dislodge him from power. This was followed by Imran Khan’s more aggressive campaign against the military and its leaders.
The situation reached a point where the appointment of Chief of the Army Staff—considered apex of political power in the country—itself became controversial. These political campaigns will have far reaching implications for the direction our politics will take in future. Consider this in five years, time both Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif would be approaching 80 years of their age and would be incapable of running hectic political campaigns. They are likely to be replaced by a new generation of leaders. The breach of legitimacy might be difficult to fix now.
In the past Pakistani civil and military bureaucracy has strengthened their control on power structure through the smart utilisation of their international connections and ability of these connections to meet the financial and economic needs of the state. History of Cold War years when Pakistani military leaders used their relationship with Washington D.C., especially Pentagon, for financial bailouts. But this came with the authoritarian style of governance that is the hallmark of military governments all over the world. Now that the military government seems out of question, a hybrid form of government might take its place.