By – Niranjan Marjani
As global powers continue to figure out the ways to deal with the deepening crisis in Afghanistan, divisions within South Asia continue to widen. This was evident with Pakistan attempting to compete with India over deliberations on Afghanistan. India held the Delhi Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan on November 10. This dialogue was chaired by India’s National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval. NSAs of Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan participated in this meeting. India had invited Pakistan and China as well but both chose not to attend.
Exactly a day after India hosted the dialogue, Pakistan held the Troika Plus Meeting on November 11. This meeting was attended by senior diplomats from the United States, Russia and China. Afghanistan’s Interim Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi was also present at this Troika Plus Meeting.
By not attending the meeting hosted by India and by keeping India out of the Troika Plus Meeting, Pakistan has prioritized rivalry with India over the collective concern for the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. Pakistan has always positioned itself as a primary actor when it comes to coordinating on Afghanistan. Even at the Troika Plus Meeting, Pakistan has tried to portray its superior relevance as compared to India on Afghanistan.
However Pakistan’s own weakening position and instability in Afghanistan have serious implications on security of the entire region. Further, in an attempt to play gain primacy in Afghanistan, Pakistan and China stand isolated.
Pakistan’s weakening position
At the time when Pakistan is trying to remain relevant in South Asian geopolitics, it faces challenges on political, economic and security fronts at home.
The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led government is facing opposition from its own allies Pakistan Muslim League – Quaid (PML-Q) and Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM). While these two parties have agreed to vote for the bills to be tabled in a joint session of parliament convened by the PTI, the tussle between the ruling party and its allies is likely to continue.
In addition to the tension with allies, the civilian government is also at loggerheads with the military. Tensions are simmering between Prime Minister Imran Khan and Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa for months now over the appointment of the new director general of Pakistan’s intelligence agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Khan opposed appointment of Lt. Gen. Nadeem Anjum as the Director General of ISI while he was favored by Gen. Bajwa over Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, the incumbent ISI chief, whose tenure Khan sought to extend.
Pakistan is also going through a precarious economic situation. Pakistan continues to be in the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) grey list for not effectively implementing global FATF standards and for failing to prosecute UN-designated terrorists. Pakistan is also in talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for resuming the Extended Fund Facility (EFF) of $6 billion. However the IMF has demanded five major policy actions from Pakistan before resumption of the facility.
Apart from the political and economic challenges, the internal security in Pakistan has also become a cause of concern. The PTI-led Pakistani government is increasingly under pressure from extremist groups such as the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). While attempting to pacify these groups, the government is weakening its own position as it is giving in to the demands of the extremists.
Implications for security in the region
The Pakistan-hosted Troika Plus Meeting is not likely to contribute to strengthening the security architecture in the region. The reason is that both Pakistan and Afghanistan lack control over the developments shaping the security situation in their respective countries which could lead to a spillover effect and rise in radicalization in the region.
Lack of control over security
Afghanistan’s deteriorating situation along with Pakistan’s own weak position pose a combined security threat for the region. Pakistan has been vocal in expressing support to the Taliban in the wake of US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Initially Pakistan did try to influence the government formation in Afghanistan under the Taliban. However, it is unlikely that the Taliban would continue to operate under Pakistan’s control as Islamabad had expected.
Since the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, the internal security scenario in Pakistan has also deteriorated. The Pakistan government has been increasingly under pressure due to protests and radical demands from the TLP and attacks by the TTP. During his visit to Pakistan, Afghanistan’s Interim Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi confirmed that the Taliban was mediating between the Pakistani government and the TTP. The Taliban’s role in Pakistan’s internal security matter indicates that at present Pakistan needs the Taliban more than the Taliban needs Pakistan. It also implies that Pakistan is hardly in a position to dictate terms to the Taliban.
Just as Pakistan has no control over the Taliban, the latter is also not able to exert a total control over entire Afghanistan. There are signs of civil war already. Parallel to rise of the Taliban, terror groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) are also rapidly expanding in Afghanistan. While the Taliban is in contact with these groups, it is not in a position to control the activities of these groups. This is evident from the attacks carried out by the ISIS-K across Afghanistan since the Taliban-takeover. M. Lyla Kohistany, a former US naval intelligence officer said, “This is ISIS-K showing through force that, in fact, it’s virtually impossible for a group like the Taliban – without the kinds of assets that the United States and the international community have – to keep them from using Afghanistan in the future as a safe haven, a sanctuary to conduct transnational terrorist attacks.”
Spillover effect and increased radicalization
The takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban has increased the risk of spillover effect and radicalization across South Asia, Central Asia and West Asia. The rise of the Taliban is likely to boost morale of the terror groups operating across the region. Pakistan-backed terror groups Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba held a rally in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) in support of the Taliban post-US withdrawal. While India and Pakistan have agreed to support the 2003 ceasefire in February this year, Pakistan-supported terror activities continue. As per intelligence, reports suggest presence of 200 to 250 terrorists on the launchpad across the Line of Control (LoC). India has beefed up the security in the Union Territory by increasing the number of troops by 5500.
The Taliban-ruled Afghanistan is a security concern for Central Asian countries and China as well. The Taliban maintains close contacts with groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Islamic Movement of Tajikistan (IMT) and Jamaat Ansarullah, a Tajik terror group. Some members of the IMU and the IMT had even fought alongside the Taliban against the US forces. Central Asian countries witnessed an increase in radicalization during the Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001. China too would be concerned that the Taliban rule in Afghanistan would give momentum to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in the Uighur-majority province of Xinjiang. This restive Chinese province shares border with Afghanistan through Wakhan corridor.
Russia, although not sharing a direct border with Afghanistan, has taken a cautious approach. In the months of August, September and October Russia has conducted military exercises in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan under the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). As regards to Iran, a Shia-majority country, the presence of the Sunni Taliban is likely to result in sectarian conflicts. The Taliban in power in Afghanistan would further cause an escalation in conflicts across the region either directly or indirectly.
Pakistan and China stand isolated
By choosing to stay away from the Delhi Regional Security Dialogue, Pakistan —and even China —could find themselves isolated. Pakistan chose not to attend as it blamed India for the instability in Afghanistan. China also chose competition and rivalry over regional security. With the US-exit, China is eyeing for a major role in Afghanistan. While China is already competing with Russia in Central Asia, Afghanistan offers it an opportunity to undermine India’s role. China is even engaging with the Taliban. However, China would find it difficult to increase footprint in Afghanistan as even the Taliban cannot guarantee foolproof security to China across Afghanistan. Apart from the security threat to China’s assets in Afghanistan, there is always a concern about the Taliban supporting the ETIM despite China reaching out to the Taliban through economic diplomacy. Further China’s investments in Pakistan are also facing risk. China has asked Pakistan to create enabling conditions, implying at present insufficient security, for the Chinese nationals working on the China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor (CPEC) project. So China’s attempts to gain economic and strategic advantage may not materialize.
For Pakistan, although rivalry with India is a major reason, fear of ethnic fault lines erupting is also a cause of concern. Pakistan’s use of uniform religious identity is a shield to prevent its diverse ethnic groups asserting their identity. The case in point is the Pashtun identity. Pakistan associates Islamic identity with the Taliban since Pashtun identity could stoke unrest in the Pashtun-majority province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and give rise to aspirations of independence from Pakistan.
India, on the other hand, maintains terrorism as a universal security concern and is not restricted to a narrow identity. India calls for an inclusive government in Afghanistan in which minority groups as well as women have a fair representation. However, Pakistan continues to take a myopic view the regional geopolitics through the prism of religion.
The Troika Plus Meeting was a desperate attempt from Pakistan to stay relevant in the region. Owing to geographical proximity to Afghanistan, Pakistan had successfully leveraged its own position as a facilitator for the Western powers, in particular the US to gain access to Afghanistan. However, it is a known fact that Pakistan, while masquerading as a US-ally, had also covertly supported the Taliban against the US. It is important for the US to seek ways to engage with Afghanistan beyond Pakistan.
Afghanistan, which is called graveyard of empires, has long been a competing ground for rival powers. However, owing to the imminent security threat, it is pertinent that regional and extra regional powers cooperate with each other and act in a cohesive manner. Competition and division among these powers would further increase the threat perception originating from Afghanistan.
Niranjan Marjani is a Political Analyst specializing in international relations and geopolitics. His areas of work are India’s foreign policy, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Indo-Pacific Region, Europe and Spain. He is also the Consulting Editor of The Kootneeti Español, a New Delhi-based Spanish-language magazine on international relations. He tweets at @NiranjanMarjani