An informed senior Pakistani officer asked me about current parlays in the context of Afghanistan and following was my response; It can be considered analysis by an armchair Subedar Major.
Thanks Sir. All is well here. U.S-Pakistan relations in short-term (6-12 months) are focused on Afghanistan. Washington’s short list includes Pakistan using its influence (in my view now limited as Taliban have developed independent relationships with all players) to prevent Taliban from outright military takeover, not to directly undermine Ghani’s tattering government and not to object to some role for India in Afghanistan (technical support to government).
On part of Pakistan, they are trying to convince Washington that Taliban will take over sooner or later and therefore do not waste political capital on retreating Afghan players. They have a point and Washngton understands this but can not allow Taliban take over so soon after departure as it could be damaging both internally and internationally. If it occurs after a year or two that is fine. Americans have not forgotten the Pakistani double cross. There is a lot of anger in the military and intelligence community and they will be satisfied to some extent if Pakistan suffers. Recent interview of the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) leader by CNN is a sign towards that direction. For the first time, I have sensed fear among senior Pakistani brass due to the vulnerability of Pakistan to unexpected events. Personal interest of Faiz Hamid is also at play. He wants to portray himself as the man who can continue the policy rather than dealing with a new and unknown army Chief in 2022 (he gave the same line to the Chinese).
If the coming US-China conflict is centered around this region, there is a clear and present danger for a lot of damage to Pakistan. The best hope for Pakistan is that the major center of this conflict is in the South China sea while this region is simply a side show. In that case Pakistan can manage the fallout. I’m not sure if this point has sunk in Pakistan’s strategic community.
With this background, it is easy to understand possible US moves in the next 12-18 months. Move all US personnel out of harm’s way and substantially reduce financial commitment. However, at the same time use deteriorating security to get limited involvement of regional players who have their own fears and interests. This also ties into other strategic objectives of curtailing the influence of China and Russia. Just before the presidential election, in October 2020, the U.S. State Department quietly removed Eastern Turkestan Movement (ETM) from its terror list. We will likely see more visibility of the Uighur cause in Europe and North America and re-organization of Uighur militants in ungovernable spaces of Afghanistan moving more closely to Chinese borders in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. This will be complemented by attacks on Chinese diplomatic and economic targets in these countries. Russia will have a mix of cooperation and competition with China in this theatre. If it is tilted more towards competition that suits Washington. The U.S. wants to see India more allied with Washington and prop it up against China. If India gets some role in the region, it helps Washington to keep its hands clean. The dirty work of dealing with TTP and Baloch militants can remain with India.
The wild card as always is Afghan players. They have learned the art of survival by working and then double crossing multiple masters. This is necessary in view of their geographical location. Like other highlanders i.e. Kurds, they have mastered the art of cross and double cross to perfection. At present, it is wait and watch by all Afghan players as they want two major contenders; Washington and Taliban to show their hand. When a military power is in full swing, it is like a torrent in the stream and no one wants to come in its path. Once it passes away and water is calm then the Afghan makes his move. In my view, a little lifting of the curtain will occur if and when the Taliban decide to go after major cities. They are waiting for American assets to move out of the game. They have calculated that once major military and intelligence assets are out of theatre, it will be very difficult to re-introduce them by any American leader. This will give them leverage and they hope that Americnas will come to terms with the fait accompli.
Everyone is positioning for uncertainties in the near future and it is in this context that byzantine intrigues are at play. Pakistan has increased intelligence surveillance of TTP and Baloch militants in Afghanistan and can use local assets to target their leaders and facilities. At the same time it is also dangling negotiation carrots to Baloch militants to cash in on their fear of losing the safe haven in Afghanistan. Russia and Iran are cooperating in the important city of Herat. Russian and Iranian intelligence agents have set up listening and operational posts, reactivating old Afghan assets and pre-positioning arms and ammunition dumps. Russia has also increased such cooperation with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (Turkmenistan is still holding out to its historical position of strict neutrality).
China has good relations with Pakistan in many sectors. However, in the context of Afghanistan, China has its concerns both in terms of Pakistan’s policy about the country as well as increased sympathy among Pakistani general population about Taliban as well as Islamic causes. China is concerned about the safety of its personnel as well as infrastructure projects in Pakistan. Despite the raising of two new light infantry divisions (34 and 44) by Pakistan for security of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects from the border with China at Khunjerab all the way to the port of Gwadar in Balochistan, CPEC infrastructure is vulnerable especially at both ends. China has also increased cooperation with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and increased surveillance of the Wakhan corridor.
A new player is Turkey under neo-Ottoman dreams of Recep Erdogan. He sees himself as first leading Turkic speaking and then Sunni Muslims on a global scale. During earlier deployments of Turkish troops in Afghanistan under the flag of NATO, Turkish military and intelligence has expanded links with Abdul Rashid Dosttum. Turkey trained a large number of Afghan Uzbeks and also positioned arms & ammunition in the region.
There are two models for the future. One is cooperation where there is competition but still restraints that can be a win-win situation for all. The other is perpetuation of conflict that not only keeps old wounds open but also inflicts new injuries. Our hope is for the former but if history is a guide, our leaders always opt for the latter in our name.
“History tells us that it will get worse before it gets better’. An Iraqi madrasa student during the height of Iraqi civil war.