Af-Pak security conundrum

Spearhead Analysis – 07.01.2013

By Aima Khosa
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Af-Pak security conundrum Pakistan’s official stance on the US presence in Afghanistan has been clear for many years: American troops must withdraw from the war-torn country as soon as possible and leave national matters in the hands of the elected government. The year of the US withdrawal is almost here and there is a serious debate among analysts, media personnel and governments alike over the number of troops US will leave in Afghanistan to continue to train police personnel, launching strikes against militants and slimming Al-Qaeda presence in the country.

There are unconfirmed media reports US plans to cut the post-withdrawal US facilities in the Afghanistan from 90 to a mere 5. This has raised the question of the US presence in Afghanistan being more vulnerable to attacks from militants. This question has also been evident from the White House-Pentagon deadlock over the number of US soldiers that should be present and the number that Obama is willing to send to help the transition process.

On the civilian front, it is not the US manpower presence that matters. Instead, reports have indicated (from no other than World Bank and Afghan government itself) that Afghanistan is so reliant on aid from foreign agencies operating in Afghanistan that as they prepare to leave, the threat of a civil war in Afghanistan has become an inevitable reality. As billions of dollars of aid will leave Afghanistan as NGOs prepare to vacate their offices, massive unemployment (much worse than the current numbers) is expected. Add to this is the weak, corrupt government running the country, with no proper sense of governance and no real sense of law and order. Just like US will leave Afghanistan, Karzai’s term will also expire in 2014. This points to the daunting question of whether Afghanistan will be able to survive a government that does not rely on military and civilian aid when the current government does not have a strong legislature and a weak political structure. It is unlikely that the US will provide the annual $10 billion aid annually as Karzai demands because as the Iraq withdrawal has shown, the US is ready to wash its hands from the foreign engagements of the previous decades.

All of this is relevant to Pakistan.  Currently, the unemployment rates in Afghanistan hover around 40 percent. In the absence of civilian aid, it will take Afghanistan’s government at least another decade to fully make use of its mineral resources, leading to short-term unemployment at best and medium term unemployment in the worst case scenario. How does Afghanistan look like, in that case? A curious mixture of mafias, drug lords and war lords running the country.

In such a post-withdrawal scenario, at least two million refugees are expected to cross the border into Pakistan as Tehran has sealed its borders from its side to Afghan refugees. These Afghan refugees seeking economic refuge in Pakistan, adding to the five million that already exist, are a serious threat to Pakistan’s delicate ethnic balance. These refugees are not just expected to arrive from the south but also from the north and east leading to further molding of the fragile situation in Balochistan and they will also inevitably find their way to Lahore and Karachi.

This takes the argument back to the United States and the debate of the ‘good’ Taliban of Pakistan. While there is a general consensus that there is no such thing as good Taliban, it has become clear that there is a certain ‘kind’ of Taliban that Pakistan needs in its tribal areas to maintain a people-to-people contact with the civilians in that region. These Taliban play a strong role in breaking the ranks of TTP, expelling foreign elements and their concentrated efforts (along with a military operation) led to a deal being offered by TTP’s chief Hakimullah Mehsud.

How is this related to US? US withdrawal from Afghanistan does not mean an end to drone strikes. In a situation where there is an influx of refugees settling in Pakistan’s tribal regions, these drone attacks will only exacerbate the situation. Why? Because killing off the Taliban that Pakistan needs to maintain some kind of security situation in the country will create a vacuum in that region, allowing TTP to regroup logistically.

So while men like Mullah Nazir might have been dangerous for US presence in Afghanistan, they might just have been good for Pakistan in a post-US withdrawal situation where an understanding might have been reached between the Af-Pak governments and the Taliban to contain the threat of ripping both nations apart.

It must also be mentioned that this once again highlights the fact the drone-attack debate needs to be revisited and seriously reconsidered. As of yesterday, 17 people were killed in a drone attack in South Waziristan. They might have been Pakistani Taliban, they might have been Afghan Taliban – it doesn’t matter. What matters is the fact that once US leaves (with or without a small number of troops left behind), and if the drone attacks continue, Pakistan and Afghanistan will be left in the dark, groping with the Taliban, a mammoth that is residing along the Pak-Afghan border, untouched by some of the world’s strongest militaries. Aggravating the situation by not putting an end to drones is only going to have a fall out for the two south Asian countries. Some form of reconciliation efforts, for the expected influx of refugees to Pakistan, and the Taliban is in order, and this time, it must be done without the United States looking over the shoulders of both governments.

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