In the wake of the US-Taliban peace deal, a complex political situation has emerged in Kabul—Taliban’s position is that control of the government should be handed over to them and their Islamic Emirate should be restored. All the elements now part of the Kabul regime should become part of their Emirate.
On the other hand Afghan govern- ment’s position is that their government is a legitimate and constitutional government and all political elements should become part of their govern- ment. Obviously neither the Afghan government nor Taliban would agree to each other’s position. So it doesn’t seem likely that there would be an under- standing on future political setup in the coming month.
Reports doing the rounds in Islamabad say that Americans are floating the idea of a coalition government consisting of the Taliban and all other political elements based in Kabul. They are not talking about it openly, but a message is being sent to all and sundry to pave the way for such an interim government based on a coalition of all Afghan factions.
In Afghanistan, all those groups which are not part of the government are supportive of the idea. Prominent backers of the approach include former Afghan President Hamid Karazai, Abdullah Abdullah, and Gulbadin Hakmetyar. But Afghan president Ashraf Ghani is dead set against the idea, so much so that he refused to meet Zalmay Khalidzad during his last visit to Kabul.
Americans are also pressurizing Pakistan to convince the Taliban to agree on a ceasefire and to support such an interim government consisting of all Afghan factions. On the other hand Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has requested the Pakistan government to convince the Taliban to agree on a ceasefire and to become part of his government in Kabul.
Pakistani officials say that the solution of Afghan problem will not be a simple one. Recently the representative of the groups from the North of Afghanistan visited Islamabad and told Pakistani officials that any peace deal between Taliban and Afghan government will not be the end of conflict in Afghani- stan. There are other groups in Afghani- stan which will not be represented in this peace agreement.
The real armed conflict in Afghanistan before the arrival of American forces was between Taliban and Northern Alliance forces—and this conflict will remain in place even after the signing of a peace deal between the Kabul regime and the Afghan Taliban. These are the reasons why experts believe the Afghan conflict is unlikely to evaporate in thin air on the signing of the peace deal.
Impact on Pakistani Society
Nevertheless the peace deal could signifi- cantly influence Pakistan’s domestic political situation and external security environment in the coming months and years. And in spite of this fact there is hardly any debate as part of the public and media discourse on the possible impact of an impending deal on the strategic environ- ment Pakistan and its government find themselves in.
There would be serious consequences for Pakistan’s domestic political and security conditions. If the Taliban become part of political dispensation in Afghanistan, would that mean a Pakistan-friendly government in Kabul? This could lead to the curtailment of Indian influence in Afghanistan.
In the past, Taliban have shown an ambiva- lent attitude towards India. On the one hand they have shown a willingness to deal with India at the diplomatic level in the context of the unstable security environ- ment of Afghanistan, while on the other hand some Taliban groups have launched attacks on Indian interests in Afghanistan.
The question can be answered in part by considering if the Taliban would complete- ly shun violence in the post-peace deal situation – which may indicate their attitude towards Indian interests in the region. Taliban are primarily an armed militia and it would be almost impossible to expect that they would completely abandon violence within the violent security context of Afghanistan.
However, there is the possibility of the Taliban militia integrating into Afghani- stan’s security forces and directing their energies against another military threat emerging in the region – the threat of ISIS in Afghanistan. This is what different regional players including Russia and Central Asian states expect of the Taliban.
The Taliban becoming part of a new political dispensation has serious implica- tions for Pakistan. There is a big possibility that there might start a move to initiate similar efforts in Pakistan to bring about a peace deal between Pakistani Taliban and Pakistani security forces.
Pakistan security forces, however, don’t see this as a possibility to extend any kind of olive branch to Pakistani Taliban. Firstly, the Pakistani Taliban have been defeated on the battlefield and secondly they have shown no tendency to abandon violence within the Pakistani society or to get themselves integrated into the society.
Nevertheless, after the US-Taliban peace deal, the continued fighting between Pakistani Taliban and Pakistani security forces will be seen as an anomaly, the demand to remove which will generate its own pressure.
There is a serious and strong body of opinion within Pakistan, which sees the fighting between militant groups and security forces in Pakistan as an extension of the problem of presence of US forces in the region. With the complete withdrawal of foreign forces, the fighting between Pakistani security forces and Taliban will lose any meaning, this body of opinion argues, putting the pressure on Pakistani security forces to abandon the fight.
The emerging security situation in the wake of the peace deal will have serious implica- tions for Pakistan’s domestic politics. The pressure of the right wingers on Pakistani security forces to reconcile with Taliban and other militant groups will increase manifold.
On the other hand, security experts are in a quandary to predict what kind of reaction to expect from Pakistan militant groups once their mother organisation – the Afghan Taliban – enter into a peace deal with their worst enemy, the US Administration.
Will Pakistani militants continue to attack US and Indian installations in Afghanistan after Afghan Taliban have signed a peace deal with the US administration? Will this peace deal degrade the determination or capacity of Pakistan groups to continue to attack Pakistani security forces? Nobody knows just yet.
In fact we don’t know what kind of impact this peace deal will have on Pakistani groups. Pakistani Taliban and Afghan Taliban don’t have any formal organisa- tional linkages. But they do interact at some level. Only time will tell how they will react to this deal.
One thing is for sure that non-violent and non-Taliban Pashtun groups like Pakhtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) will come under increased pressure because of this peace deal. Pakistani establishment’s grip on power will further increase as their international stature will increase once they help cement the deal. After staging this diplomatic victory, the Pakistani establishment will see PTM as an obstacle in the way of achieving strategic objectives in the region.
What, however, is completely inexplicable is why the talks between Afghan Taliban and US administration failed to generate enough interest among Pakistan’s political elite and media circles, despite the fact that there is so much at stake as far as Pakistani interests are concerned.
Plausibly, foreign policy issues never gener- ate such a heat as to take the media by storm in Pakistan. Frist, because Pakistani media is not foreign policy oriented and secondly, there is a little understanding how much this peace deal will change the strategic environment of the country as well as the attitude of Pakistan’s military establishment towards the external and internal problems they are facing.
Role of Taliban in Afghan Security Structure
There are voices coming from powerful regional capitals that want to see Taliban becoming part of the regional security architecture in order to ward off the threat of rise of other Sunni extremist groups in Afghan society. These regional players see the present Afghan government and its security forces, in the absence of US and NATO forces, as too weak to effectively check the rise of extremist groups such as ISIS in Afghan society.
The past few months have seen dramatic reduction in the activities of ISIS in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s border areas. However, the regional players especially Russia and Iran see the presence of Sunni extremists groups as a major threat to their security.
Russia is said to have started directly hobnobbing with Taliban. Iran’s coopera- tion with Taliban is also on the rise—Irani- an Special Forces are said to have conduct- ed joint operations with Taliban against ISIS supporters in Central Afghanistan.
There are reports that regional countries including Iran, Russia and Turkey have developed a mechanism to exchange intelli- gence on the presence of ISIS groups in Afghanistan. There is a desire to make Pakistan part of this type of intelligence mechanism.
What does all this mean for Pakistan? Will Pakistan see an increase in its influence in Afghanistan, now that pressure to co-opt the Taliban in the regional security architecture is on the rise? Does it mean that we will see the revival of the old concept of strategic depth among Pakistan’s military establishment?
Strategic depth is not an alien concept in military studies – there are a large number of countries aspiring for strategic depth in their decision-making processes to meet the military threats from numerically or militarily stronger foes. Israeli military considers strategic depth in military/physical terms as necessary for the effective defence of their country, which is physically a narrow strip of land. Some countries like Turkey want to practice the concept of strategic depth in political or diplomatic terms to increase their political influence in their neighbourhood.
There has to be a plausible reason as to why every time there is a military conflict in Afghanistan, the idea and concept of strate- gic depth is revived in Pakistan. This happened in 1988 – as the Soviet pull-out from Afghanistan was about to start as a result of an international accord – when the then COAS, General Aslam Beg talked about this concept for the first time and later in the wake of US invasion of Afghani- stan as the things started to stabilize in the region, the then COAS, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani voiced his support for the said military concept.
However, the differences between the nature and content of the military and physical strategic depth, as propounded by General Aslam Beg, and political and diplomatic nature of the strategic depth, as propounded by General Kiyani, was notice- able to many observers. General Aslam Beg was more interested in militaristic strategic depth that viewed Afghanistan as Pakistan’s fifth province, whereas General Kiyani talked about extending Pakistan’s political and diplomatic influence in Afghan society.
The military version of the strategic depth may be an outdated concept even within the power corridors of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, but the political and diplomat- ic version of strategic depth may see a revival in Islamabad as the Taliban’s position in the security architecture of the region becomes well entrenched.
What are Pakistan’s chances of success if it does make an attempt to seek political and diplomatic strategic depth beyond its western borders? There are facts that will militate against the notion of Pakistan achieving political and diplomatic strategic depth in the foreseeable future.
Firstly, Afghanistan will remain a fractured society with Taliban emerging as one of the players, maybe the strongest one. But nevertheless, there will be other players in the fray – a fact which will not allow Taliban to fully dominate the power structure of Afghanistan.
Secondly, western influence will continue to exist in the country—with large western security and intelligence presence in Kabul, the presence of Western non-governmental sectors will also be strong.
In other words, the international and cosmopolitan character of Afghanistan’s capital and its security structure will remain the basic feature of Afghan state, making things difficult for Afghan Taliban. Thirdly, India might continue to have an economic role in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, there are facts that presage increased influence of Pakistani military in Afghanistan: Firstly, the require- ments of major regional players will increase the role of Taliban as partners of regional powers to act as a counterweight to the rise of ISIS in Eastern, Northern and Western Afghanistan.
Secondly, Pakistan’s security apparatus is seen as the only regional players with the required amount of political influence to stabilize Afghanistan militarily. This will allow some semblance of influence to Pakistan in the affairs of Afghanistan.
But Pakistan’s establishment will be well-advised not to consider or call this influence strategic depth as the term has outlived its utility in both domestic and regional contexts. Diplomatic, economic and cultural influence is too important today to hazard a mix-up with military strategy.