OVER A COFFEE: What if NATO fails in Afghanistan? — II —Dr Haider Shah
The instalment of a radical militant Islamist government will be a great source of personal satisfaction for those strategists in Pakistan who are imbued with a spirit of international jihad
In part one of this piece, I raised this question in the backdrop of the turbulent economic situation of the major NATO powers. The post-withdrawal situation in Afghanistan has been discussed at length by analysts in the popular media as well as academic annals but its impact upon Pakistan’s internal situation has received rather less attention. Even our own defence analysts remain so enchanted by geostrategic implications that the socio-political impact does not come into the spotlight.
History matters, many organisational analysts tell us. It matters a lot in the case of Afghanistan, where time seems to be frozen. “If Alexander visits Afghanistan today, he will find little difference in the plains he once trounced,” remarks the British author of a book dedicated to the British soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. The spectre of history still haunts Afghanistan and that is why no one is certain what the future will be like once NATO forces withdraw completely as per the Lisbon meeting’s announced deadline of December 2014.
There are three likely scenarios, depending on the interplay of various factors. First comes the most optimistic one, which the US and other NATO decision makers are pinning their hopes on: a stable and self-confident Afghanistan where the Afghan national security forces (ANSF) prove capable enough to deter any advance of the Taliban insurgency. This will mean that Afghanistan will no longer be a failed state but would make a belated tryst with history, burying its bloodstained past forever. This gleeful scenario would be a painful anti-climax for those strategists in our security establishment who have long been dreaming of using Afghanistan as a vassal state in order to gain greater influence in regional politics. It would however open new windows of opportunity for political governments in Pakistan. Already a need for a de-radicalisation plan has been underscored by the present government while Nawaz Sharif has recently talked about a liberal and moderate Pakistan that can live in harmony and peace with its neighbours. The challenge for Pakistan will be to realign its foreign policy and use its economic clout in forging friendlier ties with a re-born Afghanistan. The Pak-Afghan Transit Trade Agreement can become a strong lever for strengthening trilateral ties between Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. Europe, which once lost billions of lives to various nationalist and religious causes, found peace through trade. The three South Asian nations can also bury the hatchet through trade and commerce. This is possible if the future Afghan policy is shaped and guided by our traders and not solely by uniformed geo-strategists.
The second possibility is the continuation of a civil war between the Taliban and Afghan government. With the departure of foreign troops we can expect a steady surge in the activities of Taliban forces as their sympathisers in Pakistan will also step up their efforts. But the Afghan government will also not be left hung out to dry. Besides all major NATO powers, many regional players will also be keen on keeping the Taliban at bay. Iran, Turkey and neighbouring Central Asian states support the present Afghan dispensation due to shared ethnic or religious affinity. India has also invested a lot in the ongoing economic development of Afghanistan and would not like to see an abrupt change. China and Russia are also apprehensive of any radicalised regime in Afghanistan as this will have a potentially disturbing influence in the Chechnya and Xinjiang regions. The consequence of this will be a protracted war between the Taliban and pro-Afghan government forces.
The third possibility is that of a replay of the 1992 situation when the Dr Najib government melted in the face of the mujahideen’s speedy advance. This possibility arises due to the troubled economic situation of the US and other NATO powers. With the US presidential election drawing closer, the attention will focus on fixing the gaping US budget deficit. The Afghan war is a major contributor to the budget deficit and, as US voters’ support is dwindling, it is possible that Afghanistan is left on its own. Many NATO analysts have shown their distrust over the quality of the some 300,000 strong ANSF. As has been seen in the past, if the tide turns, mass desertions cannot be ruled out. The donors accuse the Karzai government of widespread corruption and nepotism. If massive funding dries up and Afghan forces do not show the right mettle, a takeover by militants can become a grim reality.
The instalment of a radical militant Islamist government will be a great source of personal satisfaction for those strategists in Pakistan who are imbued with a spirit of international jihad. They will find great consolation in the fact that they have outmanoeuvred India in Afghanistan by installing a regime that is anti-Indian. But apart from this jingoistic satisfaction, what our national gains would be is hard to imagine. If we extend support to such a regime, the international community will further sever already strained relations with us. In the late 1980s, access to the newly liberated Central Asian states became a bee in the bonnet for our strategists, and the Taliban were thought to be a means towards that end. It never materialised then and is even harder now to become a reality. With regular bloodbaths in Karachi, we do not offer ourselves as an ideal trade link to any investor. Moreover, the ethno-political ties between Central Asian states and non-Taliban forces will always work against any trade aspirations at our end.
The backslash of a Taliban government upon the socio-political life of Pakistan will however be severe. A new discourse on the invincibility of the jihad-inspired movement will spread like jungle fire. Radical elements in the media will cite the defeat of two superpowers to further radicalise our youth. The Taliban government will support the Pakistani Taliban movement with a new vigour. The law and order situation will be the obvious casualty. Sectarian warfare will erupt as sectarian groups associated with al Qaeda will feel emboldened by their faith brothers’ victory in Afghanistan. It is not difficult to see that Pakistan would end up becoming a pariah state only to climb up the ladder of failed states very quickly to share the top slot with Afghanistan. Given this reality, one can see some truth in the comment of US Vice President Joe Biden, which he made after he visited Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2008: “If Afghanistan fails, Pakistan could follow, because extremists will set their sights on the bigger prize to the east.”
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org