It was not just the optics but also the substance that marked Pakistan’s national security briefing last week. The atmosphere in the National Assembly hall in Islamabad was completely different that day to the mayhem witnessed at the Budget session recently.
The country’s lawmakers from both the treasury and opposition benches sat for almost eight hours as the military leadership briefed them about the gravity of the situation in Afghanistan and its impending fallout on Pakistan. The discussion was substantive given the seriousness of the matter.
It was a rare change of atmosphere in the current Pakistan Parliament that has failed to be a forum for serious policy debate over the past three years. Ironically, it was the presence of the military leadership that, probably, brought harmony to the House.
Foreign policy chaos
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan who is also the leader of the House was conspicuous by his absence. He was addressing the National Kissan Convention that day, raising questions about his ability to provide leadership at this critical juncture.
While the intelligence briefing may have helped in understanding the developing situation in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the withdrawal of the foreign forces, there is still the question of whether Pakistan has a clear policy on the effects of the exit. One is not sure given the confusing and contradictory statements from Prime Minister Khan and his team. Foreign policy chaos has seldom been so stark.
Bizarre rhetoric does not inspire much confidence in the incumbent Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government’s ability to navigate the country through challenges. The leadership’s twisted worldview and half-baked understanding of history and poor grasp of evolving geopolitics are scary.
More alarming is its divisive approach even on Pakistan’s critical national issues. That could become the biggest impediment to developing a national policy with the country’s opposition’s consensus.
One wonders if the same kind of serenity will prevail in parliament during the foreign and national security debate that must surely follow the intelligence briefing. It depends on whether Pakistan’s government and opposition demonstrate the same kind of discretion they showed during the national security briefing.
Taliban’s military blitz
The situation is perhaps more serious than what the country faced in the 1990s following the Soviet withdrawal and the subsequent outbreak of civil war in Afghanistan. While the lawmakers were being briefed on the fast-unravelling situation in Afghanistan, the Taliban offensive in the northeast and south of the country was bringing the country ever closer to a fully-fledged civil war. The fighting spread from north to the south as United States forces vacated their largest military base in Bagram.
The Afghan Taliban’s military blitz has been more spectacular than was expected. It has been in the northeastern part of the country where the insurgent forces have gained more ground in recent days though the region has never been considered their stronghold. There has been a near-meltdown of Afghan government forces. Hundreds of soldiers have fled to Tajikistan and many others have surrendered.
But the Taliban forces have achieved their most symbolic, if not the most important, victory in southern Kandahar province as they establish their control over Panjwai district. The region, which is the birthplace of the Taliban movement, has also been the venue of fierce battles against North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces for more than a decade. It fell to the Taliban hours after the Americans vacated the Kandahar military base.
The capture of Panjwai has helped the Taliban consolidate their hold over the southern Pakhtun-dominated areas. It has put Kandahar, the second biggest town in Afghanistan, under siege. The Taliban now claim to have control over 150 out of 460 districts. Most of them have fallen to the insurgents in the last one month after the withdrawal of the residual United States forces began.
Recent setbacks on the battlefield have exposed the vulnerability of the Afghan security forces without the support of foreign forces. Reports of soldiers surrendering to the Taliban without fighting in many places seem to have further dampened the morale of the Afghan security forces.
Some other developments such as the emergence of regional militias under different warlords have also raised the spectre of civil war, with many predicting the fragmentation of Afghanistan along ethnic lines thus sucking neighbouring countries into the conflict. It is almost back to the Afghan situation in the 1990s.
Fallout of conflict
In a recent statement, a Taliban spokesman said the group would present its peace proposal to the Kabul government next month but there is no indication as yet of the insurgents agreeing to a reduction in violence.
Panjwai is located just across the border and the Taliban control there brings the war closer to Pakistan’s frontiers. There have been reports of an exodus of Afghans as fighting intensifies. That could also lead to an influx of refugees into Pakistan. It may have already started and there is no way it can be stopped.
Pakistani authorities said they would confine the refugees to certain areas and not allow their free movement. While that kind of containment of the refugee population was possible in Iran, it may not work in Pakistan with the same tribes straddling the border. How prepared the authorities are for the expected refugee inflow is still not clear.
But the influx of refugees is only one of the challenges that Pakistan would be facing with the outbreak of a new Afghan civil war. The fallout of the conflict is ominously evident inside our borders with the rise of militant activities in parts of former Fata. The rising power of the Afghan Taliban across the border and the very real danger of civil war in Afghanistan presents a serious threat to Pakistan’s stability.
Last week’s intelligence briefing to the lawmakers may have covered all these issues but now it is the responsibility of the civilian leadership to put together a coherent strategy and a clear policy to deal with the situation. It is not enough to say that Pakistan will not take sides in the Afghan conflict. There is a need for a more proactive approach to minimise the effects of its fallout. Can PM Imran Khan rise to the challenge?
This article first appeared in Dawn.