Can Pakistan Survive the Return of the Taliban?

Conventional wisdom holds that Pakistan could become at risk of destabilisation in the event of a US exit from Afghanistan. Indeed, the most persuasive practical case for bolstering troop numbers comes from Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

Presumably, empowerment of Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan would lead to spill-over effects, and thus empowerment of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan. Is it really that simple though?

The government of Pakistan is not foolish. As rational actors, they should have a contingency in case of an American withdrawal from Afghanistan. After all, it has been on the cards for quite some time, and increasing resistance from insurgents over recent months has intensified speculation.

This contingency plan is co-operation with the Taliban, and Pakistan’s history supports this theory. Before the US invasion, Pakistan was a friend to the Taliban (along with Saudi Arabia, and others). Taliban leaders hid in Pakistan after the Soviet invasion, and there are many cultural links between the nations.

In light of the electoral fraud that led to President Hamid Karzai’s reelection, the US has been extremely wary of making any commitments or decisions until it becomes clear whether their Afghani allies have retained any legitimacy post-fraud.

There may be some hope, if President Barack Obama’s administration can put more pressure on Karzai to stamp out corruption and improve governing standards. Frankly, this commentator is not optimistic – If this were possible, it would have happened already over the last 8 years. Instead, things have deteriorated. There is now a strong chance of American forces leaving Afghanistan, which would doom the current government there.

As logic would dictate, there have been consistent murmurings for years that the Intelligence Services in Pakistan (ISI) are funding the Taliban in Afghanistan. It’s not ideologically motivated though. They have just been hedging their bets, in case of an American withdrawal and Taliban victory.

If Pakistan grant support to the Taliban in Afghanistan, they can use this as leverage for influence. This can then be used practically to secure Central Asian trade routes, and more strategically in their cold war against India. They can also place conditions to prevent the inflammation of aspirations amongst Pakistan’s own Pushtun population (which could be inspired by a powerful Pushtun Taliban in control of Afghanistan).

If the US left Afghanistan, this conditional support for the Taliban insurgency from Islamabad could become more explicit. After all, there would be limited US interests in the country at that point – and the US could be persuaded that a Taliban 2.0 with few links to Al-Qaeda poses very little threat to them.

There is evidence this is already happening. A clever Pakistan would have to ensure that a Taliban victory in Afghanistan wouldn’t empower their own Islamist militants. Remember, the Pakistani Taliban is a very separate organisation to that in Afghanistan. As expected, tensions between the two groups have heightened since the increase in attacks against the Pakistani government over the last few years, and they don’t tend to co-operate much.

All other things being equal, the Taliban bound for Kabul would probably have helped their ideological neighbours in the Pakistani Taliban. But they’re not. The current divisions are evidence that the Taliban in Afghanistan can be pragmatic as well as idealistic – and evidence that Pakistan knows exactly what it’s doing.

It’s pretty impressive really, because Pakistan is playing both sides. Even though everyone knows they’re compliant in attacks against the Afghani Taliban, they denounce the US incursions into their territory afterwards – maintaining plausible deniability for when the Americans leave.

Would an American withdrawal from Afghanistan empower the Islamic militants allied against the Pakistan? Luckily, it’s not as simple as that. Ungoverned spaces make fighting insurgency more complicated, but it’s nothing new. The Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan are already as ungoverned as these groups need.

In fact, allowing the retreat of insurgent forces to safety elsewhere away from conflict, may even allow Pakistani forces to consolidate their power in parts of Waziristan. Meanwhile, Pakistan will gain and employ its leverage over any new Taliban in Afghanistan, as it has done in the past and does so today in limited form.

© The Free Marketeer 2009

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