Pakistan's Taliban Nightmare

By Zahid Hussain

Contrary to the general perception, Pakistan is not pushing for the return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Instead, the prospect of the Taliban taking over the war-torn country after the pullout of foreign forces is the biggest nightmare for the Pakistani security establishment.

A major worry is that Taliban control next door would give a huge impetus to Pakistan's own militants seeking to establish retrogressive rule in the northwestern border regions. This would also make fighting local Taliban more difficult for the Pakistani Army.

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Thousands of Pakistani troops are battling the militants for control of lawless border regions in northwestern Pakistan. Despite some successes, government forces have yet to establish their writ over the territory that also provides sanctuaries to Afghan insurgents. "If they [NATO forces] are leaving and giving a notion of success to the Taliban of Afghanistan, this notion of success may have a snowballing effect on the threat matrix of Afghanistan," General Khalid Rabbani, Pakistani commander of frontline cops fighting the militants, told Reuters in a recent interview.

The concern stems from the fact that it's ethnic Pashtuns on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border who have taken the lead in the insurgency - around 27 million Pashtuns live in Pakistan and 14 million in Afghanistan. A distinctive Taliban movement known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, has evolved into a formidable insurgent force, presenting a serious threat to Pakistan's own national security.

Both the Afghan and the Pakistani Taliban are predominantly Pashtun movements and have close ideological and organizational ties. Despite differences on tactics, the two share an objective of establishing a harsh version of Islam. Moreover, both movements owe their allegiance to Mullah Omar, founder and supreme leader of Afghan Taliban movement.

In recent years, the insurgency in Pakistan has grown both in numbers and sophistication as several other Pakistani militant groups forming an interconnected, coordinated web join the Pashtun insurgents in the tribal areas. More alarming is the nexus these groups have formed with Al Qaeda, which despite some setbacks remains deeply entrenched in Pakistani tribal areas.

The threat posed by this terrorist nexus to the Pakistani state was foreshadowed in 2009 when the militants not only established control over the entire tribal regions known as FATA, but also swept control of part of Northwest Frontier Province, since renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhawa, the land of Pakhtuns or Pashtuns. At one point the insurgents were 60 miles away from the capital, Islamabad, sending shudders across the country.

In a massive operation more than 100,000 troops pushed back the Taliban offensive, but the government's control over the areas has remained tentative. Many insurgency leaders have now taken refuge on the other side of the border among Afghan insurgents and continue to launch cross border attacks on Pakistani security posts.

Pakistan's role is, perhaps, the most critical in determining the course of the Afghan endgame sought by NATO. While Pakistan's cooperation is key to winding down the war, geographical proximity and cross-border ethnic linkages also enable it to play a spoiler's role.

Mired in mutual mistrust, there are substantial differences of opinion between Pakistan and the United States about the appropriate strategy in Afghanistan and how to address the wider insurgency.

Pakistan is reluctant to support any solution that doesn't protect its interests in Afghanistan or fails to provide a non-aligned setup in Kabul with a dominant role for Pashtuns, putting it at odds with Western allies and the Afghan government. The US wants the present setup to continue until some kind of power-sharing agreement is reached with the Taliban and other insurgent groups.

Pashtuns constitute 42 percent of the Afghan population, and from Pakistan's point of view, absence of adequate Pashtun representation in the future Afghan setup would be detrimental to the interests of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. With little movement in the talks between the United States and the Taliban, Islamabad's worries have increased.


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Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and writer. He is a correspondent for The Times of London and The Wall Street Journal and has covered Pakistan and Afghanistan for other international publications. He's the author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam (2007) and The Scorpion's Tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan (2010). © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

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