Pakistan, the Taliban’s inventor and long-time benefactor, hopes that once their proxies are again ensconced in Kabul, they will be responsive to its direction as they were in the 1990s.
The generals in Islamabad — the de facto government of Pakistan — must know that it is a mistaken assumption. The proliferation of Islamic extremism over the last 20 years, not the least of which has occurred inside Pakistan’s own borders, makes control a far more difficult task.
Even a partial restoration of an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan by the participation of the Taliban in a coalition government would create a magnet for global jihadists and lead not only to clashes with or between Islamist groups, but to a wide range of conflicts based on opposing national, ethnic and religious interests.
President Trump’s recent announcement of a troop drawdown triggered a flurry of diplomatic activity by China, Pakistan, Russia and Iran, all of whom are working to hasten U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, after which their national objectives will begin to diverge significantly.
The primary beneficiaries of a U.S. withdrawal would be China and Pakistan. The U.S. presence in Afghanistan has been an obstacle to China’s desire to include Afghanistan in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Chinese-Pakistani control of Afghanistan would extend and better couple the CPEC and BRI transportation networks as well as offer the opportunity to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral resources estimated to exceed $3 trillion.
In the absence of American influence, the regional clout of China and Pakistan can only be opposed by the alignment of Russia, Iran and India in order to maintain some semblance of a balance of power.
The success of the Chinese-Pakistani plan for Afghanistan would depend upon Taliban cooperation, a condition on which Islamophobic China cannot rely.
It should then not be surprising that the most noteworthy segment of the recently-concluded joint China-Pakistan military exercises “Warrior-VI” was counterterrorism.
The two most often identified regional counterterrorism targets of China and Pakistan are the protection of CPEC, in particular, Chinese workers and Afghanistan.
Ostensibly, the Afghanistan element refers to the threat posed by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement for which the Chinese are building a brigade-size military facility in Afghanistan’s remote northeastern province of Badakhshan that borders China.
It is not a stretch of the imagination to conclude that a joint China-Pakistan counterterrorism force might be needed for an unruly Taliban or the thousands of Islamic extremists potentially flooding into Afghanistan from Pakistan and elsewhere.
It is indeed ironic that Pakistan — now beginning to celebrate its second perceived victory over a superpower — this time courtesy of its Taliban proxy, could eventually be seriously harmed by the very policies Pakistani generals pursued to achieve that goal.
An article in The Economist defined it well:
Since the founding of Pakistan in 1947, the army has not just defended state ideology but defined it, in two destructive ways. The country exists to safeguard Islam, not a tolerant, prosperous citizenry. And the army, believing the country to be surrounded by enemies, promotes a doctrine of persecution and paranoia.
Those policies have led to the nurturing and proliferation of Islamist groups and the harsh suppression of religious minorities and ethnic identities, hence the long-running insurgencies in the Baloch and Pashtun regions of Pakistan.
With the departure of the United States from Afghanistan, Islamic extremism and ethnic separatism will be growing and resilient features of the regional political landscape, the blowback from which will render Pakistan’s victory short-lived.
If there is American leverage to be had, either affecting the current Afghan negotiations or providing a foundation for a future U.S. South Asian policy, it will be by operating within the geopolitical fault lines now revealing themselves.
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired U.S. Army Reserve colonel, an IT command and control subject matter expert, trained in Arabic and Kurdish, and a veteran of Afghanistan, northern Iraq and a humanitarian mission to West Africa.