As the concerns about the fallout of the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan grows, the protracted chaotic situation is likely to pose multiple challenges for Pakistan and the region.
Prime Minister Imran Khan stated it would be a “worst-case scenario for the country” while giving an interview to an American TV Channel. It is a stated reality that Pakistan’s security is inextricably tied to Afghanistan. Prolonged strife in its western neighborhood will expose Pakistan to security threats that it has dealt with in the past. It is also expected to come at a high cost in lives and social and economic consequences. For over four decades, Pakistan has borne the brunt of war for being the frontline state in the War on Terror and conflict in Afghanistan, which produced grave repercussions for the former’s security, stability and economic development. The destabilizing consequences of a looming humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan are too well known to be reiterated. More turmoil on Pakistan’s western frontier would mean the country will have to simultaneously deal with internal, regional and international challenges that would spiral into different sectors of the country.
There is the likelihood of Pakistan being faced with a serious threat to its stability if the current turmoil in Afghanistan spills over into its border areas. Pakistan has sought to minimize the threat level by speedily fencing up its border with Afghanistan so that any illegal or criminal activity through the crossing points can be tracked. Border posts have been increased, which have strengthened the capacity of the Frontier Corps. While these measures are necessary, some elements also have a dilemma, taking advantage of the long border and the mountainous terrain, for entering the country.
Moreover, a chaotic situation across the border is expected to provide fertile ground and more space for host militant groups to create instability. The principal threat comes from the Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP), who are claimed to have their safe havens in Afghanistan and thus, they launch cross-border attacks from there. In recent times, a reunified TTP has reinforced its capacity. The TTP’s links continue with the Afghan Taliban. TTP’s leader Noor Wali Mehsud reiterated his pledge of allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, stating that his militant group will continue its “war against Pakistan’s security forces”, and it aims to “take control of the border regions and make them independent.
The fragile situation can also lead to a regional proxy war, as it did in the past, but with more adverse consequences, which can draw in more countries already perceiving threats to their security. More regional states have security concerns now than was the case during Afghanistan’s previous civil war after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan because of transnational armed groups and foreign terrorist fighters who operate from there. A proxy war could trigger a regional geopolitical crisis of uncertain proportions that can threaten the prospects of regional connectivity. It underlines the urgency of regional and international diplomatic efforts to avert such an outcome.
Moreover, a surge in violence in the bordering areas and particularly Balochistan, has led to rising casualties among Pakistani security personnel in recent months. Armed groups residing in Afghanistan would threaten Pakistan with some making coalition with hostile elements who were defeated but dispersed after a series of successful operations by Pakistani security forces. A UN report recently claimed that “a significant part of the Al-Qaeda leadership is based along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border” while ISIS-K or Daesh “remains active and dangerous”. The Pakistani leadership have repeatedly been calling out for the dire consequences of a chaotic situation in Afghanistan. In Balochistan, there could be a further rise in violent attacks by the hostile elements funded by foreign intelligence agencies. Thus, Pakistan’s hard-won gains in its years’ long counterterrorism campaign could be put at stake. In an interview, Prime Minister Imran Khan stated that a civil war in Afghanistan would culminate into terrorism in Pakistan, thus emboldening TTP.
The impending Afghan crisis can also lead to a fresh refugee influx into Pakistan, hosting three million Afghan refugees for decades. It is worrisome that feeling Afghans would estimate of new refugees into Pakistan ranging from 500,000 to 700,000. So, apart from working for more effective border controls, the government is working on a plan to establish camps near the border to prevent refugees from entering the mainland. It is because the substantial economic burden through the refugee influx would have an economic fallout that Pakistan also experienced in the past. Given how fragile and vulnerable the economy is currently, the shock from a protracted situation next door and the threat of violence at home will jeopardize growth and investment prospects. This will place Pakistan as an area of instability which will recede the trade and investment badly needed to achieve economic goals. In the recent past, Pakistan had to bear a loss worth billions of dollars in the aftermath of September 2001 events when the ‘war on terror’ spilled over into the country’s border areas and cities.
Beyond this, the fragile situation can also lead to a regional proxy war, as it did in the past, but with more adverse consequences, which can draw in more countries already perceiving threats to their security. More regional states have security concerns now than was the case during Afghanistan’s previous civil war after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan because of transnational armed groups and foreign terrorist fighters who operate from there. They include ETIM, Daesh, IMU, TTP and of course, Al-Qaeda. There are also fears of fighters in Syria relocating to the region. A proxy war could trigger a regional geopolitical crisis of uncertain proportions that can threaten the prospects of regional connectivity. All this is predicated on a worst-case scenario of Afghanistan descending into chaos and civil war. It underlines the urgency of regional and international diplomatic efforts to avert such an outcome.