image credits: TIME
Our immediate neighbour and a long-time troubled territory, Pakistan, is on the cusp of the worst political crisis in its 75 years of history. A staggering economy, coupled with a simmering civil resentment and visibly polarising politics altogether synthesise an atmosphere which could instigate a civil war. What makes the apprehending crisis different from any Pakistan has ever faced is the brazen involvement of China and the Taliban. The following article draws an analogy from the political crisis in Syria to analyse and explain the current situation of Pakistan, where it might be headed and how India can operate in the resultant permutations.
The current situation in Pakistan is characterised by internal tensions and external clashes. While Balochistan threatens to Balkanise the country, the new Taliban regime poses another threat of possible breakdown of the northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. What further aggravates the situation is the current geopolitical tensions and developments of the world, such as the Taliban coming into power in Afghanistan and China showing signs of a struggling economy. These developments coupled with the increasing possibility of a civil war; due to growing public resentment as the economic crashes, prices soar, and floods tear apart the terrains, could lead to the creation of a possible power vacuum inviting manoeuvres of intervention by players like the USA and China.
The Durand Dispute and the Troubles of Two Taliban.
After the sudden and poorly calibrated withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban was quick to regain its possession of power. Although at first, this resurrection of the Taliban was endorsed by Pakistan as emancipation from the ‘shackles of slavery’, the situation quickly went southwards. Pakistan supported the Taliban for the same reasons that the Congress Syndicate supported Indira Gandhi in the 1967 Lok Sabha elections; the belief was that Pakistan by showing support would be able to control, to some extent, the policies of the newly formed Taliban government who was nascent in its interaction with the global players and also enhance Pakistan’s strategic depth as a nation. However, this underestimation of the Taliban quickly proved to be a fatal mistake. Taliban not only engaged in border shootouts with the Pakistani army but also orchestrated attacks and terrorised Pakistan internally through the apparatus of Tehrik-e-Taliban or TTP.
TTP is the Pakistani branch of the Taliban which traces its origin to the US intervention in Afghanistan post-9/11 attacks. Taliban is a Mujhadihist group of fighters which was initially trained by the Pakistani army under the aegis and assistance of the US during the 1979 Soviet-Afghan War. During this time, Pakistan emerged as a training ground for these fighters and essentially a harbour for terrorist hideouts. However, Pakistan’s support for the US “ War on Terror” post 9/11 caused indignation amongst these local terrorist groups anchored in North Pakistan, who then organised themselves under the name of TTP in revolt against the Pakistani government. The TTP and the Pakistani army brushed against each other multiple times between the periods' of the early 2000s and 2015. Among these brushes were the alleged assassination of Benazir Bhutto by TTP and the grotesque mass murder of 132 children of military personnel in the Peshawar Army Public School Massacre. Following the Peshawar School Massacre in 2014, the Pakistani army decided to lock down terrorism and as a result, the TTP was negated for a while.
However, after the resurrection of the Taliban in Afghanistan, TTP has also reappeared on the grid carrying out attacks with unprecedented efficacy. More than 250 attacks were carried out by TTP against the dominion of Pakistan in 2022, a majority of which were assisted by the weapons the US military left behind during its retreat. Taliban has openly assisted TTP in its attacks on Quetta, Turbat, Islamabad and Chaman due to the animosity between the Taliban and Pakistan which locates its motivation in the Durand Dispute.
The Durand line demarcates the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The line also demarcates the divide between the Pashtun community which aspires to be one, and the unification of which lays the ideological identity of the Taliban. Attempts to wire the border by the Pakistani government on 21st December 2021 were responded to with aggression by the Taliban. In the months that followed, the magnitude of clashes between the two countries struck a new crescendo. Alongside fencing the border, the Pakistani government also decided to curb the Spinak Boldak Chaman crossing and annex the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Area) region within the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Chaman crossing characterised cross-border movement by several hundreds of locals every day who travelled for labour opportunities, whereas, the FATA region served as the harbour point of TTP militias given its proximity to the Afghan border. The incentives for solidifying the border, curbing the crossing and inculcating FATA within another province, all of which come with the aggression of Taliban and TTP, find their roots in the internal political and economic clamour of Pakistan.
image credits: The National Interest
Pummeled Politics and an Egregious Economy
The adage of domestic policies shaping foreign actions can be best understood by analysing the current political situation of Pakistan. A look within the dominion provides great assistance in deciphering not only the troubles Pakistan currently faces with the Taliban, but also where Pakistan may be headed in the not-so-distant future. Pakistan with politics of people pleasing over the years has paved for itself a boulevard of self-destruction. This ‘politics of people pleasing’ used freebies and subsidiaries as the desired instrument to garner support among the troubled and poor masses, and these freebies eventually led to the self-destruction of Pakistani Politics. This ‘self-destruction’, however, to the politicians of Pakistan seemed like the only way to preserve their positions and power under the nefarious prevalence of the ‘Doctrine of Necessity’, which has successfully prevented, since the country’s inception, any Pakistani Prime Minister from completing their term by essentially advancing to the military the power to declare a state of emergency and grab power in any situation it subjectively deems as demanding enough.
This ‘Economic Jihad’, i.e., the voluntary sacrifice of the economy in hopes of the betterment of political conditions, was composed of subsidiaries and tax cuts. The freebies scavenged on forex reserves which eventually led to a situation so desperate, the Pakistani economy lost all and any ‘economic sovereignty’ it once had by practising loan infidelity. Loans came not only from the IMF but also from China. In order to secure an IMF bailout now, Pakistan had to cut its previously announced subsidiaries, which led to a sharp surge in fuel prices, which were already high as a result of the Russo-Ukrainian war. The result was obvious, public resentment. This simmering public resentment has been nearing a boil, the latest dose of inertia to the issue was Imran Khan being shot during a rally. The ousting of Imran Khan, and the animated speeches by him in return, which directly criticise the incumbent government and military of Pakistan, have shaped an increasingly polarised political mood. This inertia might anytime catch velocity and wreak havoc given the attempted assassination has roped the ring for political pummeling. Pakistan is due to hold general elections in October of this year which may compose the very catalyst needed for this situation to tip over the threshold. This argument is further augmented and corroborated if we move southwards towards the province of Balochistan; floods have added a cost of another $16 Billion USD to the Pakistani Economy.
A Balkanising Balochistan?
The province of Balochistan for years has posed a threat of Balkanisation to the dominion of Pakistan. Despite being resource-rich and strategically sound and significant, the province ranks woefully low among the four provinces of Pakistan in terms of poverty alleviation and literacy rates. The data manifests itself in terms of local dissidence against the government. The people of Balochistan accuse the Pakistani government of not adequately attending to them and for years have posed a threat of insurgency and potential break-away. Though the history dates back to an alleged illegal accusation of Balochistan by Pakistan, Baloch nationalism has been fostered on many grounds since then. Grounds such as exploitation of the resources of the region with no developmental plans or infrastructure for the locals and deliberately depriving the area of a salubrious democracy by apprehensive detention of dissident protesters. The recent floods in the region have added to the troubles of the people who now stand desperate for assistance and attendance from anyone who might provide it. India, despite the tensions with Pakistan, went ahead with its ‘Idealist Realpolitik’ and contributed to aid in the region. However, the threat of a possible Balkanisation of Balochistan has only increased with the recent floods. The current situation of severe desperation coupled with dangling domestic politics serves as a subliminal invite for foreign intervention. This again is not an assumption, over years, other countries have only profited from an internal crisis in Pakistan. The trend started with the West using Pakistan as a front against the USSR in wake of the Soviet-Afghan war of 1979. The recent addition has been China gaining ground in the country by lending for leverage.
Pakistan: A Foreign Favourite
Although there exists scope for an IMF restructuring of the loans given the decapacitated economy of Pakistan, China shows no hints of adopting an empathy-induced approach in assuring loan repayments. Massive loans flowed into the Pakistani economy, majorly as a part of the CPEC, and otherwise as part of the preferred cheque-book diplomacy of the Chinese. However, as the CPEC corridors dry, and the Chinese economic machine slows down (owing to internal issues such as the demographic crisis and zero-covid policy), tensions germinate, staining the bilateral camaraderie between China and Pakistan. Experts evaluate based on precedence and prudence, that Pakistan may be headed to an economic climate as grim and gloomy as the one which currently characterises Sri Lanka. China considers it a convention to use the leverage of lending to gain strategic influence in South Asia. Hambantota is the most recent example of this. Given the importance of Gwadar and a potentially ‘Balkanising Balochistan’, the incentives for a Chinese interest and in turn intervention seem more polished than ever. Moreover, the United States has also manoeuvred for gaining leverage. Starting with an IMF loan to the Imran Khan government, the US later went ahead to sign a $16 Billion F-16 defence deal with Pakistan and also remove it from the FATF greylist. However, this time another serious player poses a threat of intervention i.e., the Taliban-backed TTP. Given the prevalence of the Pashtun community in the Balochistan province, its strategic closeness to Afghanistan, and the surging attacks on the government, the TTP presents a clear interest to intervene if a suitable situation were to arise.
Conclusion and The Indian Position
As talks of another possible IMF bailout for Pakistan gain ground, we must attend to the peculiarity of this bailout. Although Pakistan has redeemed 22 IMF bailout packages since 1958, out of which 12 have been in the last 43 years alone, the reason a possible 23rd bailout package is important and demands attention is because of the considerable debt owed to China (which they seem very emphatic on recovering). Added to this, the current internal crisis of TTP and political instability and the increasing cries of Balochistan present Pakistan as the most troubled, turbulent and volatile it has ever been. As desperation for economic aid and desire for political influence by polarised factions grows, a power vacuum seems possible and rather imminent. Although it would be an extension to assume a direct military intervention by the US or China, the creation of a power vacuum in Pakistan coupled with an excruciating economy would be a suitable situation for injecting influence at lower costs through economic apparatuses. In such a situation, the way India interacts with its next-door neighbour will to a huge extent determine not only the security of India but also have a hue on its conduct of foreign relations with other nations. A possible Chinese involvement might siege India in the Asiatic region, whereas the US gaining ground might taint a salubrious relationship with Russia. In such a situation, the fate of Jammu and Kashmir and the relationship with a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan will also be under supervision and possible change. For India, proximity to the situation not only forbids any ignorance but also actively demands vigilance and rumination.
By Varun Manda ( Guest Writer)
The writer is a student of Political Science Honours at Kirori Mal College, Delhi University. Interests include International Relations, Economics and History.
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