The Threat From The West

The Threat From The West
Pakistan’s internal security situation keeps getting complicated with each passing day. The country’s domestic politics is defined by a simmering potential for conflict between major political players, with the threat of violence lurking in the background. Two low key insurgencies continue to plague the North Western and South Western part of the country. The consensus among major power centers in Islamabad has broken down, with different poles of power supporting an assortment of players in the political arena.

The national economy is in shambles, and the political and security situations are making a deep imprint on the economic prospects for nearly 240 million souls. The question that needs to be addressed is: what should attract our attention? Should we focus on the political power game, involving a conflict between two major political parties and their respective backers in the state machinery? Or should we focus our attention towards the threat of militancy raising its head once again in the North and South West?

While the political tussles in Islamabad and the resulting instability continue to adversely affect our economic conditions, the security situation has the potential to deeply disrupt civic life in the country. This would entail a repeat of the situation that prevailed between 2007-2014, and would certainly ruin our economic prospects more severely. A power struggle in Islamabad is the last thing the Pakistani state and society needs at the moment. It continues to divert our attention away from the security threat that has started emerging on our western border with Afghanistan. Our blinkered political discourse is already more focused on political gimmickry that defines inter- and intra- political party politics than the serious issues related to internal security and management of the economy. This farcical state of affairs will come to us as a fait accompli, leaving us no option for choosing a course of national life of our own agency and volition.

A power struggle in Islamabad is the last thing the Pakistani state and society needs at the moment.

In the second week of June, officials from the Foreign Ministries of Pakistan, China and Iran met in Beijing to discuss the establishment of a formal joint counterterrorism mechanism between the three countries. Mumtaz Zahra Baloch, spokeswoman for the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stated in the weekly press briefing that the tripartite meeting was attended by the Director General of External Security in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bai Tian, and the Director General for Counter-Terrorism Issues in the Pakistan Foreign Ministry, Abdul Hamid Khan, and the Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Director General of South Asian Affairs at the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Seyyed Rasoul Mousavi. Pakistan, China and Iran have been coordinating their efforts in counterterrorism over the last several years. The intelligence chiefs of these countries also met last year to discuss joint counterterrorism efforts against the rise of ISIS-Khorasan in Afghanistan. This meeting seemed to be aimed at developing a regional response to the rise of Sunni militant groups in Afghanistan and what Pakistan considers to be the threat posed by the rise of Baloch separatist groups, which are now operating from Iranian soil after their eviction from Afghan territory by the Afghan Taliban.

The joint mechanism, according to experts, could be described as a functional response to the threats to CPEC posed by Baloch separatist groups and the rise of ISIS-Khorasan in Afghanistan. Both Iranians and Chinese share Pakistan’s concern about the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan, and reported links between Pakistani Taliban and Baloch separatists on the one hand and Pakistani Taliban and ISIS-Khorasan on the other hand.

Tragically, there are very few voices examining the possible impact this rising wave of terrorists and militant violence will have on our economic conditions. Normally, when we talk about political instability causing a deterioration in our economic conditions, we usually talk in terms of the PML-N and PTI rivalry, and the PTI’s confrontation with the military establishment. Our public discourse simply ignores the fact that the rising wave of violence in our North West and South West will more dramatically impact our economy. Perhaps we are more ardently focused on our news channel screens to be able to contemplate how our security environment stands to impact our economic capacity.

We cannot wish away our security nightmares that stem from the revival of militant activity in our neighborhood.

Not surprisingly, our political leaders are talking in terms of reaching a consensus between political parties for delinking economics and politics. Both Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and Former President Asif Ali Zardari recently talked about avoiding short-term decisions based on political expediency, and focusing on making policy based on purely economic criteria. This thinking stems from the experience of the incumbent government in dealing with the bad decisions of their predecessors, which were taken on the basis of political expediency. Economic experts suggest that the “current crisis in Pakistan’s economy can be attributed in part to the irresponsible fiscal behavior of successive governments. Each administration has prioritized short-term political gains over long-term economic sustainability, leading to the current state of affairs. The problems began to emerge during the last year of the PTI government’s tenure, with inflation rising and the fiscal deficit increasing. The government sought assistance from the IMF through a bailout package, but as Imran Khan’s ouster became inevitable, the PTI administration torpedoed the deal by announcing an unfunded energy subsidy, leaving incoming officeholders to face the consequences,” reads an analysis of economic conditions by TFT’s Ahtasam Ahmed, “However, the situation was similar when the PTI took office in 2018. They inherited a massive fiscal deficit of approximately $20 billion and a currency crisis from the previous PML-N government. Despite the current finance minister’s promises, the incumbent government has seemed clueless about managing the economy, and the situation has only worsened due to their pseudo-economics.”

The problem is that even if all political forces in Pakistani society reach a consensus oft referred to as a “Charter of the Economy,” it will only partially solve our problems. It is too early to tell if signing such a charter will lead to a cease in short-term economic decision making and intentional economic policymaking errors from the political governments of the future, that are designed to cause problems for their successors. However, we cannot wish away our security nightmares that stem from the revival of militant activity in our neighborhood. Pakistani economic experts opine that Pakistan’s economic problems cannot be separated from its security problems. More than the inter-party, political tensions and PTI versus military establishment squabbles, the security threat emanating from the Taliban and Baloch separatists will determine our economic future. There are, however, strong apprehensions that the mismanagement of domestic political situations could add to our political and security instability.

The instruments of the Pakistani state have so far failed to comprehend and take into account the security implications of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. How the American withdrawal will impact our security in the future is not something that should be decided by civil and military bureaucrats. It should have been debated in public, with the ultimate objective of reaching a consensus. Two developments in Afghanistan clearly took place in the wake of the American withdrawal.

Fate has been unfair to the Pakistani state and society. The forces of international terrorism that are now housed in Afghanistan are not entirely the making of the Pakistani state, though it contributed substantially to their formation.

First, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan began its revival on Afghan soil, and its cadre started tracking its way back into Pakistani territory after the Americans had left. Another related development is that Baloch rebel groups have shifted their camps from Afghanistan to Iranian territory, from where they now launch attacks on Pakistani forces. Second, ISIS-Khorasan has revived itself in Pakistan and Afghanistan. ISIS-Khorasan is strictly focused on targeting the Afghan Taliban leadership in Afghanistan. It has abandoned any plan to control territory after they lost control of parts of Eastern Afghanistan as a result of US aerial bombing between 2016-2019. “ISIS-Khorasan’s activities are now strictly focused on engaging in urban warfare and urban terrorism,” said a Pakistani security expert.

In Pakistan, ISIS-Khorasan is engaging in anti-Shia attacks in the province of Balochistan. In the early stages of its formation in this region, ISIS-Khorasan was functioning under one administrative control. However, in 2019, the ISIS leadership announced the formation of two distinct organizations for Afghanistan and Pakistan.  ISIS-Khorasan has recently developed differences with the Tehreesk-e-Taliban Pakistan leadership after the former successfully recruited a large number from the TTP cadre into its organizational fold. Recently, the ISIS-Khorasan and TTP leadership have exchanged accusations in the media, with both of them accusing the other of working as stooges for various intelligence agencies. The TTP accused ISIS-Khorasan of working as a stooge for Pakistani intelligence. ISIS-Khorasan accused the TTP for working as a stooge for Indian intelligence agencies. There are reports that both the organizations are now engaged in open hostilities, with routine assassinations of each other’s leadership.

Experts say that ISIS-Khorasan seems to be focused on proving the Afghan Taliban a failure with respect to their promise to the world community of not allowing Afghan territory to be used in launching terror attacks on regional countries and the United States. ISIS-Khorasan has been launching attacks on regional countries including Pakistan, Iran and central Asian states.

Fate has been unfair to the Pakistani state and society. The forces of international terrorism that are now housed in Afghanistan are not entirely the making of the Pakistani state, though it contributed substantially to their formation. The intelligence agencies of Western powers and their military interventions played a major role in making Afghanistan what it is today. Yet, we have been left alone to deal with its consequences. If in the future we are made to deal with the full weight of the forces of international terrorism raising their head in Afghanistan, we are doomed. We don’t have the financial resources needed to engage in a prolonged fight on our Western border.

The real tragedy is that we have not yet started to realize that the power struggle taking place in Islamabad has made us completely oblivious to what is emerging on our western border.


The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.