Loya Jirga last week to approve the bilateral security agreement with the United States for continued presence of the US-led western forces after the NATO trroops withdrawal has rattled Pakistan.
Both the Pakistan civilian government , the Pakistan Army and its spy agency ISI have been forced to rethink and modify their strategy and attitude towards Afghanistan. They are now hoping for a drawn-out, "phased" withdrawal of Western troops from the region instead of an immediate one. They are the ones who fear most the ‘zero option’ threat by the Americans in case the BSA is not signed by the Afghan President by the end of this month.
This reflects a change of perception within the Pakistani establishment which has in the past blamed the presence of Western troops in Afghanistan for rising militancy in Pakistan.
Pakistan has received over USD 20 billion in US aid, major part of it as military assitance in cash as well as equipment, since December 2001. Pakistan trumpted its role as the ‘frontline state’ in the fight against terrorism and used its influence over Taliban militants as a major leverage to milk the US and other allies.
Even after the mass exodus of international forces from Afghanistan, the problem of security will remain in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Pakistan will have to fund all its security operations on its own.
Pakistan’s Post Crisis Needs Assessment (PCNA) for the FATA region says that the US withdrawal would have major economic implications for Pakistan, especially the FATA. Apart from the security implications, the Pakistani economy would witness major contraction, given that NATO cargo and supply through Pakistan is a major source of US currency for its economy.
Considering the number of livelihoods dependent on the transit cargo for maintaining the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Pakistan is already preparing to provide alternatives for those who will be out of work after 2014.
Major international donors like the World Bank, have been approached to neutralize the negative economic impact. The NATO cargo transit has created a transport sector boom over the past decade, with contractors and work force earning three times what they used to make with commercial or national trade. This cargo accounts for over 25% of the total transit trade from Pakistan into Afghanistan. Its absence would mean a major loss of revenue for Pakistan.
Karachi, the port handling the Afghanistan bound NATO cargo had been the most busy for over a decade providing large number of jobs which fetched huge revenues for Pakistan.
A large portion of the workforce is from the underdeveloped FATA region from the overall movement. Khyber and Mohmand agencies (two FATA regions) were two of the main beneficiaries, as their drivers, helpers and security personnel were preferred because of their knowledge of the treacherous terrain.
The All Pakistan Traders Association estimates some 20,000 truck drivers, mostly from the FATA region are associated with the NATO transit and cargo. With NATO gone, these drivers will have difficulty finding alternative employment, given the very limited opportunities in the tribal areas.
Authorities fear that thus renderd jobless the workforce may be lured into unlawful activities by the militant groups, not only involved in violent attacks, but also providing security on informal trade routes for illegal cargo in return for money. The unmarked 2640 kilometer-long Pakistan-Afghanistan border is the hotbed of informal trade. The Pakistan Afghanistan Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PAJCCI) says that the two-way illegal trade crossing the border is over USD 1 billion.
Besides the NATO transit, commercial trade between Afghanistan and Pakistan accounts for USD 2.3 billion. This also will be impacted if adverse security situation pervails after the withdrawal of Western Forces in 2014, meaning further loss to Pakistan’s economy. The Pakistan customs also nets huge revenues from the transit trade which are likely to crash after the withdrawal.
On top of all , the fear of the flight of foreign capital from Kabul could weaken Afghanistan’s economy, reducing the purchasing power and in turn affect imports from Pakistan. According to the the World Bank estimates, Afghanistan’s average economic growth will shrink from the present 10% to 6% over the coming few years. A large Pakistani workforce, especially in the nonprofit and reconstruction sectors will have to return to Pakistan if there is a decline in Afghan development.
If there is a deterioration in the Afghan security situation, many Afghans may be forced to to seek refuge in neighboring countries, especially Pakistan, adding further economic strain on the economy.
Fully realising that interference in Afghanistan’s fate would be unwise and a limited international security presence could be helpful, Pakistan Prime Minster, Nawaz Sharif, during his visit to Kabul felt it necessary to emphasise that "Afghanistan is an independent country and the BSA signing is up to the country.....We respect the decision of Afghanistan's people."
Sharif assured Karzai, "Pakistan will continue its efforts in the Afghan peace process and regional countries also will help Afghanistan in this regard," Sharif said. "A stable Afghanistan is in the interests of Pakistan's security."
An equally pressing reason for Pakistan’s wish for continued stay of US forces in Afghanistan, is the rise of militant groups targeting Pakistan like the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and their ties with the Afghan Taliban whom Pakistan had been harboring to further its strategic interests in Afghanistan. The mutual inter-dependence of these groups and their increasingly common goals in the Af-Pak region has created a complex situation for Pakistan, turning it into a regular target of militant attacks.
A Pakistani defence analyst, Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi says, "The tide of militancy that kept Afghanistan on the boil all these years is now flowing in reverse, into Pakistan. A resurgence of Taliban in Afghanistan would accentuate this situation, and could create grave problems here for both the government and the military. "
Pakistani establishment is also worried that all Taliban being Pushtuns and their coming together on both sides of the Durand Line may revive the demand of Pushtuns for the creation of Pushtunistan. Afghanistan, particularly the Pushtuns have never recognised the Durand Line which they allege to have been forced on them by the British about a hundred years ago.
It is because of this very reason Pakistan had been crying wolf over the increasing infulence of India in Afghanistan, knowing the hisorical Indian relations with the Pushtuns from the days of the Frontier Gandhi Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and King Zahir Shah.
During the 12 years of conflict in Afghanistan, Pakistan has faced fluctuating fortunes. It started out as a "frontline" state in the US-led "war on terror" in late 2001, but was accused of double-crossing the Western powers, and questions were raised over the vast sums given it by the US to deliver results in Afghanistan. The entire Taliban leadership from Mullah Omar downwards was shelterd by Pakistan. Afghan Taliban and the Haqaani Group enjoy safe havens in Pakistan territory and kept up their miltant activities inside Afghanistan. The Al Qaeda chief, Osama Bin Laden was kept by the ISI in a safe house in Abbottabad’s military area till the US forces caught up with him.
They assumed that the militants affiliated with the Quetta Shura - the main decision-making body of the Afghan Taliban, based in the Pakistani city of Quetta - and the militant Haqqani network would force the US and its allies out of Afghanistan and capture the Kabul government. "But by 2011 it became increasingly clear that while Taliban could create turmoil in Afghanistan, they were incapable of scoring an absolute victory," says Ismail Khan, Resident Editor of Dawn newspaper in Peshawar.
Its card of being the ‘Frontline State’ in the war on terror has been thoroughly exposed and even on the domestic front, right-wing political groups and militant organisations have begun questioning the wisdom of fighting what they called a "foreign" war.
So there is a growing perception that the Taliban would be willing to keep Pakistan under pressure and thereby keep the country's tribal region under their permanent control once NATO forces have left. Even the hardline supporters of the Pakistan military and die-hard anti -India voices in Pakistan have changed tack and begun singing a different tune.
The daily Nation writes, “Fearing encirclement by India, Pakistan’s India-centric foreign policy pushed the country to adopt an intrusive role in Afghanistan. ...However, that should not automatically mean reliance on ‘strategic assets’ in order to secure interests. That narrow approach belongs to the past of miscalculations and blunders, and has pushed the country towards endless chaos and now, isolation.
The Nation further advises, “To ensure security, there must be zero tolerance for terrorists. This includes eradicating safe havens present within both the countries, immediately withdrawing patronage from non-state actors and nurturing a sustainable relationship with the elected leadership across borders for a change. Pakistan must perform its vital role in the Afghan reconciliation process with utmost responsibility, being mindful of long-term consequences of its actions and resistant towards the temptation of short-term gains.
Defence Analyst, Dr Askari Rizvi says Pakistanis are still not very "clear-headed", given their apprehensions about India. But in the short run, "they will not be averse to the idea of some American troops staying on in Afghanistan as a stabilising force". This, he says, will give Pakistan time to come to grips with its internal security problems, and also keep vital Western financial assistance flowing.
In this backdrop, Pakistan seems to be the most earnest nation to see that the US-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement comes through.