The 2014 US withdrawal plan from Afghanistan has ramifications for a country such as Pakistan like no other, given the geographical and cultural proximity with the war torn nation. The spill out effects of the plan could well and truly materialize in the form of a resurgence of militancy in the tribal areas, where a common ideology and close ties with the Afghan Taliban by the Tehrik I Taliban Pakistan could threaten the stability in the country. This scenario would test the mettle of the Sharif led government in the center which is known for its conservative policies.
The PML (N)’s ( Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz) comprehensive run to the finish line in the historic 2013 elections had followed bellicose rhetoric from leftist parties, such as the Pakistan People’s Party, that the former had pandered towards terrorist outfits in the past. The pre-election violence which followed also gave a vague depiction of what impends for Sharif and how the withdrawal of US forces along with domestic realities could place him, his government, and the country in an unwarranted quagmire.
The reasons are obvious enough. An array of erudite analysts and experts consider the fall out effects of the withdrawal plan of 2014 as detrimental to regional stability. With insider attacks on the rise in Afghanistan and a strong case for military mutiny in the war torn country becoming a possibility, Sharif’s ability to counter balance between adopting a soft stance towards controversial outfits, along with great power interests in the region, will be the key for Pakistan to strategically place itself in tackling militancy.
His desire to forge good ties with neighboring India, on the other hand, is a good sign for the idealists and the economists, but fails to take into account several factors. India’s burgeoning economic rise and the push by Washington to have the world’s largest democracy play a leading role in reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan mandates a clear policy on tackling domestic terrorism if Pakistan is to play a crucial role in reconstruction and infrastructure development.
It would be interesting to note that his narrative has been ambiguous from the outset. His staunch stance on ending drone strikes on one hand reflects the desire to keep national interests intact, yet, with the battle against Al Qaeda receding and the US’s 12 year struggle to tackle Islamist militancy in the region coming to a close, Sharif has refrained from toeing a ‘ Pro- US’ policy as the previous government had. Hence, his ability to adopt a clear line of action lies solely on his domestic policy towards the Tribal Areas in Waziristan, where over 360 drone strikes took place over a decade. The spill out effects of the 2014 withdrawal plan would have an indirect impact on the restive belt which is home to various factions which challenge the writ of the state and are interlinked with one another.
Unlike his electoral rival, Imran Khan and his centrist party (The Pakistan Tehrik-I-Insaaf), Sharif has shunned away from ownership of the war on terror and renouncing American influence in its entirety. His party also could not come up with a clear cut policy line which considers forging a close alliance with the US as necessary to tackle the scourge of terrorism. So far, the ill of terrorism has been looked upon from an economic perspective, where the need to address the problem is narrowed down to tackling the economic woes of the militants.
Sadly, on-ground realities differ starkly from his conception, as both the Tehrik I Taliban Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban are funded extensively from their diasporas abroad and are hell bent upon imposing Sharia Law in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and challenging the writ of the state. The militancy in Pakistan has always assumed an ideological flavor and differs considerably from insurgencies such as the Naxalite and Maoist insurgency that has wreaked havoc in neighboring India since 2004, which has gained momentum due to economic deprivation. Hence, buying out the tribesmen or the militants is a belief that lacks conviction.
Of late, ties with the Pakistan military have also been shaky and could well define the course of tackling terrorism in the near future for this government. With the former President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf to be tried for treason under Article 6 of the constitution, a showdown with the military signals dangerous signs that can plunge the insurgent hit country into further political chaos, ( a vacuum that insurgents would be desperate to exploit). The military is also the de facto most powerful institution in the country, and Musharraf’s rule established his government as a steadfast ally of the US with over 17 billion dollars of aid being poured in which established the Pakistan as having adopted a pro-US policy since 1999. Important developments in September such as the 2013 change of guard for the COA ( Chief of Army Staff) or a possible extension for General Pervez Kayani would mold the manner in which the Sharif government could tackle militancy given the history of military dictatorships how they have exclusively pandered towards a ‘Pro-US’ line.
Whether or not any joint cooperation mechanism to tackle terrorism can be forged between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan also depends heavily on Sharif’s ability to diplomatically maneuver his cards in the right direction. As the Prime Minister of a nuclear armed state, he must realize that security dynamics in the post 2014 scenario are far more convoluted. As a result, Pakistan could well be on course towards an economic recovery, but infrastructural projects would eventually become immaterial in a clash of such proportions. He has moved in the right direction though, as the recent spate of attacks on the Hazara Community in Quetta which claimed 30 lives, was condemned openly. It would be interesting to see whether an Anti- Terrorism bill is passed in the parliament; something that the outgoing Pakistan People’s Party had failed to enact. The opportunity is there for the taking.