Pakistan was attacked by terrorists over the past five days when eight separate blasts ripped through the country and reminded the world that Islamabad is on the front-lines in the War on Terror. Unlike after the end of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, this time it wasn’t just ‘wayward freedom fighters’ boomeranging back to their home base and setting off a chain reaction of blowback, but dyed-in-the-wool terrorists hell-bent on wreaking as much havoc as possible in order to offset China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Old Tactics for New Reasons
This major contextual difference is attributable to the redefined geostrategic significance of South Asia across the past couple of years. The CPEC has become the driver of China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) global vision of New Silk Road connectivity and the poster project for the emerging Multipolar World Order, thus making Pakistan the “Zipper of Pan-Eurasian Integration” at the “Convergence of Civilizations”.
The US and its unipolar allies such as India have a completely different conception for how the future should look, and are dead-set opposed to CPEC for the simple reason that it would undermine their hegemonic ambitions. Instead of joining the project and contributing to a win-win solution for all of Eurasia, Washington and New Delhi have decided to sabotage CPEC out of the pursuit of their own subjectively defined self-interests.
Pursuant to this goal, both actors utilize Afghan-based terrorists in order to destabilize Pakistan, understanding that this can in turn reduce the attractiveness of CPEC to international investors and partners. The thinking goes that if high-profile terrorist attacks capture the global media’s attention, they’ll inevitably succeed in leading the worldwide audience to once more inaccurately conflating Pakistan with instability, which in turn feeds speculation and thus creates a dire risk for the business vitality of CPEC.
It should be understood that no terrorist can ever stop the physical manifestations of this project even if they one day end up attacking or even destroying certain parts of it, but that the main goal behind waging unconventional warfare on CPEC is to negatively influence the global perception of Pakistan and thus scare others away from doing business there. If this state of affairs can be indefinitely prolonged, then the US and India anticipate that it would lead to CPEC under-performing in its economic expectations and thus becoming a ‘dud’ relative to the high hopes that were set on it. If the Chinese eventually come to think of CPEC as a major waste, then this might weaken the Pakistani-Chinese Strategic Partnership with time, at least according to American-Indian calculations.
Therefore, the Hybrid War on CPEC is conditioned on merging unconventional warfare (terrorism) with informational attacks (anti-business speculation) in order to undermine Pakistan’s domestic stability and drive a wedge between Islamabad and Beijing. The author doesn’t believe that this will succeed, however, owing to the time-tested experiences and steel-like qualities of this unshakeable relationship, but that doesn’t change the fact that US and Indian intelligence agencies have been cooperating with one another in trying to do so, as can be evinced from the latest terrorist spree which has swept over Pakistan.
The First Response
Thus far, Pakistan has responded by carrying out a series of raids which have already killed 100 terrorists. Islamabad also asked Kabul to extradite 76 terrorists hiding in the country, and took immediate security precautions by closing the border with its landlocked neighbor. Nevertheless, there’s no telling how many sleeper cells have already infiltrated the country, so the threat still exists that more attacks could be carried out in the coming future. Also, it’s not known exactly when these individuals entered Pakistan or became radicalized in the first place, and it can’t be ruled out that they were already in the country and ready to wage war against society during the years of former Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif’s tenure, but chose to lay low because they didn’t to risk drawing his ire and being completely annihilated.
Pulling Back the Curtain
It’s pertinently necessary to briefly review the broader context in which this latest terror wave has been unleashed, taking note of some of the lesser-discussed changes that have taken place lately aside from the headline-grabbing inauguration of CPEC and the game-changing military-strategic partnership between the US and India. This will help to reveal some of the hidden interconnected reasons behind why Pakistan is being once more targeted by foreign terrorists at this crucial moment in time. In any order, some of the latest changes in the chessboard are:
* India vowing revenge for the Uri Incident and other Kashmir-related clashes which it falsely blames on Pakistan;
* Lieutenant General Qamar Javed Bajwa replacing General Raheel Sharif as the COAS;
* Russia and Pakistan engaging in an accelerated rapprochement;
* Moscow becoming central to the conflict resolution process in Afghanistan;
* President Trump taking a hard line towards China and being pressured to ditch his plans for a new Détente with Russia.
Addressing each of these recent changes, it becomes clear how they each pertain to the latest spree of violence. Following the order set out above, it can be inferred that the terrorist attacks were meant to:
* Serve as India’s “answer” to Uri and the homegrown democracy movement in Kashmir;
* Test the new COAS and prompt a crisis situation which could be exploited to trigger tensions behind the military and political leaderships;
* Make Russia second-guess the wisdom behind its rapprochement with Pakistan;
* Complicate Moscow’s peace initiatives in Afghanistan by crafting the perception that the war is far from over and is uncontrollably spilling over into Pakistan;
* Punish Russia and China for their multipolar successes with Pakistan.
Having a more comprehensive and realistic understanding of the true reasons why Pakistan has been subjected to the latest onslaught of international terror, it’s now possible to brainstorm the most effective response to this aggression. The steps that have been taken thus far are insufficient in countering the full consequences of the joint US-Indian Hybrid War on CPEC, especially as it relates to the weaponized narrative that Pakistan is “on the defensive”, “paralyzed by indecision”, and therefore “at risk of being destabilized”.
These misleading talking points play directly to Washington and New Delhi’s desire to reduce the attractiveness of CPEC to Islamabad and Beijing’s international partners through the sort of rampant and unsubstantiated speculation which easily goes viral in today’s Mainstream Media-dominated information space, so accordingly, the only unambiguous and befitting response is one of decisive action, not symbolic moves and rhetoric.
It’s certainly a sensible idea to order anti-terrorist strikes on imminently dangerous targets receiving safe haven in Afghanistan, though this shouldn’t be done out of blind and seething rage, but as part of a prudent, restrained, and sustained policy which seeks to advance Pakistan’s larger strategic interests while at the same time satisfying the public’s growing demand for justice. If enough forethought is put into this, then it’s possible that Islamabad’s response could strengthen its relations with Moscow and all of Afghanistan’s neighbors while simultaneously improving its global image.
Here are the four suggested steps which need to be followed in order to progressively roll out this phased strategy
1.Unveil A Multilateral Intelligence-Sharing Mechanism:
Pakistan needs to immediately propose that all of Afghanistan’s neighbors (Iran, the Central Asian Republics, China) and Russia share their anti-terrorist intelligence with one another. The Kabul government, the US and NATO, and India could also be invited to participate in this mechanism for appearances’ sake.
2.Make A Case At The UN:
If Pakistan wants to regain control over its international image, it needs to make a case at the UN proving that terrorists are seeking shelter in Afghanistan.
The purpose behind this isn’t to gain UNSC approval for cross-border strikes (which it would be unlikely to receive), but to utilize this global platform to inform the world about its forthcoming actions (or recently conducted strikes if this step takes place after the fact) and raise awareness about US-Kabul-Indian intelligence complicity in this week’s terrorist attacks. For reasons of grand strategic sensitivity, Islamabad might opt instead to only draw attention to the role played by India’s Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) in the latest events.
3.Launch Cross-Border Counter-Strikes:
Pakistan can rely on airstrikes and/or commando raids to eliminate imminently dangerous threats along the Afghan border, acting on a combination of its partners’ intelligence and its own in order to simultaneously strengthen its regional partnerships.
Pakistan should not, however, deploy conventional ground troops in the conflict theater so as to avoid the impression that it’s “occupying” Afghan land and unwittingly sparking a nationalist reaction against its forces. The main objective of this campaign should be to exhibit an impressive show of force which can serve as a deterrent to future attackers and their patrons, as well as to dispel the false narrative that Pakistan is “on the defensive”, “paralyzed by indecision”, and therefore “at risk of being destabilized”.
4. Help Build Taliban “Safe Spaces”:
The only way to uphold the Pakistani military’s anti-terrorist gains in Afghanistan is to support the creation of Taliban “safe zones” along the border. Although it’s likely to be very controversial in the West and among the US’ international partners (especially India), it’s already de-facto accepted as a fait accompli that the only dependable anti-Daesh fighting force in the country is the Taliban, and Pakistan’s Eurasian partners in Russia, China, and Iran have each recently arrived at this conclusion.
Islamabad doesn’t have the resources or political will to promote this on its own, and it surely can’t do so conventionally in a direct manner, hence why this proposal must be explored more thoroughly.
Applying the Syrian Model to Afghanistan
The latest trend in conflict resolution is the floated-around idea of building “safe zones” in the border regions of war-beleaguered states such as Syria, and perhaps even Yemen and Libya, in order to accelerate an eventual political compromise. The concept is that the delineation of secured territory for one of the parties would go a long way towards “legitimizing” them in the eyes of the other and the international community, as well as compelling their counterparts to finally negotiate with them as equals.
The author is not endorsing this policy in any of the three aforementioned theaters, but is instead pointing out the most basic elements of the model that’s being suggested in order to prepare the reader for envisioning its prospective applicability to Afghanistan.
Pakistan, nor any of its partners, wants to directly oppose the Kabul government in the same way as Turkey is doing to the democratically elected and legitimate one in Damascus, and this is both for reasons of international image but also military pragmatism. Simply put, none of them are capable of enforcing the requisite “no-fly” zone against the US and NATO which would be needed to protect the Taliban “safe zone”, which is why the Syrian model will have to be modified for use in Afghanistan if it’s ever seriously considered.
The specifics of such a proposal would have to be worked out by the relevant military experts, but the concept is that Pakistan would selectively intervene in the Afghan border region by providing air and commando support in helping the Taliban push back against Daesh offensives.
Islamabad would not, however, involve itself in Taliban-Kabul clashes, nor in any US-NATO attacks against the group. In any case, Kabul and its international patrons have been so woefully unsuccessful in fighting the Taliban over the past 16 years that it wouldn’t be necessary for Pakistan to intervene on its behalf anyhow. The larger purpose in promoting a de-facto or declared Taliban “safe zone” in the Afghan border region, though, is to set a precedent for Iran and the Central Asian Republics (the latter through potential CSTO and/or SCO coordination) to do so, too.
If this plan is ever implemented, then Iran would likely intervene whenever necessary in order to support the Taliban against Daesh, while the Central Asian Republics would do so in support of their eponymous ethnic militias.
The objective behind the creation of Taliban and other “moderate rebel opposition” “safe zones” in Afghanistan should be to clearly delineate territory between all of the fighting groups in order to make it easier to reach a political solution. Per the Syrian scenario, Russia or a combination of outside powers might propose a similar foreign-written “draft constitution” stipulating decentralization, “cultural autonomies”, and slyly hinting at the possibility for “Identity Federalism”.
Given the expected territorial breakdown of the country by that time between a weakened Kabul government in the center; the Taliban in the western, southern, and eastern parts of the country; and a mix of Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek militias in the north; it’s possible for all sides to come to a pragmatic agreement (however temporary) to give the above-mentioned constitution a try. This could ideally grant broad autonomy to the much more secular-inclined northern areas while allowing the Taliban to rule over the rest of the country through Islamic law.
The author is under no illusions about the difficulty involved in getting all sides to first agree to, and then abide by, this proposed constitution, and personally believes that it might only function as a temporary measure at best, but it could at the very least possibly result in a consensually agreed-upon political framework being advanced for the first time since the 2001 War on Afghanistan first started, which would in and of itself be a major victory.
There are three crucial reasons why the timing is perfect for a series of regionally supported “safe zones” to be promoted in Afghanistan:
* Kabul Is Weak
The internationally recognized Afghan ‘government’ controls less than half of the country’s territory, therefore being powerless to fight Daesh terrorism in the other parts, let alone within its own domain. It’s unrealistic, then, for any actor to depend on Kabul to fight Daesh in the Afghan periphery where it’s recently been popping up, which is why it’s more important than ever to seek the help of the Taliban and possibly other groups for this important task in exchange for legitimizing their participation in any forthcoming political negotiations.
* Trump Is Distracted
President Trump is poised to double down on the US’ conventional ‘containment’ and ‘deterrence’ strategies against Iran and China in the Mideast and East & Southeast Asia respectively, with the possibility existing for him to retain and perhaps even expand the NATO presence in Eastern Europe right on Russia’s doorstep. Under these strategic circumstances of pan-Eurasian encirclement against the three multipolar Great Powers of the supercontinent, it’s highly unlikely that the Pentagon can afford to significantly deploy and sustain enough forces in Afghanistan to change the balance of power there in Kabul’s favor.
* Russia’s Ready to Help
Islamabad shouldn’t forget that Russian President Putin “affirmed Moscow’s readiness ‘to further enhance anti-terrorism cooperation with Pakistani partners, both bilaterally and in the framework of broad international efforts’” in a condolence message to his Pakistani counterpart following the Sehwan attack and declared that “[Russia] hope(s) that those behind it will not escape the punishment they deserve.”
Moreover, Pakistan wants to expand and broaden its procurement of military supplies from Russia, so if it takes the lead in resolving the War on Terror in Afghanistan, then given Russia’s existing diplomatic support for reaching a breakthrough in this conflict and its related embrace of military diplomacy, Moscow might support Islamabad by selling it more and better quality equipment, possibly even at discounted prices and/or with favorable lines of credit.
The over 100 Pakistani martyrs who were killed over the past week as part of the joint US-Indian Hybrid War on CPEC don’t need to have their sacrifices be in vain, as their deaths could instead set the stage for fundamentally transforming the ground game in the War on Terror in Afghanistan. The terrorist attacks which shook Pakistan over the past week were carried out in order to weaken its international image and scare away potential business partners who might otherwise be attracted to the country’s pivotal role in connecting South and East Asia through CPEC. The most effective way to dispel any false impressions that the global public might come under as a result of US-Indian information connivances is to resolutely strike back against the Afghan-originating terrorists which carried out the attacks.
This would disprove the artificial narrative that Pakistan “on the defensive”, “paralyzed by indecision”, and therefore “at risk of being destabilized”, and instead show the world that Pakistan is on the anti-terrorist offensive, decisive, and a stabilizing force in the region.
Having said that, a few high-profile anti-terrorist strikes won’t be enough to defend Pakistan from Afghan-originating threats forever, and any gains made in this regard must be secured by an on-the-ground component. Because it wouldn’t be too wise for Pakistan to deploy troops to Afghanistan in doing this itself, it should instead seek to build Taliban “safe zones” that could accomplish this goal for it while simultaneously advancing the prospects of reaching a political solution to the country’s long-running war.
If Pakistan takes the first step in this direction, then it might serve as a powerful example for Afghanistan’s other neighbors to do something similar as well, which could accelerate the territorial delineation of power between the country’s various “moderate rebel opposition” groups and consequently facilitate political negotiations to finally end the conflict.
Kabul is weak, Trump is distracted, and Russia is ready to help, so there’s no time more opportune than the present for Pakistan to finally take the initiative in securing its historically troublesome border with Afghanistan. China, Iran, and the Central Asian Republics are also expected to rally behind Pakistan, especially if it takes its case before the UN in explaining to the world what it’s doing and why.
Ultimately, the author trusts the judgement of the Pakistani military and fully supports whatever decision they choose to make, whether it’s to commence cross-border strikes in Afghanistan or to hold off on doing so for the time being, so the recommendations expressed in this article should be understood as what they are, which are creative suggestions designed to inspire strategists and decision makers to think outside the box in finding a way to turn a nationwide tragedy into a global anti-terrorist triumph.
There are of course certain risks involved with what the author is proposing, but there are also many opportunities as well, which is why the suggestions elaborated on in this research should be deeply thought about before acting upon them. It’s impossible for Pakistan to accomplish and uphold all of its security goals unilaterally, however, so it must nonetheless also consult with its regional partners if it eventually chooses to partake in decisive action.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for Regional Rapport in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.