OPED by Lt Gen. PR Shankar (Retired)
The breakup of Pakistan is a favorite topic of speculative entertainment in India. Many feel that it will auto-balkanize whenever there is some incident or development. There are also assessments that Pakistan, being a nuclear state, will not be allowed to break up by the powerful supra-national lobbies.
Such assessments opine that the strong Pakistani Army will hold the state together. Many point out that Pakistan is a survivor nation. Just when it is down and out, something that enables its recovery happens.
Since 1971, Pakistan has lurched from one crisis to another to tell its tale another day. However, I get the feeling that it has finally outdone itself. Henceforth, we will see Pakistan struggling for the sovereignty it is losing willfully.
When Hamas carried out its attack on October 7, Israel responded swiftly. Part of the response was it ordered nearly a million Palestinians to move to the south of the Gaza Strip and then commenced its operations against Hamas.
The displacement of nearly one million people in Gaza will be counterproductive to the purpose for which it was ordered. Such enforced displacement will only reinforce the hatred that the Palestinians feel towards Israel.
It will feed Hamas to strengthen it. Israel might win the military battle but will lose the political battle and peace. If the international community pushed through with the two-state solution, Israel would have lost some of its ‘expanded sovereignty’ by creeping into the West Bank incrementally.
Even if that does not happen, Israel’s sovereignty and peace will continually be eroded and under threat since Hamas or its successor outfit will not let Israel live in peace.
It is no secret that in the recent past, there have been many attacks by TTP and its affiliates (based on either side of the Durand Line) on Pakistani security forces and army bases.
These are increasing in scale and ferocity. Retaliatory cross-border air strikes by Pakistan have only increased the attacks. Pakistan continues to lose its security personnel daily. In this context, the Pakistani Army felt that the 1.7 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan have been providing TTP terrorists a base from which to operate.
To destroy that base, the refugees have been given marching orders by the caretaker government to get back to Afghanistan by November 1. About 250,000 Afghan refugees have already been herded like cattle across the Durand Line and booted out.
While most of these Afghans are undocumented refugees, many of those being booted out have legal documents. All of them have been given a 30-day notice in which they have to sell their lifetime possessions and head back to Afghanistan.
They can only carry 50,000 Pakistan Rupees per family. They have been forbidden to take along their livestock. With this expulsion order, Pakistan has become a hell for these Afghans.
Hapless Afghans are now forced to sell their possessions at throwaway prices or even abandon them. Local Pakistanis are making windfall profits. The refugees will head back into the very hell they escaped from. That hell was in Afghanistan and was created by the Taliban, who Pakistan, in turn, created.
Hence, the Afghan refugees are being transported from one hell to another, both created by Pakistan in the first and last place. Is this lesser than what is happening in Gaza?
So, what are the outcomes one can expect? These refugees will hate the Pakistanis for what is being done to them. Many of them will wilfully contribute to the swelling ranks of the TTP.
Many of those who will escape this enforced deportation will end up in a split family situation of their own or of their kin. Many will do so hereafter if they have not provided bases to TTP till now.
If Israel’s current action against Hamas ends up swelling its ranks and strengthening its support, to its detriment, Pakistan will end up in an even worse scenario. The endpoint of this Mohammad Bin Tughluk action by the Pakistani Army is the permanent erosion of Pakistan’s sovereignty. To understand this better, we have to hark back in time.
The Durand Line was established in 1893 as the international border between the British Raj and Afghanistan. Pakistan inherited it from its creation. The Durand Line cuts across Pashtun inhabited areas. Pashtuns on either side of the line have scant respect for it. It remains largely unrecognized in Afghanistan even now.
Eruptions of Pashtun nationalism have always been a cause of concern for Pakistan since 1947. Early on, in 1947, Jinnah repurposed Pashtun nationalism and sent tribals from this belt as raiders into Kashmir.
However, the problem did not recede, and it rotted. Later, in 1965, Ayub Khan played the same trick by sending raiders drawn from this tribal belt into Kashmir during Op Gibraltar.
When the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Zia ul Haq saw this as an excellent opportunity to direct Pashtun angst away from Pakistan into Afghanistan towards the Soviets. However, he used Pashtuns from both sides of the Durand Line for this purpose, with international collaboration from the US and Saudi Arabia to form the Mujahideen.
Once this enterprise was done and Taliban 1.0 was established, well-trained but unemployed fighters from both sides were redirected back into Kashmir for the proxy war. The 9/11 attacks and the US ‘War on Terror’ gave another lifeline to Pakistan.
This time, Pashtun nationalism was conflated with Taliban 2.0 and again diverted back into Afghanistan along with other actors like al Qaeda and Islamic State. In this process, the jihadi politics of Taliban 2.0 and al Qaeda gave birth to TTP.
It grew to create havoc along the Durand Line in Pakistan, where it targeted military and civilian targets. However, Pakistani military actions, drone strikes by the US, and factional infighting led to the TTP’s decline between 2014 and 2018. It receded across into Afghanistan.
The movement, though rooted on the Pakistan side, developed sanctuaries on the Afghan side just as Taliban 2.0 was rooted in Afghanistan with sanctuaries in Pakistan. The Afghan Taliban and TTP have been symbiotic blood brothers since then and remain so today.
When the Afghan Taliban ‘broke the shackles of slavery’ in 2021, Pakistan felt that it had brought peace. The Pakistan Army felt that the Taliban would be indebted to them and would help them in controlling TTP.
However, that was not to be the case for many well-known reasons. From this stage onwards, Pashtun nationalism had nowhere to go except to erupt along the Durand Line. That has happened. Hereafter, it can not be wished away.
Even before August 2021, when the Afghan Taliban took over Afghanistan, the TTP was on an upward trajectory. Once the Taliban was in position in Kabul, TTP emerged as the spearhead of Pashtun nationalism and recommenced operations in Pakistan with calls for the imposition of Sharia and the defeat of the Pakistan Army.
The TTP replicated the modus operandi of the Afghan Taliban and started taking control of territory in Pakistan’s tribal areas post-August 2021. In this new avatar, TTP strengthened its ranks through mergers with affiliates (including Baloch rebels), established a centralized structure, expanded its operational capability to strike at Pakistani cities, and strengthened media outreach through sophisticated propaganda operations.
As its support base increased, it ensured that the indiscriminate targeting of civilians stopped. It increased the tempo of its operations against the Pakistani Army. Overall, TTP is now a well-rooted, formidable force with people’s support along the Durand Line in Pakistan. TTP has become the ‘Hamas’ of Pakistan.
Very interestingly, the TTP had a competitor in the Pashtun Tahafuzz Movement (PTM) since 2014. The movement was non-violently political and asked for genuine constitutional rights.
It was led by educated Pashtun youth who were against the broad banding of the Pashtuns with the Taliban. PTM had a competing support base with TTP in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and northern Baluchistan.
If Pakistan had handled the PTM well, it could have marginalized the TTP. It was a golden opportunity. However, Pakistan’s poor-sighted military and political leadership felt that PTM was the more significant challenge and that TTP could be controlled.
They went after the PTM to weaken it! Overall, the Pakistan military’s incoherent approach, priority, and response have ensured that the TTP has become the evil genie that has been let out of the bottle. Unopposed locally, it has grown from strength to strength.
At this point, the TTP is beyond the Pakistan Army’s control for many reasons. The political, financial, and geopolitical situation in which Pakistan finds itself precludes any meaningful action against the TTP. In any case, till elections are held, no major initiative can be expected.
Moreover, the Afghan Taliban has very clearly indicated that it will continue to support TTP and that Pakistan has to look within to rectify its defects. As people’s support for the TTP is increasing, the ham-handed operational approach of the Pakistani Army is driving them away.
To top it all, the forced migration of 1.7 million people across the Durand Line has not yet played out entirely. When viewed coldly, this deportation will only put the Taliban firmly in opposition to Pakistan and will immensely strengthen TTP. As it stood, Pakistan’s control over the areas astride the Durand Line was poor and tenuous. Hereafter, it will be even more so.
My mind goes to what I read in Dawn the other day. It reads, ‘ Pakistan and Afghanistan have always had a complex relationship that both sides have mishandled. Each has expected the other to make up for the failure of its policies, has sought solutions that were worse than the problem’.
Pakistan Army, which fashions itself as being the Islamic version of the IDF, has taken a leaf out of Israel’s book by doing something very similar. It has sought a solution which is worse than the problem.
The outcome of the forced expulsion of 1.7 million people will be disastrous in the long run since Pakistan and its Army do not have the capacity or the insight to control the situation they are creating for themselves.
In my opinion, large swathes of areas in the Pashtun-dominated areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan are already out of the grasp of the Pakistan State. To that extent, Pakistan has already lost its territorial sovereignty in all such areas.
As days pass, this will become even more pronounced. We are witnessing the transformation of a ‘de jure’ Pakistan on a map into a ‘de facto’ Pakistan on the ground, shorn of Pashtun-dominated areas.
This will be permanent, in my opinion. Hereafter, Pakistan will exist in this jelly state. The question is whether the current ‘de facto’ Pakistan ‘on the ground’ eventually acquires the ‘de jure’ status ‘on the map.’ When that happens, we might see the birth of a new nation or an extension of Afghanistan eastwards.