September Special

Securing the Western Borders

The traditional quiet on the western borders – tribal regions and Afghanistan – ended long ago with the military invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union on Dec 25, 1979. In the climate of the Cold War, the western world, Islamic countries and Pakistan reacted to this aggression by organizing, equipping and assisting the Afghan Mujahedeen in many ways to fight their holy war efficiently. The reactive war started with doubts about the Soviet army, known for defending its occupied territories, including the wide imperial stretch of the Czars, to quit Afghanistan under pressure. Against all odds, the Afghans, every ethnic group of the nation, rose up in revolt and defended their country with the traditional conviction and valour. Pakistan played a key role in pushing the Soviets back, no matter what the cost it had to pay then and later. In our strategic thinking looked in the long-term, security threat of Soviet consolidation was greater than the immediate cost of hosting millions of Afghan refugees and earning the wrath of the Soviet leaders. We found the entire world except the countries aligned with Moscow on our side. The youth from the Islamic world and Pakistanis with religious orientation inspired by their leaders went to Afghanistan to fight along with the Mujahedeen. The western borderlands became centre point of the Mujahedeen war. Every possible point of entry into Pakistan for refugees became a potential point of movement of weapons and fighters into Afghanistan. We cannot understand the present security challenges in the western borderlands without knowing this background and without realizing how long cycles of wars for more than thirty-four years have affected every institution of the borderland that provided stability, security and peaceful environment for the local populations. The region became the forward staging ground for the Afghan Mujahedeen and their guest fighters from Pakistan and other Islamic countries. All the weapons, material supplies, spies and militant commanders moved through the border areas. As the main actors in the Afghan war changed from Soviets vs. Mujahedeen to inter-Mujahedeen and Taliban and Northern Front, the war effects on the region mitigated very little. The fourth cycle of the war – the American-led war against the Taliban regime, the longest and deadliest ever – has produced some ideological ripple effects throughout Pakistan. One of these effects is in the form of Taliban groups in different regions under militant commanders and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). This militant movement acknowledges Mullah Omar of Afghanistan as the spiritual and ideological leader. In terms of theological lineage and sectarian identity, and even Pashtun ethnic background of leaders (there are Punjabis in smaller numbers), the Taliban is a transnational movement. Both in times of war and peace they cross borders, seek mutual assistance and alternate sanctuaries. Differences, in any, are tactical and in choosing time to act alliances. However, not all Taliban groups and their foot soldiers are driven by ideology alone. Acquiring power over the local population and an opportunity to seek extortion from traders, transporters and vulnerable groups in a climate of collapsing state institutions has provided opportunity to criminal, like drug traffickers, smugglers and kidnappers to enter the Taliban ranks. The Taliban label and militancy has produced many diverse groups and leaders in every tribal area. Although they are weakened at this time, and hopefully with sustained national efforts and determination of the armed forces, would be eliminated, the residual effects of their war against the state and people will continue to vibrate for long time. They have for too long crippled the authority of the state, destroyed traditional institutions and structures of authority and help the local populations hostage. The state will have to work hard to win the hearts and minds of the local populations and tribal chiefs, restore their confidence in the authority of the state and devote energies and development funds for reconstruction. As one of the great successful operations to dislodge the militants from Swat and subsequent to reconstruction work in different fields of social and physical rehabilitation suggests, we as a nation can rebuild Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The local security threats in terms of militant groups in the border regions is linked to other security challenges – involvement of external powers and the militant sanctuaries inside Afghanistan. India, our traditional adversary has in the past, rather from the day one of our independence, has exploited our vulnerabilities to destabilize us. For decades, it supported ethnic militancy and separatism in Balochistan and the Pashtun areas. While the earlier phase of Pashtun nationalism and its militancy has faded off with integration of this community in the economic, social and political life of the country, the Baloch ethnic militancy has abated and surged. One of the major reasons for the re-emergence of Baloch militant activities is easy, and readily available sanctuary across the border in Afghanistan. The Indian spy networks have expanded reach in Afghanistan owing to their growing “strategic partnership.” Indian intelligence agencies, operating quite independently of the Afghans, have used their presence in that country to create troubles in Balochistan and the Pashtun borderlands. After being driven from Swat and all FATA regions, the TTP has found safe havens in adjoining provinces of Afghanistan. It is funded, equipped and advised by foreign powers. For the past four years, they have been staging attacks on our security forces on the border from their hideouts in Afghanistan. This presents a serious security challenge along with western borders, something we never faced in the previous decades. The cross-border raids may strain our security forces, spread of resources thin and menace our national security. One of the major security challenges we have faced in the borderlands is the presence of foreign militants from Central Asia and Arab countries. There are many narratives of their presence here, but whatever the reason, they have refused themselves the opportunity to stay as peaceful foreigners or naturalized Pakistani citizens. They are committed to Jihadist ideology and have spent their lives and careers with dangerous transnational militant groups, like Al-Qaeda and Islamic movements in Central Asia. They have committed some of the worst atrocities against our forces and have been staging attacks against our security installations and forces deep inside the country. Lastly, the evolving security environment of Afghanistan – its stability or turmoil and growing strategic linkage with India – must worry us all. Both its failure in achieving national reconciliation in true sense and instability will greatly impact our national security in the western borderlands. Therefore, it is necessary that as we rebuild border regions institutionally and in terms of social and economic development, we also extend our helping hand to Afghanistan to stabilize itself.

The writer is an eminent defence/political analyst and regularly contributes in print/electronic media. Presently he is Director General at 'Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad'.

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