THINK TANK | Pakistan on a Precipice? by ORG
IndraStra Global

THINK TANK | Pakistan on a Precipice? by ORG

By Oxford Research Group

Key points:
  • While not yet on a precipice, Pakistan is facing serious difficulties, which could, if left un-addressed, reach a point of no return in the next few years. The next two electoral cycles are key.
  • For the UK, Pakistan is of far greater strategic concern than Afghanistan. It could become the top UK foreign policy issue from 2015/6.
  • The effect of the war in Afghanistan and its overflow into Pakistan is key to understanding Pakistan’s instability.

THINK TANK | Pakistan on a Precipice? by ORG

Britain has a long term strategic interest in Pakistan given the large Pakistani community in the UK - some 1.2 million people - who are very concerned about the future of Pakistan, and whose lives are often impacted by events in that country. British engagement in Afghanistan was supposed to assure UK security. However it is clear now that, the UK military presence in Afghanistan is a more temporary interest. Therefore, the UK shouldn't make its relationship with Pakistan contingent on events in Afghanistan because the UK’s relationship with Pakistan is of greater importance, particularly regarding issues such as immigration, terrorism and security. Moreover, were Pakistan to become a “failed state”, something which was still reckoned by a majority of discussion participants as unlikely, waves of Pakistani refugees would, in all probability, make their way to the UK. It is, thus, in the UK’s interest to base the UK-Pakistan relationship on more pressing issues of mutual interest, which don’t hinge on events in Afghanistan.

Pakistan-US relations are dysfunctional. The US Congress and the National Assembly are pulling bilateral relations between the two nations further apart.  It is likely that the US-Pakistan relationship will deteriorate even further after 2014. Already, opinion-leaders in Washington, such as Christine Fair and Bruce Riedel, have already started to resort to terms, such as “containment”, as a future policy for the relationship, and Afghanistan is seen as “a proxy war between NATO and Pakistan”. Following withdrawal from Afghanistan, Western military reliance on Pakistan as a supply route will be sharply reduced, and suppressed tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan might then come to a head. There are a number of worst-case scenarios.

Operation Zarb-e-Azb:

By late 2013, some 10-15% of Pakistan were not under control of the Pakistani military. Pashtun areas of Pakistan have been the most adversely affected, since the Durand Line continues to be thought of by Taliban and by successive Afghan Governments as an artificial colonial imposition dividing the Pashtun people. With some 18 million Afghan Pashtuns and a further 30 million Pakistani Pashtuns, the potential for greater instability is very real, as long as instability and conflict remain unresolved. By June 2014, Pakistan Army launched  “Operation Zarb-e-Azb” (Sharp Strike). The military operation is the first of its kind against the Islamist insurgents based in the North Waziristan district of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. However, there have been previous operations elsewhere in FATA since Pakistan’s first operation against al-Qaeda, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other foreign Islamist militant groups in the area in 2002. The current operation is intended to target al-Qaeda and its associated movements, both foreign and domestic, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the Chechen Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) and Emirate-e-Kaukav, as well as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and other various factions of the TTP.

The semi-autonomous FATA comprises seven districts (a.k.a. agencies), and North Waziristan is known for its rugged and rough terrain and inhospitable environment. Previous major military operations conducted in FATA’s six other districts were Operation al-Mizan, Operation Zalzala, Operation Sher Dil, Operation Rah-e-Rast, Operation Rah-e-Haq and Operation Rah-e-Nijat. Despite some achievements, however, most of these operations were not fully successful. For years, consecutive Pakistani governments and military authorities avoided opening a new front against entrenched Islamist militants in North Waziristan, despite coming under intense pressure from the United States and other Western governments as many international terrorist plots had their origins in North Waziristan, particularly in camps associated with al-Qaeda and the TTP.

An example of this reluctance to enter North Waziristan came after Operation Rah-e-Nijat, the last major operation launched by Pakistan Army against the Islamist militants in FATA in 2009. This operation targeted TTP-controlled areas in South Waziristan. In 2011, the then Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, was urged by the international community to also pursue on-the-run Islamist militants seeking refuge in North Waziristan. Lieutenant General Asif Yasin Malik, however, who was supervising operations in the area, told a group of reporters the same year: “We will undertake operations in North Waziristan when we want to... We will undertake such an operation when it is in our national interest militarily” (Dawn, June 1, 2011). The army also repeatedly said that it was overstretched and could not maintain its supply lines if it had expanded its military operation into North Waziristan.

Pakistan will play a key role in any sustained peace talks with the Afghan Taliban. The question is whether Pakistan is prepared to co-operate in reaching a negotiated settlement, given its risk-aversion, and in particular, whether the ISI is willing to apply pressure to the Taliban. The Pakistani military does not want a complete and undisputed Taliban victory and government in Afghanistan. It is prepared to see a power-sharing scenario unfold in Afghanistan. While previously, the Pakistani military might have wanted India out of Afghanistan entirely, they are now willing to accept a limited presence. Distrust remains deeply entrenched on both sides. On the one hand, the U.S. is suspicious regarding the ISI and Pakistani military’s attitude toward Taliban, and Pakistan feels that the U.S. is insincere in its calls for a solution, and is in fact attempting to weaken the Taliban and split the insurgents.

One of the key areas of difference on any sustained talks on peace and reconciliation is the very meaning of the word “reconciliation”. As far as the U.S. government is concerned, in any reconciliation, the Taliban must accommodate the status quo and receive an amnesty in return. Thus far, there has been no serious thought dedicated to the possibility of a renegotiation of the status quo. Some argue that any talks between the Afghan government and Taliban are unlikely to succeed as long as the U.S. continues to insist on maintaining military bases after its withdrawal from Afghanistan. This point is a non-starter for the Taliban. U.S. insistence on bases could exacerbate the drift towards civil war, and yet the U.S. insists that it needs military bases for the purpose of training the Afghan army and to continue to project into Pakistan by means of drone bombing campaigns.

The Role of ISI:

In Pakistan, the ISI has been cooperating with the U.S. on terrorism – the level of cooperation is apparently unaffected by the ongoing bilateral tensions in public. The ISI is cracking down on groups which might consider launching attacks abroad, because they fear severe repercussions and condemnation in the event of any terror attack in the U.S. being traced back to Pakistan. The Pakistan army has also stationed some 40,000 troops in Waziristan in order to bring back a semblance of stability to a region. Sectarianism is on the rise. As a result of severe repression, the insurgency in Baluchistan has moved from demands for human and civil rights to demanding independence, provoking further disillusionment with the Pakistani military’s handling of the situation. The Pakistani army is unsure of how to proceed, and has realised that extra-judicial killings will not solve this long-standing issue.

The Pakistani military and the ISI are not monolithic entities and are themselves riven by various different ideological tendencies and strategic priorities. Some elements in both the ISI and regular army, for example, were greatly angered by the purges of Islamists and Islamist sympathisers in the two institutions. Senior ex military figures appear in public at rallies organised by the anti U.S. Difa-i-Pakistan Council (Pakistan Defence Council). General Kayani’s reaction after the killing of Bin Laden to the anger felt within the Pakistani military by immediately visting the major military centres to engage with senior officers to try to defuse tensions shows his keen awareness of the acute sensitivities with the military.

The Other Angles:

International engagement may not be working, but there are no alternatives. Engagement by external actors will not be able to alter the strategic orientation of Pakistan. Engagement such as DFID’s primary education programme - the largest in the world - is an example of a focused limited external intervention. U.S. economic aid is dwarfed 7:1 by remittances from Pakistani expatriates in the Gulf. The U.S. does play a role in terms of influencing World Bank and IMF policy towards Pakistan. While relations between China and Pakistan remain important and China continues to be seen as an “all-weather partner,” China doesn’t wish to step in and replace the U.S. as Pakistan’s key strategic ally. China’s own Muslim population is vulnerable to radicalisation as a result of the war in Afghanistan and thus regards stability as its prime objective. China has even gone as far as to advice the Pakistanis to mend their relationship with the U.S.

An additional risk arising from Operation Zarb-e-Azb is that adjacent Afghan provinces could now become a “new North Waziristan” as Islamist militants pushed out by Zarb-e-Azb have taken refuge there, underlining the problems caused by Pakistan’s failure to get the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani on board before launching the operation. This lack of Afghanistan-Pakistan cooperation, and the resulting militant safe havens into Afghanistan, is likely to be one reason why no major Islamist militant leader, such as Fazlullah, Adnan Rashid, Omar Khalid Khorasani and Hafiz Gul Bahadur, has so far been killed or captured during the operation.


Pakistan’s many domestic crises are the result of a lack of political will by the political elite. The decline in security will likely continue - as will the fall in living standards. Militancy will also continue to spread unless basic issues such as employment, job creation, economic development, and the state school education system are seriously tackled. The Islamic movements provide purpose, social mobility, social networking and jobs. 

This article was originally published at ORG's Website under Creative Commons License 3.0