As Kabul evacuation winds down, Pakistan will take center stage

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Despite the drama and tragedies of the U.S. evacuation from Kabul, the “story” is moving inexorably to the next stage. The theme will be geography, and the major player will become Pakistan.

A glance at a map may tell only half the story. Afghanistan is landlocked. Iran is its biggest neighbor, but its longest border is with Pakistan. A tongue of territory pokes eastwards to China. Its northern border is with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, two of the former Soviet “stans,” but these are almost irrelevant.

Click on satellite view and two factors are clear. The nearest foreign capital to Kabul is Islamabad in Pakistan. It’s closer to Kabul than are the major Afghan cities of Kandahar and Herat. And much of the border with Pakistan is mountainous, seriously so. In political terms that makes it hard to control, and easy to hide in. After all, that’s where Osama bin Laden hid, before and after the 9/11 attacks.

Satellites don’t filter for ethnicity, and the CIA World Factbook, usually a handy reference guide for such data, says that nothing current is available, noting that is a “sensitive subject.” The country’s 2004 constitution recognizes 14 ethnic groups and the Factbook lists Pashtuns first.  The next paragraph notes that, aside from Dari (Afghan Persian), by far the most widely spoken ethnic language (50 percent) is Pashto.

Search Pashto and among the pages that emerge are areas where the language is predominantly spoken. Apart from eastern and southern Afghanistan, it includes a huge swath of northwestern Pakistan. Like it or not, this is the underlying nightmare of Pakistan-Afghanistan relations. Despite diplomatic agreements dating to the era of British rule, some people in this area — the proportion is debatable — see themselves as part of a “Pashtoonistan,” alternatively rendered as Paktunistan, rather than Pakistan.

In this view, which is not a subject for discussion in polite society in Pakistan, Paktunistan extends at least as far as the river Indus, the great river that flows from the mighty Himalayas down to the coast of the Indian Ocean at Karachi. Some would argue that Paktunistan envelopes the whole of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which until 2010 retained its almost romantic-sounding British name of North-West Frontier Province, or NWFP. The province extends as far as Islamabad, which sits in its own Canberra-like “capital territory,” in itself an admission of unresolved internal provincial tensions in Pakistan.

Peeling back a misleading perception of Pakistan, while notionally a democracy ruled by onetime cricketing heartthrob Imran Khan, the reality is that on security and foreign affairs, the military calls the shots. But the obsession of its generals is India, rather than Afghanistan directly. Their fear, mysterious to many, is that Indian machinations in Kabul were encircling Pakistan. The arrival of the Taliban is, therefore, good news in the messes of Rawalpindi, the garrison city adjacent to Islamabad.

The downside for Pakistan is an avalanche of yet more refugees from Afghanistan, who are costly and disruptive to society. The upside, at least in the often-blinkered minds of the military, is the potential to direct the energies of some of fighting against Indian forces in the disputed territory of Kashmir on Pakistan’s eastern border. In 2019, New Delhi had outmaneuvered Islamabad by absorbing the territory, a diplomatic coup de main that Pakistan was unable to counter at the time.

That was then. This is now. Planners in the Pentagon must work in new circumstances. If they seek a future ability to project U.S. force in Afghanistan, they will need overflight permission to fly missions across Pakistani territory, although Pakistan will be playing its own games in Afghanistan and against India.

The White House, meanwhile, will want to work with India, the much bigger economy and putative strategic partner. And all the time there is the awareness that Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons, not just for doomsday use but also in case a conventional clash runs out of control.

The Kabul evacuation has been untidy and tragic. Afghanistan as an issue may be about to lose its place center stage, but it is unlikely to go away.

Simon Henderson, a former BBC correspondent in Islamabad, is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.

Tags Afghanistan Afghanistan–Pakistan relations Imran Khan India Pakistan us troop withdrawal

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