The Withdrawal of US Troops from Afghanistan: The Case of Balochistan

The missing case of Balochistan.

A powerful explosion apparently from a suicide bomber struck the parking lot of the Serena, in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province. It is unclear whether the Chinese visitors had been the targets of the attack, which was claimed by the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. But the group’s statement of responsibility said a suicide bomber had intended to strike a meeting of “locals and foreigners” at the Serena. By many analysts it is perceived as an attack on combined interests of Pakistan and China. However, if we analysis this event in the larger context it could be the show of preparedness by hostile forces reckoning the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. As the rest of the world plea their cases after the withdrawal of forces the narrative of Balochistan is missing. This article analyses an assortment of different research and news articles to present the case of Pakistan vis-à-vis Balochistan.

Serena Hotel Attack

This brief serves as a framework for strategic thinking and planning for Pakistan and other stakeholders to reckon their positions after the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. At this point it seems as if USA is more concerned about the safe withdrawal of troops than a sustainable peace in the region. The article will try to shed light on the overall of context and then will focus particularly on implications towards Balochistan. If we examined the present literature on withdrawal of troops, we can observe that two very important points that are imperative to the peace of Pakistan are missing from the discussion. First of all, there is no discussion about the possible nexus of Irani Baloch militants with Baloch militants in Pakistan and how it can be used against Pakistan in coming days. Then there is also no debate on the Fatemiyoun Brigade, fighters that have returned to their homeland after easing of war in Syria, prompting fears that Iran could mobilize the proxy group to target U.S. interests in neighbouring Pakistan and to marginalised the Sunni militias. But before going in that detail lets first discuss the troops withdrawal.

Withdrawal of Troops from Afghanistan

Is it too soon for US to withdraw its forces?       

While discussing the new US national security strategy, Swedish defence research institute reckon that it includes a continued commitment to support the Afghan government and the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) in the fight against the Taliban and terrorism. It further claims that the strategy also indicates a harder stance against Pakistan, insisting that Pakistan should take decisive action against the militant and terrorist groups operating from Pakistani soil[i]. The ongoing peace talks between the US and the Taliban that began at the end of 2018 have been portrayed as a window of opportunity and a possible starting point towards peace in Afghanistan. The talks consist of four pillars: a withdrawal of troops, guarantees that Afghanistan will not become a platform for terrorism, intra-Afghan dialogue, and a comprehensive ceasefire. While the peace talks are still in progress the US president Biden announced the withdrawal of US forces within this year. This explicit wish of the US to withdraw, in combination with the outcome of the peace talks, will affect not only the future of international engagement in Afghanistan, including NATO’s Resolute Support Mission (RSM), but the future of the country and its neighbours like Pakistan. This has let scholars to contemplate the possibility of other outcomes, such as: an abrupt end to the talks and a subsequent withdrawal of troops; or a withdrawal that would follow in the event there was no peace deal at all.

[i] Studies in Peace Support Operations. The implications of a US withdrawal from Afghanistan Four scenarios by Isabel Green Jonegård. Swedish Defence Research Institute.

The representatives of the extended “Troika,” comprising the United States, the Russian Federation, the People’s Republic of China, and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, are trying ways to support intra-Afghan negotiations and help the parties reach a negotiated settlement and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.[i]  However we cannot limit the stakeholder to these parties, several actors, both neighbouring states and others, have political and economic interests in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. Pakistan and India are engaged in limiting each other’s influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan is trying to maintain strategic depth, while India is currently one of the main donors of international aid to Afghanistan. Pakistan has long been accused of providing safe havens for terrorists, although lately Pakistan’s influence over the Afghan Taliban has been questioned by scholars[ii].


[i] Joint Statement on the Extended “Troika” on Peaceful Settlement in Afghanistan.

[ii] Studies in Peace Support Operations. The implications of a US withdrawal from Afghanistan Four scenarios by Isabel Green Jonegård. Swedish Defence Research Institute.

The Brookings Institution believes that the basic wisdom of the Biden’s administration decision is the realization that perpetuating U.S. military engagement would not reverse these dynamics and that U.S. military, financial, diplomatic, and leadership resources would be better spent on other issues. Even so, the administration made some serious tactical mistakes in its announcement[i].


[i] The US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan is the right one? by Vanda Felbab-Brown the Brookings Institution.

Vanda from the Brookings Institution writes that although correct in its basic strategic decision, the Biden administration nonetheless made a major tactical error while announcing the new withdrawal timeline just a few days before a planned Istanbul conference on Afghanistan, it undercut peace diplomacy. The United States and the international community put a lot of diplomatic capital into a rushed and undercooked effort, further weakening the embattled Afghan government and augmenting the fractious tendencies among the Afghan elite. Managed differently, the conference could have generated a new negotiating process, complementing the moribund Doha peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Unsurprisingly, the Taliban said this week that it would not engage in any peace conference until after all international troops are out of Afghanistan. This U.S. tactical error is costly for future American and international diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan.

As reported in leading international newspapers that since United States struck a deal with the Taliban in February 2020, paving the way for America to end its longest war, there have been no U.S. combat deaths, and there have been only isolated attacks on U.S. bases. Instead, the Taliban intensified attacks on Afghan government forces, and civilian casualties have spiralled. Peace talks between the militants and the government, begun in September last year, have made no significant progress, and a U.N. report said civilian casualties were up 45% in the last three months of 2020 from a year earlier. Testing Taliban patience, U.S. President Joe Biden served notice that the U.S. withdrawal would overshoot the May 1 deadline agreed by the previous U.S. administration, while giving an assurance that it would be completed by Sept. 11 – the 20th anniversary of the al Qaeda attacks on the United States. In the past few weeks alone, the militants have killed more than 100 Afghan security personnel in a surge of attacks that followed Biden’s announcement that a U.S. withdrawal would take a few months more.

Afghan defence ministry spokesman Fawad Aman while giving interview to a newspaper said the Taliban had ramped up violence against the Afghan people and their government, while holding fire against foreign forces. More than 3,000 Afghan civilians were killed and almost 5,800 were wounded in 2020, according to a United Nation report. “By not attacking the foreign forces but continuously targeting the Afghan security forces and civilians, the Taliban have shown that they are fighting against the people of Afghanistan,” Aman said.

In this scenario we can contemplate that US troop withdrawal, whether timely or precipitant, will render consequences for international engagement in Afghanistan. Peace in Afghanistan, through a limited, well-designed agreement, will neither automatically end corruption nor the patron-client system. Each stakeholder will need different approaches from the international community in its future relations with Afghanistan, and in safeguarding its interests, especially the gains that have been achieved over the years. Based on this assumption this report will put forward the case of Balochistan in the following sections.

The Fatemiyoun Brigade Factor.

Liwa Fatemiyoun

When Syria’s civil war erupted, Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) recruited, trained, and deployed thousands of Shi’ite fighters to prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Among them was the Fatemiyoun Brigade, comprised mainly of Afghans from the country’s Shi’ite Hazara minority. From 2011, the IRGC recruited thousands of Afghan migrants and refugees within its own borders and covertly drafted hundreds of Shi’a inside Afghanistan. The majority of Muslims in Afghanistan are Sunni, but around 15 percent of its population — mainly Hazara — are Shi’a with religious links to the Shi’ite majority in Iran[i]. With the Syrian war ebbing, several thousand Fatemiyoun fighters have returned to their homeland, prompting fears that Iran could mobilize the proxy group to target U.S. interests in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan to marginalised the Sunni militants. “We should certainly be concerned about the risk of Iran using this asset in Afghanistan to go after U.S. troops or other American interests in the country,” said Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington. But we believe that Fatemiyoun Brigade can be a ticking bomb for Pakistan as these fighters in Afghanistan give Tehran a potentially useful proxy to serve its interest against the Sunni militias in Pakistan.


[i] The Return of Pro-Iranian Militia Fighters to Afghanistan Fuels Fears in Kabul, Washington by Frud Bezhan

Rahmatullah Nabil, the two-time head of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS), the country’s main intelligence agency, estimated that between 2,500 to 3,000 Fatemiyoun fighters have returned to Afghanistan. “At this stage it seems they are not in a position to pose an immediate threat to Afghanistan’s national security,” said Nabil, who was intelligence chief from 2010-12 and 2013-15. “They are not organized but scattered in different parts of the country.” But he said the former members of the Fatemiyoun Brigade could pose a threat if they “establish a central command.” Nabil said it was unclear if Afghan intelligence — predominately focused on the war against the Taliban and the Islamic State (IS) — was monitoring the movements of the fighters. Most of the ex-fighters have settled in their homes in central Afghanistan, which is predominately Hazara, and in Hazara settlements in the western part of the country, along the border with Iran.

Ali Alfoneh is an IRGC expert and a senior fellow at The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. He believes that it was plausible that Iran was deploying Fatemiyoun members to Afghanistan as part of Tehran’s two-prong attempt to prepare for a U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan. “On the one hand, Tehran has normalized relations with the Taliban, which in Tehran’s analysis will seize power in Kabul before long,” he said. “On the other hand, Tehran is preparing for a scenario in which the Taliban once again turns against Iran in the future.”

Frud Bezhan a freelance journalist in Afghanistan claims that U.S. officials have accused Tehran of providing support to the Taliban, an allegation it denies. Tehran has confirmed it has contacts with the Taliban but insists that any communications are aimed at ensuring the safety of Iranian citizens in Afghanistan and encouraging the Taliban to join peace talks. Ismail Qaani, who in January 2020 succeeded Soleimani as head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, the overseas operations arm of the IRGC, has a long history with Afghanistan. The 63-year-old general made a mysterious trip to Afghanistan in 2018. In the 1980s, Qaani led the IRGC’s activities in Afghanistan. In the 1990s, Qaani was involved in providing logistical, financial, and military support to the Northern Alliance, which was fighting the Taliban. When the Syrian civil war erupted, Qaani is believed to have been personally involved in the organization of the Fatemiyoun Brigade. It included veterans of the Abuzar Brigade, an Afghan militia consisting of Shi’a who had fought on Iran’s side in the war against Iraq.

Akbar Notezai a journalist in Pakistan asserts that While Pakistan and Iran historically had shared interests in combating militant groups in Balochistan, today the region has become a space where cross-border militancy can easily aggravate tensions. Iran considers Jaish ul-Adl a proxy of Saudi Arabia and Soleimani at the time lambasted Pakistan, demanding concrete action from Islamabad and blaming Pakistan’s increasingly close connection with Saudi Arabia for the violence in Iran.

Notezai warns while writing for The Diplomate that Under Soleimani, the Quds Force’s main concern regarding Pakistan was the recruitment of Pakistani Shias to fight in Syria to protect the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Iran is said to have increased its footprint in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan, as part of its efforts to recruit Pakistan Shias to join the Zainabiyoun Brigade militia group in Syria. These Shia Muslims pass through illegal border points in Balochistan to reach Iran without Islamabad’s knowledge. From there, they would be dispatched to Syria by the IRGC and Quds Force to fight the rebels opposed to Assad’s regime[i]. However, Soleimani’s successor Ismail Qaani could adopt a very different – and more dangerous — strategy for the region. Qaani has reportedly looked after Iranian priorities in the east, such as drug trafficking in the border region and aiding Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance in its fight against the Taliban. Under Qaani’s leadership, the Quds Force is likely to foment trouble not only in Middle East but also in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This development has serious implications for the security situation in Afghanistan as well as Iran’s relationship with Pakistan.


[i] The Coming Crisis Along the Iran-Pakistan Border by Muhammad Akbar Notezai

Neither Pakistan nor Iran can afford an environment of escalated tension in the region, which is why it is high time for the two countries to normalize the situation before the US troops leave Afghanistan. If Pakistan and Iran continue to ignore the situation and get involved in a blame game — as they are doing right now — the situation will get out of hand, inviting a troubled future. Both countries are fighting Baloch militants in their respective country and these insurgencies are a snag to sustainable peace in the region.

Baloch insurgency in Iran

baloch insurgency in iran

After the withdrawal of US troops, we reckon the Baloch insurgency in Iran and Pakistan can take a new turn. Chris Zambelis of Combating terrorism centre while writing about the insurgency in Iran discusses in Sistan-Baluchistan, where the majority of ethnic Baloch reside, is one of Iran’s poorest and least developed regions. The Sunni faith of most Iranian Baloch places them at odds with the Islamic Republic’s Shia identity. The localized ethnic and tribal identities of ethnic Baloch, who share cultural and kinship ties with fellow ethnic Baloch minority populations in neighbouring Pakistan and Afghanistan, are also a source of contention. Sistan-Baluchistan is located along one of the world’s busiest narcotics trafficking corridors and adjacent to Pakistan’s own southwestern Balochistan Province—a region simmering in a decades-long nationalist insurgency led by Pakistani Baloch. Consequently, the Iranian government tends to treat the region as a security threat.[i] The influence of radical Islamist and, in particular, hardliner Salafist ideologies among ethnic Baloch militants in Iran is likely to remain an important driver of events in Sistan-Baluchistan in the foreseeable future.  The deteriorating security situation in neighbouring Pakistan and Afghanistan, especially in the context of the impending withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan can further complicates an already difficult set of dynamics affecting Sistan-Baluchistan and Balochistan. The further destabilization of Iran’s eastern neighbours is sure to transcend borders in the form of accelerated refugee flows, arms, narcotics, and human trafficking, and the spread of violent political and religious militancy.


[i] The Evolution of the Ethnic Baluch Insurgency in Iran MARCH 2014, VOLUME 7, ISSUE 3

Baloch nationalism and insurgency in Pakistan

baloch

Muhammad Amir Rana while writing for Dawn news analyse the relation between religion, nationalism and insurgency from perceptive of Pakistan highlights the nexus of insurgent from both sides of boarder.  In Gwadar, Turbat, Panjgur, Washuk, Chaghi, Kharan, Kech, Nushki and Awaran districts, nationalist tendencies are dominant among the clergy, who have to deal with other influences, including from nationalist political parties and insurgent groups of both left-wing leaning and religious-nationalist character. Pakistani Baloch insurgent groups such as the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) and the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) are mainly active here and are seen as having largely a leftist or secular ideological character. The Iranian Baloch insurgent groups, mainly Jaishul Adl (JA), are also present in bordering areas of some of these districts and deemed as religious-nationalist owing to their use of a religious ethos to influence their fellow Baloch in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province.[i]


[i] RELIGION, NATIONALISM AND INSURGENCY IN BALOCHISTAN by Muhammad Amir Rana Dawn News

Local accounts from Panjgur and Nushki claim that JA has separatist tendencies and, like the Pakistani Baloch groups BLA and BLF, it advocates for a ‘greater Balochistan’ comprising Baloch regions within Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. This is the reason that has drawn the Baloch youth from Pakistan’s bordering towns to join the group. Contemplating on these issues we cannot rule out a possible nexus among these militant group in coming days owing to the changing political scenario after the Us troops withdrawal.

Why to focus on Balochistan?

This detail discussion leads us to the question why do we need to focus on Balochistan for sustainable peace in region. Because, Americans’ involvement in Afghanistan for last 20 years was to meet one end i.e., sustainable peace in region and that cannot be achieve without Balochistan as Balochistan is the filed of proxy wars.  Hoshang Noraiee in latest research on Baloch nationalism in Pakistan discusses Balochistan as a field of proxy wars. The paper argues that currently, Balochistan is a field of proxy wars between regional and international powers. Now Iran, alongside with India and Afghanistan, as well as the United States, seems to be actively involved in proxy wars in Balochistan in Pakistan. There has been an argument in India about persuading Iran and Afghanistan to support the Baloch insurgents against Pakistan and also providing facilities for the Pakistani Baloch in western countries to raise their plans. The United States has much concern about the Chinese who have heavily invested in Balochistan. A group of Republican congressmen led by Rohrabacher have frequently met the Baloch nationalist representatives not only from Pakistan but also from Iran, in Washington, London, and Germany. Whereas, it is supposed that Pakistani security forces support Iranian Baloch ethno-religious militants such as Jaish al-Adl, Iranian Security forces support Pakistani Militant Baloch against Pakistan. Indian Security forces have always been supporting the Baloch nationalists in Pakistan. The situation developed in the area is reflecting some characteristics of what has been called New Wars.[i]


[i] The Baloch nationalism in Pakistan: Articulation of the ethnic separatism after the end of the Cold War Hoshang Noraiee Journal of Eurasian Studies 2020, Vol. 11(1) 72–85

Conclusion

Under such circumstances leaving Balochistan out of the equation will only reap more terrorism, hate, loathing and killing of innocent people. The first line of responsibility lies with the politicians of province to present case of Balochistan more effectively on national and international forums. Then the state needs to address all the chronic social, political and economic issues of Balochistan by taking all the stakeholders on board. Finally, the representatives of the extended “Troika,” comprising the United States, the Russian Federation, the People’s Republic of China, and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, need to understand that sustainable peace in this region is not possible without a peaceful and prosperous Balochistan.   


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