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Belt and Road

Pakistan fears Afghan pullback by US will stall Belt and Road

Taliban militants increase border attacks as American influence wanes

Prime Minister Imran Khan, left, and Afghan Taliban fighters, shown celebrating the peace deal between the U.S. and Taliban in March 2020. (Source photos by Getty Images)

ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan fears that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan -- in line with the American-Taliban peace deal signed last year -- will increase instability in both itself and its neighbor, causing more security threats and ultimately putting China's Belt and Road projects at risk.

U.S. forces have already started pulling out of Afghanistan after 20 years of America's longest war. The withdrawal is expected to complete on Sept. 11 to mark the 20th anniversary of the devastating al-Qaida attacks on the U.S.

Even before the withdrawal began, instability in Pakistan has steadily increased. The outlawed militant group Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehreek e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has taken advantage of the situation and increased cross-border attacks in Pakistan. Last month, Chinese Ambassador Nong Rong barely survived a suicide attack by TTP in Quetta. Last week, the group killed nine security personnel in multiple attacks near the Pakistan-Afghan border.

Militancy analyst Fakhar Kakakhel believes the U.S. withdrawal coupled with a weak government in Kabul will seriously destabilize the region. "In future, TTP will have more safe pockets in regions close to Pakistani borders," Kakakhel told Nikkei Asia. Taliban members from Afghanistan and Pakistan allegedly use the border region as a sanctuary. Both groups are believed to operate separately but maintain close ties.

On April 30, Pakistan joined the U.S., Russia and China to call on the Afghan government and Taliban to ensure that Afghan soil is not used for cross-border attacks, according to a statement issued by the U.S. State Department.

Analysts feel the uncertainty in Afghanistan has provided TTP with a window to attack interests in Pakistan, including the projects of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC -- the $50 billion Pakistan component of the Belt and Road initiative.

Przemyslaw Lesinski, an Afghanistan expert at the War Studies Academy in Warsaw, told Nikkei that after the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, TTP can more easily attack targets that are important for Pakistan's economy, including the CPEC. "Some [Chinese] investments are located near the traditional areas of TTP's activities, so it makes them natural targets," he said.

"CPEC has not traditionally been a top target of TTP in Pakistan. But in recent months, anti-China rhetoric has [surfaced] in TTP propaganda, especially because of China's oppression of Uyghur Muslims," Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia Program at Wilson Center, told Nikkei. He added that as TTP continues to reemerge, the chances of major attacks on Chinese targets in Pakistan are very real.

According to the World Bank, Pakistan's economy is projected to grow just 1.3% in fiscal 2021 ending June. Newly appointed Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin told media last week that Pakistan will have to invest $6 billion in infrastructure to boost the economy.

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, left, shakes hands with Taliban peace delegate Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar after signing an agreement in Doha, Qatar in February 2020.   © Reuters

Pakistan has spent an estimated $532 million on fencing the Afghanistan border with razor wire. Given the already struggling economy, Islamabad will be forced to direct more resources to secure the border at the expense of other badly needed infrastructure projects.

Kugelman said Pakistan has built the border fence to try to stem TTP cross-border attacks, but it is not a 100% deterrent. "Pakistan has genuine reasons to be concerned [of TTP]," he said.

According to some Pakistani officials who requested anonymity, the Afghan Taliban -- alleged to be an ally of Islamabad -- is looking the other way when TTP uses sanctuaries on Afghan soil to mount attacks inside Pakistan.

Furthermore, local media report that Pakistani security agencies have found evidence of the years-old links between the Afghan Taliban and TTP. "They are two sides of the same coin," officials were quoted in the report.

"While [TTP] and Afghan Taliban are cut from the same ideological cloth, their operational partnerships are not extensive. The two groups have carried out some attacks together in Afghanistan, however," explained Kugelman.

Kakakhel does not agree with the assertion that TTP has the patronage of the Afghan Taliban while attacking targets in Pakistan. He said that if the Afghan Taliban took full control of the government in Kabul, TTP will not be happy because its ability to strike against Pakistan will diminish.

"In future, I think TTP will have the support of other partners such as Islamic State to continue its attacks inside Pakistan," Kakakhel said.

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