Geopolitical Strife: Pak-Afghan Tensions & Implications By Dr Sajid Iqbal

Geopolitical Strife: Pak-Afghan Tensions & Implications By Dr Sajid Iqbal

THE contemporary geopolitical realities in South Asia manifest a complex interplay of diplomatic tensions, longstanding disputes, refugees’ crises and infrastructural projects. A more critical occasion in this complex situation is the brewing crisis between Pakistan and Afghanistan, revolving around the issues of the repatriation of illegal Afghan immigrants from Pakistan and the planned construction of dams on major rivers by Afghanistan. This article explores the complicated dimensions of the crisis, examining the implications of Afghanistan’s ambitious dam projects, the role of India, particularly in seizing the opportunity of strained relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan and the potential consequences for both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The main factor in the escalating tensions is Afghanistan’s decision, under the Taliban regime, to pursue irrigation and hydel power projects through the construction of dams on significant rivers, notably the Kunar River. This strategic move is aimed at addressing the water shortages, facilitating agriculture in drought-prone areas, and securing Afghanistan’s freshwater supply. The Kunar River, originating in the Hindu Kush mountains carries an important role in the region’s hydrology, merging with the Kabul River before entering into Pakistan. However, this ambitious infrastructure project is not without its challenges for both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The previous Ashraf Ghani-led government in Kabul had envisioned a comprehensive plan to build around twelve dams on the Kabul River, with the assistance of India. India, willing to support these projects, had signaled its readiness for progress in Afghanistan; however, with the change in government, the Taliban-led administration sought to resume and complete these dam projects, prompting diplomatic engagements with India. In addition to the water projects, the recent Taliban government’s pursuit to revive the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline further complicates the situation. The construction of dams on the Kunar River has already strained political and security relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Islamabad views Kabul’s unilateral decision to build a dam as a hostile act, raising concerns about the water scarcity and potential disruptions to the natural water supply to Pakistan.

In addition to the dispute on water issue, another bone of contention between the two states is the issue of Tehrek-e-Taliban-Pakistan. Over the last two years, the Pakistani government had been careful in its characterization of Taliban-TTP ties on the premise that the Afghan Taliban’s support to the TTP, popularly known as the Pakistani Taliban, through provision of a safe haven and other forms of material assistance. Pakistan’s caretaker prime minister Kakar, in a diplomatic hedging, said, “In a few instances” there was “clear evidence of [the Taliban] enabling terrorism” by the TTP. A few days after Kakar spoke, Pakistan’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Asif Durrani, followed up on Kakar’s critique of the Taliban, arguing that “peace in Afghanistan, in fact, has become a nightmare for Pakistan.” In response to these scanrios escalating tensions, Pakistan has taken a stringent stance on illegal Afghan immigrants, worsening the diplomatic friction between the two nations. Afghanistan see Pakistan’s approach as confrontational and contemplates retaliatory measures, like the construction of a dam on the Kabul River. This retaliatory move carries significant consequences for both sides, potentially jeopardizing Pakistan’s water supply and adding a layer of complexity to an already fragile relationship.

If this situation escalates without any check, the region is going to face the looming threat of increased instability. Pakistan, with its longstanding conflicts and intricate geopolitical dynamics, would bear the brunt of the fallout more than that of Afghanistan. The potential consequences include not only a strain on diplomatic relations but also the aggravation of internal issues, such as increased unrest in Baluchistan and the ploy for India to exploit the situation in its favour, as it did in the 1971 War.

India is a keen observer of the regional landscape, and it may seize the opportunity presented by the Pak-Afghan tensions and get strategic advantage from the discord emboldening India to assert its interests more aggressively, potentially infiltrating into the disputed territories of Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. This could further fuel separatist sentiments in Baluchistan, presenting a longstanding concern for Pakistan’s national security.

On the other hand, Afghanistan, already grappling with the aftermath of decades of conflict, may perceive itself as having less to lose in this confrontational relationship. The country, lacking international recognition and facing no serious disputes with other neighboring states, might calculate that the risks associated with such retaliation are outweighed by the perceived benefits.

It is also a notable phenomenon that the construction of a dam on the Kabul River, if implemented, could be a double-edged sword for Afghanistan too. While it may serve as a tool of retaliation against Pakistan, it could also have counterproductive consequences for Afghanistan itself. The humanitarian and environmental impacts of dam construction are significant, potentially displacing local populations and worsening existing challenges in a country already grappling with the aftermath of protracted conflict.

To avert this potential regional crisis, diplomatic channels must be urgently utilized by both Pakistan and Afghanistan. They need to engage in constructive dialogue to address the root causes of the current tensions, like the treatment of Afghan immigrants by Pakistan. A joint effort is required to find mutually acceptable solutions that respect the rights and dignity of individuals while acknowledging the security concerns of both states.

In addition to the bilateral efforts, international mediation could play an important role in de-escalating the current situation. Regional powers, especially those with vested interests, should encourage dialogue and facilitate a peaceful resolution that ensures stability in South Asia. The potential spillover effects of a conflict between Pakistan and Afghanistan will extend beyond their borders, impacting neighbouring countries and global security at large.

—The writer is an Islamabad based academic and holds a PhD in International Relations.

views expressed are writer’s own.

Geopolitical Strife: Pak-Afghan Tensions & Implications By Dr Sajid Iqbal


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