Dr. Arvind Gupta, Director General, the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, India, at a recent conference, raised an important question while discussing the Af-Pak region: who is in control?
Given the recent developments on both sides of the Durand Line, and what is likely to occur over the course of 2014 – the Afghan presidential elections, and the signing/non-signing of the US-Afghanistan Bilateral Security agreement (BSA) – and by the end of this year, such as the complete withdrawal of international troops from the country, this question assumes even more significance.
The second question that warrants attention is: who among the multiple State and non-State actors across the Durand Line will gain an upper hand by the end of 2014?
Who is in Control: The Chaos Today
There are multiple State and non-State actors across the Durand Line, fighting to establish their political and social influence across the tribal regions. They are the Taliban, the al Qaeda, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its multiple franchisees, and the Pakistani military and the tribal militias/jirgas, among others.
The fact that these regions on both sides of the Line haven’t remained under the total writ of the respective central governments in Kabul and Islamabad, makes it difficult to define ’control’ and its ‘nature’; since the time of Alexander the Great, there has never been absolute control of a single actor over the region. Second, given the nature of rhetoric and real objectives of the non-State actors and the actual capacities and the political will of State actors to make use of them, understanding what the actors aim to control would be a challenging task.
Control, in this context should not be narrowly defined as mere military control, or the ability of the State to exercise its writ, politically. It has to be viewed from a wider perspective.
Despite the aforementioned factors/issues, the fact that there is a prevailing uncertainty – in terms of social and political control over the Af-Pak region, especially across the Durand Line – is evident. Undoubtedly, the four major non-State actors in the region – the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, the al Qaeda, and the TTP – have a significant presence today; but one cannot consider this presence as control.
Be it Kabul or Islamabad, these non-State actors have the ability to inflict a high level of damage. A cursory look at the high profile attacks in the recent years would reveal that no place in Pakistan and/or Afghanistan is absolutely safe and secure. Via the use of Improvised Explosive Devices to human bombs, non-State actors have, so far, brought about extensive damages.
On the other hand, however, despite their ability to carry out attacks, none of the aforementioned non-State actors have been able to ‘control’ significant portions of the territory and/or enforce their ‘writ’ politically. The State actors – the ANSF, the ISAF and the Pakistani military – may not have succeeded in preventing the high profile militant attacks, in both the border regions as well in their respective national capitals, but have certainly prevented the non-State actors from taking ‘control’ of any geographical area across the Durand Line.
To conclude, the answer to the question on the current situation in terms of who controls the Af-Pak region is : nobody, in absolute terms. Given the sizes of the geographical areas the State holds sway over, perhaps, the State and its actors have control, in a relatively greater measure.
Who Will Take Control: The Perilous Future
How long will the State actors retain their upper hand in the region, given their current advantage in terms of political, military and social control over the Af-Pak region, especially across the Durand Line? What will the nature of ’control’ be by the end of this year and from the beginning of 2015?
Drone attacks by the US have, to a large extent, neutralised the al Qaeda leadership across the Durand Line. Today, most of its top leadership is either decimated or has moved to other regions in West Asia and North Africa. The Al Qaeda is unlikely to establish its control in the region by the end of this year, or even early next year. That is not an objective of the al Qaeda and its Uzbek and Chechen franchisees; not anymore.
The Taliban in Afghanistan and the TTP in Pakistan, however, are neither decimated and nor have they moved out of the Af-Pak region. The drone attacks by the US primarily targeted the al Qaeda and not the Afghan Taliban leadership. As a result, the Afghan Taliban will remain an important actor in deciding the future course of stability in Afghanistan. This holds true for the Haqqani Network as well. The limited military offensive and the Pakistani State’s charade of negotiations with the TTP have given a new lease to the Pakistan Taliban. Whether or not these actors would establish ’control‘ over the Af-Pak region by the end of this year will depend on the strength of the military.
More importantly, it would depend on the political will in Kabul and Islamabad, to make use of their militaries to impose the State’s writ.
The future of the ownership of control on the Af-Pak region depends not on the strength of the non-State actors, but on the military strengths and political will of the governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan to employ it.
If the past experience is any basis, the future does not look too encouraging.