ISLAMABAD -- The impending withdrawal of U.S.-led NATO combat troops from Afghanistan is raising worries next door in Pakistan, where a growing number of experts are warning that the forces departure could reinvigorate a domestic insurgency that Pakistans military is barely keeping at bay.
As President Barack Obama winds down U.S. involvement in the war, the Pakistani commentators argue that NATOs withdrawal will embolden Pakistani militants, perhaps creating a territorial vacuum that will enable the militants to set up bases in Afghanistan from which they could launch operations in Pakistan.
The fears reflect uncertainty about the stability of nuclear-armed Pakistan, a vital if deeply troublesome U.S. ally in the region. In recent months, against the backdrop of a seven-month freeze in relations between Islamabad and Washington, the experts are challenging a long-dominant narrative here that blames the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan for Pakistans insurgency.
The first to express the changing perception was Ayaz Amir, Pakistans leading English-language columnist and an opposition member of Parliament, who wrote in March in The News International: Those who think that the American presence is the sole cause of militancy are living in a world of their own. . . . Our nightmare will not end. With the American withdrawal, another phase of it, perhaps a more dangerous one, will begin.
Since then, other commentators have followed suit as 150,000 Pakistani counter-terrorism forces have struggled to keep a lid on domestic militant groups such as the Pakistani Taliban, an organization thats separate from but allied with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Already, Pakistani Taliban groups the military evicted in 2009 from the Bajaur and Mohmand tribal areas and the district of Swat have relocated to the neighboring Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nurestan, from which they frequently send raiding parties to attack paramilitary installations, blow up schools and kidnap residents in Pakistan. They also broadcast messages via an FM radio station.
Its a striking mirror image of the Afghan Talibans use of havens in Pakistans tribal areas to wage war against coalition forces in Afghanistan, the commentators have noted.
The Pakistani military, convinced that the U.S. inevitably would abandon Afghanistan, has maintained covert relations with Afghan Taliban commanders based on its soil, figuring the policy will help position it as the arbiter of an eventual political solution in Afghanistan, the commentators said. The double-dealing has earned the ire of the U.S. and its NATO partners, which have excluded Pakistan from tentative peace talks with the Taliban, and has encouraged Afghan President Hamid Karzai to seek closer ties with Pakistans blood rival, India.
In the final years of the U.S. combat presence in Afghanistan, commentators say a nightmare scenario is emerging for Pakistans strategic planners. Since the Taliban regime was overthrown in November 2001, the commentators have dreaded the prospect of a strong Afghan administration allied with India, leaving Pakistan with two hostile borders to defend.
Increasingly, theyre calling for a review of Pakistans policy on Afghanistan and its approach to relations with the U.S.
The policy has grabbed us by the throat . . . things cant continue like this, Najam Sethi, a newspaper editor, has said on the current-affairs program he hosts on Geo News, Pakistans most popular cable channel