Photographer: Shah Marai/AFP via Getty Images Workers install a campaign banner of Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah
Pakistan is bracing for a worst-case scenario that may unfold as early as July in which about three million refugees from Afghanistan cross the border in a 20-day span, according to a person familiar with government plans.
The scenario may occur if Taliban militants start killing candidates in the run-up to Afghanistan’s presidential elections in April, creating an unstable environment when President Hamid Karzai steps aside officially a few months later, said the person, who asked not to be named because he’s not authorized to speak publicly. The timeline is underpinning Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, the person said.
Pakistan will conduct a military operation to flush out militants in Waziristan and other border areas if negotiations fail, the person said. It will be too difficult to conduct an offensive against Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters after June because of a possible refugee crisis, the person said.
Sharif began talks last week with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, to end violence that has killed more than 40,000 citizens since 2001. Failure to contain Taliban militants as the U.S. reduces troop levels in Afghanistan risks worsening the world’s biggest protracted refugee situation and derailing Sharif’s efforts to revive South Asia’s second-biggest economy.
Sharif, in Ankara to attend a trilateral summit with Karzai and Turkey’s leaders, said the TTP is eager to reach an agreement with the government, The Express Tribune reported, citing his comments to reporters. He said no deadline should be imposed on the talks, according to the report.
There is always a sense of urgency in attaining peace and stability, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said by phone, referring to the talks between the government and the militants. She declined to discuss scenarios that may emerge in Afghanistan after it holds presidential elections, saying that the government prepares for all eventualities.
While there is no specific timeframe for the Sharif-TTP peace talks, they should be concluded “in days and weeks and not in months and years,” Rahimullah Yusufzai, a government-appointed negotiator, said by phone. “Everybody knows that there would be violence,” if the talks failed, he said.
“Pakistan will have a maximum of six to eight months to prepare for the worst-case scenario — they will have to make sure something happens before that,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based security analyst who previously taught at Columbia University in New York, referring to either a military strike or a peace deal. “If there is great turmoil in Afghanistan and civil strife escalates, you will have a new wave of refugees.”
The Pakistani Taliban sees no urgency to reach an agreement with Sharif’s government because the group has been in a state of war for a decade, Maulana Abdul Aziz, a negotiator appointed by the group, said in a Feb. 7 interview. The TTP has as many as 500 female suicide bombers ready to act, he said.
More than 40,000 Pakistanis have been killed in violence since 2001 as militants battle to implement Islamic sharia law in Asia’s fourth-most populous country. The Pakistani Taliban has demanded the withdrawal of troops from tribal areas and the release of prisoners, Dawn newspaper reported on Feb. 10, citing officials it did not identify.
A suspected suicide attack on a police bus today killed at least 11 people and wounded another 50 in the country’s commercial hub of Karachi. Nine people were killed yesterday in a separate attack on a pro-government tribal elder in the country’s northwest who has fought militants in the past.
Pakistan now hosts 1.6 million registered Afghans in refugee villages and host communities, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It has facilitated the voluntary repatriation of 3.8 million Afghans from Pakistan since March 2002, it said.
Pakistan could have half a million refugees from Afghanistan arrive after October or November, Abdul Qadir Baloch, federal minister for states and frontier regions, said by phone from Islamabad. He declined to comment on a timeframe for a military strike if talks fail, saying he’s not directly involved.
“If this process may fail, we might go for an operation,” Baloch said, without giving specifics on timing. “But thereafter again it needs to be followed by talks.”
Afghanistan’s security forces are taking a hit as the U.S. withdraws intelligence, reconnaissance and bomb-detection technologies, with army and police units struggling to hold areas after clearing insurgents, according to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. Pakistan is also having difficulty fighting militants, it said.
“The Pakistan military has been engaged in some limited security operations in North Waziristan, although it is unclear when large scale operations will commence,” U.S. Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, director of the Pentagon intelligence agency, said in prepared testimony for a Feb. 11 Senate hearing.
As of Feb. 1, the U.S. had 34,000 troops in Afghanistan, the fewest since President Barack Obama took office in 2009. The war has killed more than 2,300 Americans and cost tax payers more than $500 billion since the U.S. invaded after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Karzai has refused to sign an agreement that would keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond this year, prompting the U.S. to look to his successor to seal the accord. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, and retains control of areas along the border with Pakistan.
The Taliban sees Afghanistan’s elections as illegitimate and plans to target anyone across the country who tries to cast a ballot, Zabihullah Mujahed, a spokesman for the group, said by phone from an undisclosed location.
“Anyone who is a candidate, who supports a candidate and who votes for a candidate will be our target,” Mujahed said.
Karzai, who took power in 2001 shortly after the U.S. invasion, is restricted by the constitution from serving another five-year term. New elections must be held if a presidential candidate dies before the declaration of election results, according to the constitution.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for gun attacks earlier this month that killed one campaign worker and wounded another in Saripul province. Unidentified gunmen on Feb. 1 shot dead two aides of presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, in Western Herat province, according to spokesman Sayed Fazel Sancharaki.
Instability in Afghanistan may prompt people to leave the country, particularly for Pakistan, Islamuddin Jurat, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations, said by phone.
“Pakistan is considered by Afghans as the main country to head toward, but I don’t think millions of Afghans will leave country after elections,” Jurat said. “It could be possible in a high emergency situation after coalition troops withdraw that millions of people will leave Afghanistan to Pakistan.”
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