The enigmatic strategic environment in the Af-Pak Region (APR) continues to evolve without a hint as to where and how it will finally stabilize. A flurry of diplomatic moves pursuing conflicting national interests in the APR is gaining momentum and seriously ominous potential. Violent change appears imminent in the region.

The US-Afghan confrontation on the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) continues unabated. US plans to egress the region remain in animated suspension. However, a rather-late-in-the-day defiance by the Afghan President is giving it an irritable migraine.

Pakistan continues to woo President Hamid Karzai; PM Nawaz Sharif has assured him of Pakistan’s continuing support in the security, trade and economic sectors and most importantly of non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.

President Karzai has made a trip to Tehran to open up more strategic options – much to the chagrin of the US. Iran on the other hand has assured Afghanistan of support and urged President Karzai not to sign the BSA.

President Karzai has visited India and has requested for additional military and economic assistance.

Russia, CARs, China et al continue to be very interested.

Afghan Taliban & Co (including the TTP), the indeterminate factor in this regional equation, however continue to assess the emerging strategic environment awaiting opportunities to strike at a time and place of their own choosing. Their legendary patience in such matters is on display as ever.

Thus the Afghan endgame seems to have moved up a gear with time and options running out fast and all regional and extra regional powers jockeying to get into positions of strategic strength and advantage come December 2014.

Irrespective of what the US does in Afghanistan, whether it leaves behind “Residual Forces spread out in nine military bases strategically located all over Afghanistan or adopts the zero option” the chances of political and militant upheavals and turmoil are very high.

In the wake of the US/NATO/ISAF egress, the strategic environment is more likely to erupt into an orgy of uncontrolled violence that will not only engulf and consume Afghanistan but will also spill into Pakistan with disastrous effects.

The US/NATO/ISAF Combine is likely to leave behind a sizeable and balanced military presence along with an army of mercenaries like Blackwater, Xe and other civilian contractors. This force might not be strong enough to defeat the Afghan Taliban or secure its interests there. The Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) is unlikely to survive the centrifugal pulls of ethnic loyalties, tribal affiliations and sectarian orientations once the stabilizing and controlling influence of the US/NATO/ISAF is removed. It, quite like the Afghan society, is likely to fracture and implode along ethnic, tribal and sectarian lines with some groups even joining the more powerful warlords, criminal gangs etc. Elections may install a new Government however its writ is likely to remain restricted to “Fortress Kabul” and a few cities at best. The Afghan Taliban are likely to impose their writ in the countryside.

The civil strife will cause another massive deluge of millions of Afghan refugees across the Durand Line further compounding Pakistan’s economic woes.

The Haqqani Network is likely to come under increased US attacks and pressure to keep it from influencing events inside Afghanistan. The Residual Forces will continue to attack them primarily with drones and if required through “hot pursuit” operations across the Durand Line.

Is Pakistan aware of the potential scenarios and their colossal implications for it?

Pakistan needs to anticipate events and prepare for them; even pre-empt some. The Government of Mian Nawaz Sharif needs to prioritize the political, diplomatic, security and economic issues that bedevil Pakistan. Pakistan must deal with the issue of terrorism first. The Government has bent over backwards to invite the Taliban to negotiations and failed. It is high time for other far more tangible options to be employed.

The Pakistan Army has performed outstandingly in the GWOT but is clearly overstretched and overcommitted for the last many years. Though many may not realize it, it has actually been “fixed” (a smaller force keeping a much larger force engaged and committed solely against it for any length of time) by no more than a motley group of militants for the past many years. This may cause an undesirable imbalance in Pakistan’s overall defensive posture and offensive capabilities. This must have also caused enormous emotional and physical stresses and strains on the rank and file of the Army.

This state of affairs is unsustainable, untenable, undesirable and must change immediately. The Army must break its shackles with the TTP, give relief to its manpower and prepare for the considerable challenges to come.

PM Nawaz Sharif must take stock of the emerging scenarios in the APR and prepare the country accordingly. He must come out of the stupor and operational paralysis that he and his Government have been shocked into by the prevailing and emerging challenges. As a dynamic leader he must maneuver his country and the army into an advantageous and winnable position come December 2014.

This is time for inspired and courageous leadership, for decision making and risk taking. He must unshackle the Pakistan Army from the TTP and other terrorist groups.

The only way of doing that would be through inflicting a quick and decisive military defeat upon the terrorists. At the moment they are going through a crisis of leadership and may be vulnerable. Mullah Fazullah has not been able to assert himself effectively as a leader of the TTP and has been constrained to establish his base in far away Dir as opposed to the more relevant North or South Waziristan.

A whole-of-the-nation approach supporting a combined intelligence and military offensive could help achieve a decisive victory, help establish the writ of the Government in the badlands of Fata and allow the Army to free up resources to face the emerging challenges. Else the Army is likely to get overwhelmed and “progressively fixed” even further, seriously circumscribing its potential.

The time to bring Pakistan into an advantageous position in the APR is fast running out. The time to act is now.

It’s your call, Mr Prime Minister!

 The author is a retired Brigadier, a former Defense Attache’ to Australia and New Zealand and is currently on the faculty of NIPCONS (NUST).

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