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Ukraine and Afghanistan in spotlight as Blinken Visits Brussels

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (pictured) headed to Brussels today (13 April) to meet with European and NATO allies on a range of issues, including Russia’s buildup of forces along the border with Ukraine and coalition operations in Afghanistan.

The visit comes three weeks after Blinken was in Brussels for a summit with his counterparts from NATO member states. Blinken spoke of the priority for the United States to focus on strengthening ties with allies during the previous meeting.

“Glad to be heading back to Brussels. The United States is committed to rebuilding U.S. alliances, particularly with our NATO Allies,” Blinken tweeted on Monday (12 April). “We remain steadfast in our support for NATO as the essential forum for Transatlantic security.”

Blinken’s schedule for today includes talks with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

Russia’s recent movement of troops to the border area has raised concerns in the United States and elsewhere.

Blinken spoke with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg about the situation Monday and said there was mutual agreement that “Russia must end its dangerous military buildup and ongoing aggression along Ukraine’s borders.”

Philip Reeker, the US acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, told reporters in previewing Blinken’s meetings that NATO talks about Ukraine would bring calls for Russia to show restraint and refrain from “escalatory actions.”

Joining Blinken in Brussels is US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Another major topic of discussion will be the situation in Afghanistan just weeks before a May 1 deadline set an agreement between the administration of former US President Donald Trump and the Taliban for the withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 U.S forces from the country.

Reeker said those talks would be an opportunity to follow up on discussions about Afghanistan from the ministerial meetings last month. Blinken said during the March talks that the United States wanted to “listen and consult” with NATO allies, while pledging to “leave together” when the time is right.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan as a bridge connecting Central and South Asia

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Dr. Suhrob Buranov from the Tashkent State University of Oriental Studies writes about some scientific debates about whether Afghanistan belongs to an integral part of Central or South Asia. Despite the different approaches, the expert attempts to determine Afghanistan’s role as a bridge that connects Central and South Asian regions.

Various forms of negotiations are taking place on the ground of Afghanistan to ensure peace and settle the long-lasting war. The withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and the simultaneous start of inter-Afghan negotiations, as well as internal conflicts and sustainable economic development in this country, are in particular scientific interest. Therefore, the research is focused on the geopolitical aspects of the inter-Afghan peace talks and the impact of external forces on Afghanistan's internal affairs. At the same time, the approach for recognizing Afghanistan not as a threat to global peace and security, but as a factor of strategic opportunities for the development of Central and South Asia has become a key object of research and made the implementation of effective mechanisms a priority. In this regard, the issues of restoring the historical position of modern Afghanistan in connecting Central and South Asia, including the further acceleration of these processes, play an important role in the diplomacy of Uzbekistan.

Afghanistan is a mysterious country in its history and today, trapped in major geopolitical games and internal conflicts. The region in which Afghanistan is located will automatically have a positive or negative impact on the geopolitical transformation processes of the entire Asian continent. French diplomat Rene Dollot once compared Afghanistan to "Asian Switzerland" (Dollot, 1937, p.15). This allows us to confirm that in its time, this country was the most stable country on the Asian continent. As Pakistani writer Muhammad Iqbal rightly describes, “Asia is a body of water and flowers. Afghanistan is its heart. If there is instability in Afghanistan, Asia is unstable. If there is peace in Afghanistan, Asia is peaceful” (Heart of Asia, 2015). Given the competition of major powers and the conflict of geopolitical interests in Afghanistan today, it is believed that the geopolitical importance of this country can be defined as follows:

- Geographically, Afghanistan is located in the heart of Eurasia. Afghanistan is very close to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which is surrounded by the countries with nuclear weapons such as China, Pakistan and India, as well as the countries with nuclear programs such as Iran. It should be noted that Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan account for about 40% of the total state border of Afghanistan;

- From a geo-economic perspective, Afghanistan is a crossroad of regions with global reserves of oil, gas, uranium and other strategic resources. This factor, in essence, also means that Afghanistan is a crossroad of transport and trade corridors. Naturally, leading power centers such as the United States and Russia, as well as China and India, which are known around the world for their potential major economic development, have great geo-economic interests here;

- From a military-strategic point of view, Afghanistan is an important link in regional and international security. Security and military-strategic issues in this country are among the main goals and objectives set by such influential structures as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the CIS.

The geopolitical feature of the Afghan problem is that, in parallel, it involves a wide range of domestic, regional and international forces. Because of this, the problem can incorporate all the factors to play the main role in the reflection of geopolitical theories and concepts. It is important to note that the geopolitical views on the Afghan problem and approaches to its solution still have not been meeting the expected results. Many of these approaches and perspectives present complex challenges while portraying the negative aspects of the Afghan problem. This in itself, demonstrates the need to interpret the Afghan problem through constructive theories and optimistic scientific views based on modern approaches as one of the urgent tasks. Observing the theoretical views and approaches we present below may also provide additional scientific insights into theories about Afghanistan:

"Afghan dualism"

From our point of view, the theoretical approach to "Afghan dualism" (Buranov, 2020, p.31-32) should be added in the list of geopolitical views on Afghanistan. It is observed that the essence of the theory of "Afghan dualism" can be reflected in two ways.

1. Afghan national dualism. Controversial views on the establishment of Afghan statehood on the basis of state or tribal governance, unitary or federal, pure Islamic or democratic, Eastern or Western models reflect the Afghan national dualism. Valuable information about the dualistic aspects of the national statehood of Afghanistan can be found in the researches of well-known experts such as Barnett Rubin, Thomas Barfield, Benjamin Hopkins, Liz Vily and Afghan scholar Nabi Misdak (Rubin, 2013, Barfield, 2010, Hopkins, 2008, Vily, 2012, Misdak, 2006).

2. Afghan regional dualism. It can be seen that Afghan regional dualism is reflected in two different approaches to the geographical affiliation of this country.

AfSouthAsia

According to the first approach, Afghanistan is part of the South Asian region, which is assessed by the theoretical views of Af-Pak. It is known that the term "Af-Pak" is used to refer to the fact that American scholars consider Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single military-political arena. The term began to be widely used in scholarly circles in the early years of the 21st century to theoretically describe U.S. policy in Afghanistan. According to reports, the author of the concept of "Af-Pak" is an American diplomat Richard Holbrooke. In March 2008, Holbrooke stated that Afghanistan and Pakistan should be recognized as a single military-political arena for the following reasons:

1. The existence of a common theater of military operations on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border;

2. The unresolved border issues between Afghanistan and Pakistan under the “Durand Line” in 1893;

3. The use of an open border regime between Afghanistan and Pakistan (primarily a "tribal zone") by Taliban forces and other terrorist networks (Fenenko, 2013, p.24-25).

Furthermore, it is noteworthy that Afghanistan is a full member of SAARC, the main organization for the integration of the South Asian region.

AfCentAsia

According to the second approach, Afghanistan is geographically an integral part of Central Asia. In our perspective, it is scientifically logical to call it an alternative to the term AfSouthAsia with the term AfCentAsia. This concept is a term that defines Afghanistan and Central Asia as a single region. In assessing Afghanistan as an integral part of the Central Asian region, it is necessary to pay attention to the following issues:

- Geographical aspect. According to its location, Afghanistan is called the "Heart of Asia" as it is central part of Asia, and theoretically embodies Mackinder's "Heartland" theory. Alexandr Humboldt, a German scientist who introduced the term Central Asia to science, described in detail the mountain ranges, climate and structure of the region, including Afghanistan on his map (Humboldt, 1843, p.581-582). In his doctoral dissertation, Capt. Joseph McCarthy, an American military expert, argues that Afghanistan should be viewed not only as a specific part of Central Asia, but as the enduring heart of the region (McCarthy, 2018).

- Historical aspect. The territories of present-day Central Asia and Afghanistan were an interconnected region during the statehood of the Greco-Bactrian, Kushan Kingdoms, Ghaznavid, Timurid, and Baburi dynasties. Uzbek professor Ravshan Alimov in his work cites as an example that a large part of modern Afghanistan was part of the Bukhara Khanate for a number of centuries, and the city of Balkh, where it became the residence of the heirs of the Bukhara Khan (khantora) (Alimov, 2005, p.22). In addition, the graves of great thinkers such as Alisher Navoi, Mavlono Lutfi, Kamoliddin Behzod, Hussein Boykaro, Abdurahmon Jami, Zahiriddin Muhammad Babur, Abu Rayhan Beruni, Boborahim Mashrab are located on the territory of modern Afghanistan. They have made an invaluable contribution to the civilization, as well as cultural and enlightened ties of the people of the whole region. The Dutch historian Martin McCauley compares Afghanistan and Central Asia to the "Siamese twins" and concludes that they are inseparable (McCauley, 2002, p.19).

- Trade and economic aspect. Afghanistan is both a road and an unopened market leading the region of Central Asia, which is closed in all respects, to the nearest seaports. In all respects, this will ensure the full integration of Central Asian states, including Uzbekistan, into world trade relations, eliminating some economic dependence on external spheres.

- Ethnical aspect. Afghanistan is home to all Central Asian nations. An important fact that needs special attention is that the Uzbeks in Afghanistan are the largest ethnic group in the world outside of Uzbekistan. Another significant aspect is that the more Tajiks live in Afghanistan as the more Tajiks live in Tajikistan. This is extremely important and vital for Tajikistan. Afghan Turkmen are also one of the largest ethnic groups listed in the Afghan Constitution. In addition, more than a thousand Kazakhs and Kyrgyz from Central Asia currently live in the country.

- Linguistical aspect. The majority of the Afghan population communicates in the Turkic and Persian languages ​​spoken by the peoples of Central Asia. According to the Constitution of Afghanistan (The Constitution of IRA, 2004), the Uzbek language has the status of an official language only in Afghanistan, except Uzbekistan.

- Cultural traditions and religional aspect. The customs and traditions of the people of Central Asia and Afghanistan are similar and very close to each other. For example, Navruz, Ramadan and Eid al-Adha are celebrated equally in all people of the region. Islam also binds our peoples together. One of the main reasons for this is that about 90% of the population of the region confesses Islam.

For this reason, as the current efforts to involve Afghanistan in the regional processes in Central Asia intensify, it is expedient to take into account the relevance of this term and its popularization in scientific circles.

Discussion

Although different views and approaches to the geographical location of Afghanistan have some scientific basis, today the factor of assessing this country not as a specific part of Central or South Asia, but as a bridge connecting these two regions, is a priority. Without restoring Afghanistan’s historic role as a bridge connecting Central and South Asia, it is impossible to develop inter-regional interdependence, ancient and friendly cooperation on new fronts. Today, such an approach is becoming a prerequisite for security and sustainable development in Eurasia. After all, the peace in Afghanistan is the real basis for peace and development in both Central and South Asia. In this context, there is a growing need to coordinate the efforts of Central and South Asian countries in addressing the complicated and complex issues facing Afghanistan. In this regard, it is extremely important to carry out the following crucial tasks:

First, the Central and South Asian regions have been bound by long historical ties and common interests. Today, based on our common interests, we consider it  as an urgent need and a priority to establish a dialogue format "Central Asia + South Asia" at the level of foreign ministers, aimed as expanding opportunities for mutual political dialogue and multifaceted cooperation.

Second, it is necessary to accelerate the construction and implementation of the Trans-Afghan Transport Corridor, which is one of the most important factors in expanding rapprochement and cooperation in Central and South Asia. With the aim of achieving this, we will soon need to discuss the signing of multilateral agreements between all countries of our region and the financing of transport projects. In particular, the Mazar-e-Sharif-Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railway projects will not only connect Central Asia with South Asia, but will also make a practical contribution to Afghanistan's economic and social recovery. For this purpose, we consider to organize the Trans-Afghan Regional Forum in Tashkent.

Third, Afghanistan has the potential to become a major energy chain in connecting Central and South Asia with all sides. This, of course, requires the mutual coordination of Central Asian energy projects and their continued supply to South Asian markets through Afghanistan. In this regard, there is a need to jointly implement strategic projects such as the TAPI trans-Afghan gas pipeline, the CASA-1000 power transmission project and the Surkhan-Puli Khumri, which could become part of it. From this reason, we propose to jointly develop the energy program REP13 (Regional Energy Program of Central and Souht Asia). By following this program, Afghanistan would act as a bridge in Central and South Asian energy cooperation.

Fourth, we propose to hold an annual international conference on the topic of "Afghanistan in the connecting Central and South Asia: historical context and prospective opportunities". In all respects, this correspond to the interests and aspirations of the citizens of Afganistan, as well as the people of Central and South Asia.

References

  1. “Heart of Asia” ─ countering security threats, promoting connectivity (2015) DAWN paper. Retrieved from https://www.dawn.com/news/1225229
  2. Alimov, R. (2005) Central Asia: common interests. Tashkent: Orient.
  3. Buranov, S. (2020) Geopolitical aspects of Uzbekistan’s participation in the processes of stabilization of the situation in Afghanistan. Dissertation of the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Political Science, Tashkent.
  4. Dollot, René. (1937) L’Afghanistan: histoire, description, moeurs et coutumes, folklore, fouilles, Payot, Paris.
  5. Fenenko, A. (2013) Problems of "AfPak" in world politics. Journal of Moscow University, International relations and world politics, № 2.
  6. Humboldt, A. (1843) Asie centrale. Recherches sur les chaines de montagnes et la climatologie compare. Paris.
  7. Mc Maculey, M. (2002) Afghanistan and Central Asia. A Modern History. Pearson Education Limited

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Afghanistan: The coming anarchy

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A scrimmage in a border station,
A canter down some dark defile,
Two thousand pounds of education,
Drops to a ten rupee Jezail….
Strike hard who cares,
The odds are on the cheaper man.
(Rudyard Kipling)

   

Afghanistan is a place where the staccato sound of the machine intones the funeral dirge of the peace every other decade as a chant de guerre in favour of one group of warriors or the other. Afghanistan endgame has begun after the US decision to pull out its remaining troops by September. Some say the Americans are trying to cut their losses, while others ascribe the decision to the US democratic impulse’s triumph over the military industrial complex. After 20,600 US casualties, including around 2300 fatalities, the Americans have decided to treat over a trillion dollars invested in this war as a bad investment. Fatigue, both on the battlefront and at home along with an ambivalence about the war objectives, ultimately led to the US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, writes Raashid Wali Janjua, Acting President of Islamabad Policy Research Institute.

The domestic politics’ impact on US policymakers is evident in the shape of policy shifts during Obama and Trump tenures. Obama in his autobiography “The Promised Land” mentions Biden excoriating the troop surge demand of the US generals. Even as Vice President, Biden was against this enervating conflict that continually drained the economic lifeblood of the US in pursuit of the unachievable nation building project in Afghanistan. He instead wanted a light US footprint on ground only in pursuit of counter terrorism tasks to deny sanctuaries to terrorists. It was a concept borrowed from the playbook of Professor Stephen Walt who was a great proponent of offshore balancing strategy instead of messy interventions like Afghanistan.

What has led to war weariness for Americans is a combination of factors, including a reappraisal of the national security threat profile preferring counter China policy over regional entanglements. Last but not least was what T.V. Paul calls the “Asymmetry of Will” in asymmetric wars. It was not the asymmetry of resources but an asymmetry of will that compelled the US to call off its Afghan project. So therein emerges a question for all stakeholders to answer. Is the Afghan war really over for protannists who believe they are winning because of their ability to wage an armed struggle? When Taliban in the Afghan fray believe that they have a better chance to force the issue through bullet instead of ballot, would they be amenable to a political solution? Would Afghanistan be left to its own devices after withdrawal of US troops and private security contractors?

Another important issue is the Afghan willingness to reach a consensus through intra-Afghan dialogue. Would that dialogue yield any consensus on future power sharing arrangement or the Taliban would wait till the Americans leave and then force the issue through brute force? What leverage do the regional countries like Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia have on the Afghan factions’ ability to forge a consensus on the future constitutional scheme in the country? What is the possibility of ideal power sharing arrangement and what are the potential spoilers to peace? What is the role of international community and regional powers to shore up the Afghan economy, which is aid dependent and suffering from the war economy cirrhosis?

To answer these questions, one needs to understand the tectonic shift in the global power politics. A skein of competing alliances is being built starting with regional alliances like SCO, ASEAN and BIMSTECH, leading onto supra-regional alliance like the “Indo-Pacific.” Despite China’s espousal of concepts like “communities of shared interests” and “common destiny,” its economic initiatives like BRI are being viewed with trepidation by the US and its allies. There are global developments that are impacting Afghan peace. The new US Grand Strategy is shifting its geopolitical focus away from South Asia towards East Asia, South China Sea and Western Pacific. The reorganization of the US Special Operations Command for conventional roles and rebranding of Asia-Pacific as “Indo-Pacific” region with Quadrilateral Security Dialogue as the piece de-resistance of the whole endeavor clearly indicates the new US priorities..

What does the above portend for Afghan peace? In simple terms the US departure appears final and interests in Afghan peace peripheral to its vital national interests. The main dramatis personae in the final Afghan peace denouement would henceforth be the regional countries directly impacted by the Afghan conflict. These countries in order of impact include Pakistan, Central Asian Republics, Iran, China, and Russia. Various commentators of the Afghan situation opine that the Afghan society has changed and that it would not be easy for the Taliban to defeat their rivals like in the past. To some extent it is true because the Afghan Taliban have a broadened outlook due to better exposure to the outside world. The Afghan society has also developed greater resilience compared to 1990s.

The Taliban are also expected to encounter tough resistance from Uzbek, Tajik, Turkmen and Hazara ethnicities, led by experienced leaders like Dostum, Muhaqqiq, Salahuddin Rabbani and Karim Khalili. In Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and provincial capitals, the Ashraf Ghani government is in control of 65% of the population with over 300,000 strong Afghan National Defence and Security Forces. This makes for a strong opposition but the coalition of the expediency featuring Dae’sh,Al-Qaeda and TTP on the side of the Taliban tips the scales in their favour. If the intra-Afghan dialogue on future power sharing and constitutional agreement does not succeed, the Taliban are likely to triumph in a protracted civil war. The recrudescence of violence and instability would lead to an upsurge in narco-trafficking, crime and human rights violations. Such a scenario would not only impact regional but global peace and security.

Pakistan and the regional countries have to prepare themselves for such a destabilizing scenario. A Grand Jirga of Afghans is an appropriate forum for a consensus on future-power sharing agreement. The involvement of international community is essential for the sustenance of a war-torn Afghan economy as well as and provide a useful leverage over any future government in Kabul to maintain the political, economic and social gains of the last two decades, especially those related to democracy, governance, human and women’s rights, girls’ education, etc. Regional countries like Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia need to form an alliance for Afghan peace without which the journey of Afghan peace would be bound in shallows and miseries.             

(The writer is the Acting President of Islamabad Policy Research Institute and can be reached at: [email protected])

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US withdrawal from Afghanistan - a faux pas for Pakistan

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Joe Biden announced on 15 April 2021 that US troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan starting May 1 to end America's longest war. Foreign troops under NATO command will also withdraw in coordination with the US. pull-out, to be completed by Sept 11.

The war on terrorism started by US in Afghanistan is far from over as US forces depart without a decisive or definite victory. A triumphal Taliban is poised to return to power on the battlefield or through peace talks where they hold most of the cards; much-vaunted "gains" slipping away by the day in a wave of targeted killings of the educated, active, and ambitious lifeblood of an emerging society. Many Afghans now fear a terrible tumbling towards civil war in a conflict already described as one of the most violent in the world.

Impact of the war on Pakistan

Quite obviously, such a development is destined to have a major impact not only on Afghanistan but also on its immediate neighborhood especially Pakistan. Turmoil in Afghanistan akin to a civil war would entail mass influx of refugees from Afghanistan towards Khyber Pakhunkhwa & Balochistan in Pakistan via porous borders. The people on both sides of the border especially Pashtuns are ethnically similar & conjoined culturally and ancestrally and hence bound to seek shelter from their brethren which is undeniable even by law enforcing agencies due to existing social norms. This means not only an increase in the number of mouths to feed in the already economically fraught tribal areas but also increased sectarian violence, drug trafficking, terrorism and organised crime as has been the trend since 1980.

Unrest in Afghanistan and Taliban’s resurgence will also provide strength to the smoldering outfits like Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). TTP has recently amplified the tempo of its activities in the Pak Western border garnering support and bases from Afghan-Taliban. It’s noteworthy to mention here that TTP not only enjoys the patronage of Taliban but also of certain segments within the Pak Army as disclosed by their spokesperson in a radio interview.

The increasing nuisance of insurgents like TTP and Pashtun/Baloch rebels on the Western border coupled with a potent hostile neighbor like India in the East has progressively become untenable and difficult to bite by the Pakistan Armed Forces. This is also speculated to be one of the precipitating factors behind recent peace initiatives with India.

Pakistan politics over Taliban

On 10 May, Pakistan Army chief General Bajwa was accompanied on a day-long official visit to Kabul by Director General of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lt Gen Faiz Hameed where they met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and offered Pakistan's support for the Afghanistan peace process amid growing violence as the US withdraws its troops.

During the visit Gen Bajwa also met the Head of British Armed Forces, General Sir Nick Carter who reportedly coerced Pakistan to insist on Taliban to take part in the elections or be part of a power sharing agreement with President Ghani. Following the meeting, Pakistan Army issued a statement: “We will always support an ‘Afghan led-Afghan owned’ peace process based on mutual consensus of all stakeholders”, indicating the agenda of the meeting & pressure to include Taliban in Afghan governance.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in an interview with German news website, Der Spiegel said, “It is first and foremost a matter of getting Pakistan on board. The US now plays only a minor role. The question of peace or hostility is now in Pakistani hands”; thus, putting the monkey on Pakistan’s shoulder. The Afghan President further added that Gen Bajwa has clearly indicated that restoration of the Emirate or dictatorship by the Taliban is not in anybody’s interest in the region, especially Pakistan. Since Pakstan never came out to deny this statement, it is fair to assume that Pakistan does not want a Taliban led govt in Afghanistan. However, such an action would tantamount to alienating or dumping Taliban that might not go down in Pakistan’s favour.

Dilema over airbases

US on the other hand has been pressurizing Pakistan to provide air bases in Pakistan, to undertake air operations in support of Afghan Government & against Taliban or other terrorists groups like ISIS. Pakistan has been resisting any such demands and Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in a statement on 11 May reiterated, “We do not intend to allow boots on the ground and no (US) bases are being transferred to Pakistan”.

However, this also brings Pakistan into a ‘catch 22’ situation. Pakistan Govt cannot agree to such requests as it is bound to cause tremendous domestic upheaval with the opposition political parties accusing Imran Khan for ‘selling off’ Pakistan territory to the US. At the same time outright refusal also might not be an easy option in view of the abysmal state of Pakistan's economy & its heavy reliance on foreign debts from organisations like IMF & World Bank that are under direct influence of the US.

Turbulence at home

Pakistan is yet to recover from the burns of the recent civil war like situation created during nationwide protests fueled by far-right radical Islamist outfit Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). With Taliban growing in strength in Afghanistan, a spurt in radical sentiments is bound to happen within Pakistan too. Although TLP fans out of Barelvi Sect compared to Deobandi as in case of Taliban, both draw a certain semblance in their radical extremism. As such, future adventures by TLP with an aim to seize political gains cannot be entirely ruled out.

The bottom line is that Pakistan needs to play its cards cautiously & wisely. 

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