Heightened security in Afghanistan and Pakistan: what’s next for the Taliban?

Kabul, Afghanistan (TFC) Despite a devastating attack carried out by the Taliban at Bacha Khan University in January, terror-related violence in Pakistan has been declining. Afghanistan hasn’t been as fortunate: according to the U.N., 2015 resulted in record-breaking civilian deaths since the U.N. began recording statistics. Will upcoming American involvement in Afghanistan drive violence back into Pakistan? Or will militant groups simply find new, more vulnerable areas?

Pakistan’s current moment of peace is partially a result of the country’s large-scale military operation, aka Zarb-e-Azb, against the Taliban and other militant groups which began in 2014. The plan was to secure Pakistan’s northern region by driving out the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other militants from tribal areas. Down 56% overall from 2014, 2015 marked Pakistan’s lowest numbers of civilian deaths from terror attacks since 2006. Pakistan currently appears to be “winning” its war on terror but will this last?

By flushing out militant groups, Pakistan appears to have just “pushed” them back into Afghanistan– resulting in record-breaking civilian deaths, a quarter of which are children. With Ash Carter, US Secretary of Defense, announcing a “full funding” of the Afghan Security Forces for fiscal year 2017, will Afghan forces simply push the insurgent groups back into Pakistan? History says yes. Prior to 2015, some of Pakistan’s most violent years coincided with heavy American involvement in Afghanistan. Including violence among mosques, shrines, and markets. Also, some militant groups are reportedly still hiding-out in northern Pakistan’s tribal areas. Logistically, if you drive an insurgent group out of one country, they simply move to the next vulnerable spot.

However, if Pakistan is able to keep its military defense strong, the Taliban and other militant groups will be forced to find more vulnerable areas in the region. And Pakistan has good reason to keep its defense in top shape: protection of Chinese investments totaling in the billions. Security is already tight in the southern city of Gwadar– home of the China-Pakistan economic corridor (CPEC)– which includes an estimated $46 billion dollar investment in infrastructure that will connect western China to Pakistan’s port in the Arabian Sea. If Pakistan’s defense appears to start growing weak, it would not be surprising to see China step in with support to help protect its investment.

So if not Pakistan or Afghanistan, then where? Tajikistan would not be entirely unprecedented. Despite some support from Russia and China, Tajikistan remains unstable, impoverished, and possibly corrupt since its civil war– which ended nearly 20 years ago. The country has also been accused of turning a blind eye to training camps for Islamic rebel groups– something Tajikistan officially denies. The country does admit, however, a problem with growing interest in more radical forms of Islam– which it blames on influence coming from Afghanistan. Not only have plenty of Tajik nationals already joined the Islamic State in Syria, but militants coming from the same region have also joined the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Turkmenistan is another possibility. Officials have reportedly denied help from Russia for securing its border with Afghanistan– which has an increasing problem with Taliban-related violence. China, however, has a portion of their natural gas pipeline running through Turkmenistan. So if Taliban violence continues to spread past the Turk-Afghan border, China will likely need to step-in to secure their assets. Maybe not; China could simply attempt to hold-out until Turkmenistan accepts or requests military help from Russia or the US.

Either way, momentary peace in Pakistan has triggered a wave of militant violence back into Afghanistan, and American involvement in Afghanistan will likely result in violence spreading to other countries throughout the region; maybe Pakistan, but likely elsewhere.