PAKISTAN-AFGHANISTAN – THE TURMOIL
Col Ajay Singh (retd)
Pune, 28th January 2023: Around early January, Ahmad Yasir, a prominent member of the Taliban regime in Kabul, put up the iconic photo of the surrender of Pakistan’s Eastern Army to India at Dacca in December 1971. It came with the grim reminder that a similar fate awaited the Pakistani army if it dared attack Afghanistan. This rasping riposte was in response to a comment made by Pakistan’s Interior Minister that the Pakistani Army would conduct cross border operations against Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, (TTP) inside Afghanistan. He warned, “This is Afghanistan, the graveyard of Empires. Do not think of a military attack on us, otherwise there will be similar repetitions”.
This exchange was an indicator of how rapidly relations have unraveled between Pakistan and Afghanistan since the Taliban came to power in Kabul last August. Cross border exchange of fire is increasing with regular frequency. A major clash erupted at the border city of Chaman, near the main Chaman-Spin Boldak border crossing (ironically called the ‘Friendship Gate’) when both sides opened fire with artillery, machine guns and mortars, killing six. There clash erupted when Pakistani soldiers tried to repair a section of the border fence – something the Afghans resent. There has also been an intensification of attacks in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, with police posts being attacked and security personnel kidnapped. Even the Pakistani embassy in Kabul was hit by a strike targeting their ambassador which killed a security guard. Ominously, a suicide bombing struck the heart of Islamabad, forcing USA and other nations to issue security advisories about likely attacks on foreigners.
It is a far cry from the days when Islamabad cheered from the sidelines as the Taliban came back to power in Kabul, following the disastrous US withdrawal. In return for their help and support over two decades, they hoped for a pliant regime that would do their bidding, ease out Indian influence, and provide it much vaunted ‘strategic depth’ against India. But they failed to see the warning signs. The Taliban released hundreds of TTP cadres held in Afghan jails with days of taking over, and their clerics raised the call for a similar ‘sharia’ and the establishment of an Islamic State within Pakistan. Rather than Afghanistan providing strategic depth to Pakistan, it seemed that Pakistan would provide depth to the Islamic State of Afghanistan.
It was no surprise that terrorist activity intensified in Pakistan – rising by over 50 percent in the past year – as the TTP declared their intention to replicate the Taliban victory in Pakistan. According to a UN report, over 1000 TTP fighters have entered Pakistan since the Taliban takeover, and over 4000 cadres still reside in safe sanctuaries west of the Durand Line. But then both the Taliban and the TTP are two sides of the same coin. The TTP is affiliated to it, and follows the same ideology. With the Taliban back in power they have no need for help from Pakistan, and now will help the TTP to make Pakistan into another Afghanistan. And it is only belatedly that the Pakistani organization is awakening to the threat.
The Taliban and the TTP
The TTP came into being in 2007, after Gen Parvez Musharaff ordered the attack on the Lal Mosque in Islamabad to purge militants sheltering there. They were ignored, even abetted, by many in the Pakistani organization as their activities intensified, till they took over the Swat valley in 2009. But it was only after the horrific massacre of school children at Army Public School Peshawar, that the Army took serious action against them, and launched a serious offensive, using troops, gunships and fighter aircraft. Many of them fled back to Afghanistan and abetted the Taliban in their own battle. With the Taliban gaining ascendency, they intensified their activities in Pakistan around 2020-21 till a ceasefire in June 22. Negotiations began, with the Imran Khan government bending backwards to accommodate them, even granting general amnesty and releasing their jailed cadres. Imran Khan was personally inclined towards them, and his government delayed taking action till it was too late.
Yet, in spite of the lavish concessions, the talks failed as the TTP stated that they would only negotiate “to ensure sharia implementation in Pakistan” – a repeat of the Taliban line with the Ghani government in Afghanistan. They also struck to the other main demand that the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province be declared autonomous, and permit free and unrestricted passage of Afghans on both sides of the Durand Line. In effect, it would become a Taliban enclave within Pakistan.
The last clause was prompted by the Taliban who do not recognize the 2700 km long British era Durand Line as it divides Pushtun communities living on both sides of it. In any case, they have been crossing it freely for decades, slipping and melting away on either side of the line. A major point of contention has been the border fence which Pakistan began constructing across it, which has been repeatedly targeted and attacked. It is significant that many of the clashes take place on border check posts and crossing places – with the Afghans preventing any Pakistani move to impose curbs along the line.
It seems the gloves are off between the Taliban and Pakistan. The fraying began with the assassination of the al- Qaeda chief Zawahiri in a US drone strike in Kabul. It led to allegations that Pakistan had provided information of his whereabouts to curry favor with the USA – a serious breach of trust. It is significant that Pakistan has not yet recognized the present Taliban regime. And this regime has proved itself to be as hardline – if not more – than the Taliban 1 and have continued with blatant repression of women and minorities, irrespective of world opinion. They are unlikely to accept diktats from the ISI as had been hoped for by the Pakistani establishment. Rather than toeing the line, the Taliban will seek to get Pakistan to follow their path through the TTP.
Pakistan is now in a dangerous bind. They have to suppress the TTP and its brand of dangerous extremism before it gets out of control as it did in the period 2009-14. But any major action by the army could provoke a backlash. The militants slip in and out at will into safe sanctuaries inside Afghanistan. If Pakistan resorts to raiding their hide-outs across the Durand Line, it could lead to a violent response from the Taliban themselves. Even an air strike or a gunship attack could escalate things dramatically. In an ironic twist, the Pakistani NSA declared that “no country will be allowed to provide sanctuary and facilitation to terrorists. Pakistan reserves the right to any action to safeguard its people in that respect.” After years of doing the same, it now finds the shoe on the other foot.
But the intensification of terrorist activity within Pakistan is ominous. Ten other extremist groups have merged with the TTP, boosting its manpower and reach considerably. It has links with the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Indian sub-continent. It has also established ties with the Baloch Liberation Army and it is no coincidence that liberation activities have spiked in the restive Baloch Province. Their attacks on Army and security posts now reveal an increasing sophistication. They use an array of automatic weapons, night vision devices and vehicles which were left behind by the USA and fell into Taliban hands, leading to speculation that battle-hardened Taliban foot soldiers themselves assist the TTP in these strikes.
The rising terrorism in Pakistan is directly linked to rising tensions with Afghanistan. As it is Pak-Afghan relations were never good, with Ghani’s regime accusing it of sheltering the Taliban on their soil and fostering unrest within Afghanistan. Now it is Pakistan accusing the Taliban of the same. Should Pak actions along the porous Waziristan frontier intensify, it could lead to an intensification of border skirmishes and attacks on each other’s posts – any of which could go out of control. The Taliban will take measures to help the TTP – which could mean providing covering fire for their escape into Afghanistan, or even direct action against Pakistani troops engaged against them. All this could well intensify the tensions along the Durand Line and open a fresh front for Pakistan. Perhaps it is this realization – and the belated acceptance of having learnt its lesson after having fought three wars with India – that has prompted the recent calls for talks and peace by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. They would like to placate at least one front, while they deal with the other.
While one is tempted to gloat at how Pakistan’s policy of supporting terrorism has backfired so terribly, it is a dangerous situation for the region and the world. The Taliban have broken their promise not to let terrorist groups operate on their soil, and a potpourri of different groups – including the Islamic State and al Qaeda – now freely operate from there. Recently a Kabul hotel was attacked by Islamic State operatives, targeting Chinese nationals. But as they propagate their hardline agenda even more strongly, they will want to exert their influence elsewhere. Pakistan provides fertile ground to become the next Afghanistan – an extension of the Islamic Emirates. Its economy is in shambles. The waters of the Biblical floods that ravaged it in August have thrown millions into starvation, and the widespread disillusion offers an ever-growing pool of willing recruits for jehad. The Pakistani army is strong enough to quell the uprising – provided they show the same determination that they did in the earlier campaign against the TTP in 2015. But now, even the army is divided with many pandering to the same hardline views. Worst of all, the country is completely divided politically. Imran Khan’s brand of disruptive politics has heightened the chasm beyond repair, and none of the political parties will work together for the nation, but would rather sink it for petty political goals. General elections are due this year and this will distract from the nation aim of combating terrorism. It may also see some of the political parties pandering the same extremist groups to further their political agenda. Imran Khan himself formed a provincial government in the restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province with their support, during in his earlier campaign.
Yet, it is in the interest of all that Pakistan gets its act together and puts up a combined front against the scourge of extremism. It may distract their attention from exporting terrorism into Kashmir, which will be a good thing. But in the long run, if the terrorist groups take over the country, Pakistan could become the next Afghanistan and the resulting instability will spill over to India and reach China and Bangladesh, and other nations of the region. The problems of the nuclear armed state could well become the next problem of the world.
For too long, Pakistan has followed the policy of ‘good terrorist’ and ‘bad terrorist.’ The good terrorists were the ones that could be used against India (and inconvenient political leaders). The bad ones were the ones that were fighting Pakistan. They are discovering too late, that both are two sides of the same coin, and cannot be differentiated. They are also discovering that the snakes they nurtured in their backyard, would not bite only the neighbors, but could turn on them as well Their policies have now come back to bite them with a vengeance.
(Ajay Singh is the award-winning author of six books and over 200 articles. His latest book “The Russia-Ukraine War” was recently released.)