Peshawar to Chaman and Quetta to Islamabad, with likely many unknown places in between, a spate of mysterious killings of Afghans in Pakistan has been taking place. The most recent death was in Chaman, where an Afghan customs official believed to be close to an Afghan government commander was killed on Thursday. With none of the deaths investigated so far, all that exists are theories of what may be happening. Privately, Pakistani officials blame the Afghan security apparatus for many of the killings, arguing that it is part of score-settling and posturing ahead of the Afghan transition to a new government and security paradigm. That theory could very likely account for at least some of the killings. But it doesn’t necessarily explain all of the deaths.
Hence, further theories. In the blame game that is often Pak-Afghan relations, there are some on the Afghan government side, particularly within the Karzai government, that blame Pakistan itself for the killings. The explanation, or allegation as the case may be: some of the deaths involve Afghan Taliban figures who are believed to have either been open to talks with the Karzai government or already had channels of communication open and in doing so attracted the displeasure of elements within the Pakistani establishment who want any reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban to be routed through Pakistani channels. Certainly, the Afghan side often levels wild allegations against the Pakistani state, particularly the security establishment, but in the murkiness of Pak-Afghan-Taliban relations, nothing can ever be ruled out.
Then there is a third possibility, also likely responsible for some of the deaths: hardliners among the Afghan Taliban opposed to reconciliation are killing both Afghan government officials and Afghan Taliban interested in a negotiated settlement. Hardliners are a reality and, given that so little can be said with certainty about the ebb and flow of intra-Afghan Taliban dynamics, it is certainly possible that some among the Afghan Taliban are eyeing another sweeping victory once foreign troops reduce their presence in the country to a bare minimum. Taken together, all of the theories do add up to one inescapable reality — that the next couple of years will put new and unpredictable strains on the Pak-Afghan relationship that will require clear-headedness, policy clarity and firm resolve on the part of both sides if the strains are not to overwhelm the relationship and cause it to spiral out of control again. For Pakistan, wrestling as it is with a domestic insurgency that is tenacious and resilient, getting drawn into a vicious tit-for-tat exchange with Afghanistan would be doubly harmful. Perhaps properly investigating the killings would be just the step Pakistan needs to take to help lessen these new tensions.