Pakistani Taliban’s future

Updated March 07, 2020

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The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

AN uncertain yet heartening peace process has started off in Afghanistan after the US and Afghan Taliban signed a deal last week in Doha. On the other hand, as many had foreseen, Afghan stakeholders have stuck to their positions, showing little flexibility to accommodate each other in the intra-Afghan reconciliation process. This is an ideal situation for the spoilers of peace, including state and non-state actors who will try to create space for themselves.

The US focus has largely remained on extracting guarantees from the Afghan Taliban eg they will not allow foreign militants to operate from their territory. The Taliban face two major challenges: first, to push the level of violence down to a point where they can initiate a dialogue with other Afghan stakeholders, and second, to fulfil their commitment to not harbour Al Qaeda and other foreign militants.

The first challenge has its own complexities and is largely linked to security and political stability inside Afghanistan. But the second challenge is even more critical because it implies direct consequences for global and regional security. In particular, the Afghan Taliban’s approach will decide the future of multiple militant groups, mainly the Pakistani Taliban who have remained either associated with the former or under its ideological and political influence.

Some media reports have indicated that the Afghan Taliban have conveyed to Al Qaeda and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to stop their operations in Pakistan and against foreign forces in Afghanistan. The most interesting bit of news is that the Afghan Taliban successfully convinced the Islamic State (IS) leadership to stay calm at least for the next few months. If true, these media reports could be interpreted in several ways.

Distancing themselves from TTP groups would be a challenge for the Afghan Taliban.

First, despite all their tactical and sectarian differences, the Afghan Taliban enjoy supremacy over all shades of militants in Afghanistan and can use this leverage in both the intra-Afghan dialogue and the larger reconciliation process with the international community.

Second, for IS and Al Qaeda, the US exit and dialogue process will bring some relief as both were major targets of the US-led operations and drone strikes. Both groups could use this interval to rethink their strategies and restructure their ranks. The IS, in particular, might try to complete the task of relocating its infrastructure along the borders of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. These border areas have a large Salafi population that suits IS because of the sectarian affinity. Also, apart from the Afghan and Pakistani members, a number of IS fighters come from Central Asia and China’s Xinjiang region. If the group succeeds in its relocation plan, it could hit several targets.

It is not certain what exactly the Afghan Taliban have in mind for Al Qaeda after their deal with the US. They have agreed that they will not allow Al Qaeda to use Afghan soil for recruiting, fundraising, training and launching attacks against the US and its allies. But what would that actually mean? Does that mean that the Arab-origin leaders will be allowed to stay in Afghanistan if they abandon violence? Can the Taliban provide the Al Qaeda leaders a passage to other lands especially after they agreed to put travel restrictions on foreign militants?

As far as the TTP or other, small Pakistani groups are concerned, they are also jubilant over the deal. Their upbeat mood is understandable because they were under allegiance to Mullah Haibatullah, the Afghan Taliban supreme leader. They may have gotten the impression that they would get some relief when the Afghan Taliban obtain legitimacy and power. So far, the TTP is suffering considerable losses in Afghanistan where many of its commanders have been killed in mysterious ways. There was speculation in the media that it was part of the pre-deal understanding between the US and Pakistan that TTP and Baloch insurgents would not be allowed to have sanctuaries in Afghanistan.

However, distancing themselves from TTP groups would be a challenge for the Afghan Taliban. Though the latter hesitate to talk about the TTP in media interactions, they have always maintained a relationship with them. It is evident that they have been intervening in the TTP’s internal affairs whenever the latter faced an internal crisis or disputes over leadership. The TTP militants could also have a better working relationship with the field commanders of the Afghan Taliban, who are allowed to make decisions according to local requirements.

Some in Pakistan’s security elite thought that US talks with the Afghan Taliban would completely disassociate the latter from the Pakistani Taliban sheltering in Afghanistan. That meant the TTP’s return to Pakistan. Last year, a media delegation was told in Miramshah (North Waziristan) that the state was working on some mechanism to sort out the TTP and its affiliated militant movements. The military spokesperson stated that the militants who wanted to return and live peacefully would be welcomed. It is not certain whether the offer still stands as the TTP is a weaker group compared to last year. However, it will have utility for the Afghan Taliban if internal conflict intensifies in Afghanistan.

Another worrying factor involves the sectarian groups, who are also inclined towards the Afghan Taliban and share an almost similar worldview, besides sectarian tendencies. Few sectarian groups are still active in parts of Balochistan and Sindh and their future strategies also depend on the Afghan Taliban’s treatment of them. Recently, the Taliban developed a working relationship with Tehran; obviously, Iran would not want the insurgent group to have a working relationship with anti-Shia groups. If the Taliban discourage sectarian groups, the latter might turn to IS.

In many contexts, the future of anti-Pakistan militant groups depends on the Afghan Taliban’s future strategy to deal with them in terms of engagement or disengagement. In any case, the militants will remain a threat to the internal security of Pakistan. The state has to look into the issue seriously.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, March 7th, 2020