Regional militant sanctuaries

Published July 29, 2020
The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

THE dreaded militant outfit that once held sway over Pakistan’s former Fata may have been driven out from its stronghold and splintered, but its sanctuaries across the border in Afghanistan remain a security threat for the region. A recent spike in the attacks on Pakistani security forces in North Waziristan district and reports of reactivation of terrorist cells must be a cause of concern.

A recent UN monitoring team report has revealed that most of the 6,000 to 6,500 Pakistani militants in Afghanistan belong to the various factions of the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan. They are now operating from their bases in eastern Afghanistan. While many recent terrorist attacks in Pakistan have been traced to TTP splinter groups, some of the fugitive militants have joined the self-styled Islamic State (IS) group and are not only fighting the Afghan and American forces but are also engaged in a turf war with the Afghan Taliban. The original leadership of the Khorasan chapter of the outfit came from the ranks of TTP fugitives in Afghanistan.

There has been a marked escalation in the terrorist attacks claimed by the group, whose origins lie in the Middle East, following the February peace deal between the US and the Afghan Taliban. It has recently carried out some spectacular terrorist attacks in the Afghan capital Kabul, targeting civilians in an effort to disrupt the Afghan peace process. The UN report estimates the membership of the IS in Afghanistan at 2,200.

An estimated 6,000 to 6,500 Pakistani terrorists are operating from their bases in Afghanistan.

Although its numbers have depleted in the last few years, IS has shown that it has the capacity to penetrate high-security zones via suicide bombings. Despite losing territorial control in parts of the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar to the Afghan Taliban, IS has proved its effectiveness at carrying out attacks.

The rise in activities of the mutated TTP factions on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border raises some serious questions. Such a large number of trained militants dislocated from their home bases and with no resources could easily be turned into mercenaries and would be willing to work for vested interest groups and foreign intelligence agencies. The ongoing war in Afghanistan and regional conflicts make it easier for these mercenaries to be used as proxies. The recent militant attacks in North Waziristan district and other parts of the county seemed well-planned.

Surely the splinter groups do not have the capacity and support base to re-establish their control in their former strongholds. But they can create problems for the security agencies. The danger is more serious with the situation in the former tribal areas, particularly Waziristan, not yet fully settled. It could get worse with the conflict in Afghanistan.

Most of the TTP leaders were either killed or had fled to Afghanistan after the military operations in the former tribal regions. Among them was Mullah Fazlullah who became the leader of the TTP after the killing of Hakeemullah Mehsud in a CIA drone strike in 2013. After fleeing the Swat operation, he had taken refuge in the neighbouring Afghan province of Kunar that had long been the centre of radical Islamic militancy.

The fleeing militants continued to engage in cross-border attacks presumably with the support of their Afghan allies. It is unclear whether Fazlullah had received any support from elements of the Afghan Taliban. The killing of Fazlullah in 2018 in an American drone strike led to the further disintegration of the group.

In this period, many other TTP commanders who had aligned with IS were also killed as the American forces intensified their offensive against the militant group. Their association with IS had also brought the elements of the TTP into confrontation with the Afghan Taliban. There is, however, a question mark hanging over the relationship between the other TTP factions and the Afghan Taliban. It’s a complex situation indeed.

Whatever remains of the TTP in Afghanistan has suffered the most serious blow this year when three of its top commanders were found dead in mysterious circumstances outside Kabul. Among them was also Sheikh Khalid Haqqani, once deputy chief of the TTP and a member of the group’s leadership council. He was also believed to be one of the masterminds of the December 2014 attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School that killed almost 150 students and staff members. The others were Qari Saif Younas and Saifullah Peshawari. Both were top commanders. All three were reportedly associated with IS.

A few weeks later, another TTP factional leader, Shahryar Mehsud, was also killed in a blast in eastern Kunar province. No one has claimed responsibility for those killings but they could have been caused by factional infighting or have been the work of some intelligence agency. The presence of TTP commanders in Afghanistan reinforces Pakistan’s allegation that many of the terrorist attacks that occurred in northwest Pakistan were planned across the border. Pakistani security agencies believe that hostile intelligence agencies abroad have been involved in terrorism. It sounds plausible given the ongoing regional conflicts.

Across-the-border militant sanctuaries are often used for proxy wars. The UN report, which states that thousands of anti-Pakistan militants are operating in Afghanistan, only reinforces earlier reports of the TTP’s cross-border operations. It’s not only the TTP but also groups like the Balochistan Liberation Army that have allegedly found safe haven in Afghanistan.

And it’s not just about Afghanistan but also militant sanctuaries inside Pakistan allegedly engaging in cross-border terrorist activities. By not taking action against militant safe havens, countries lose their sovereignty. Pakistan has paid hugely for its wrong policies of allowing militant sanctuaries on its soil in the past. But we can’t afford more such adventures at the risk of our own sovereignty and national security.

With the ongoing war in the country, the Afghan government may not have the kind of control needed to take action against militant sanctuaries, but the danger is that outside interests could exploit this situation. One of the most significant points of the US-Taliban peace deal is not to allow Afghan soil to be used for action against other countries. It will also be a part of the political settlement in the war-torn country. More importantly, there is a need for an agreement on the issue of regional security.

The writer is an author and journalist.


Published in Dawn, July 29th, 2020



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