Afghanistan: Chaos Across The Border

WHILE China and Taliban explored the possibility of once unimaginable bonhomie, people in Kabul  were not quite impressed by just about anything happening around them. They just wanted to get out and away.
WHILE China and Taliban explored the possibility of once unimaginable bonhomie, people in Kabul were not quite impressed by just about anything happening around them. They just wanted to get out and away.

WEEKS before the Afghan Taliban made a triumphant entry into Kabul, a top security official told a huddle of lawmakers that while Ashraf Ghani was the main spoiler in the peace process, from Pakistan’s perspective, the presence of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in neighbouring Afghanistan was a major security concern.

Chronic and deep mistrust between Islamabad and Kabul meant that neither side ever acknowledged the presence of Afghan Taliban or Pakistani Taliban on their respective sides. The Afghans continued to accuse Pakistan of harbouring the Haqqani Network (HQN), while Pakistanis on their part alleged that Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) and India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) funded and supported the TTP to carry out sabotage and terrorist activities on this side of the Durand Line.

The TTP had, for more than a decade, served as a rear guard to HQN and a motley crowd of foreign militants, giving them sanctuary and defending and protecting them in the face of several small and big military operations. In fact, the TTP – an umbrella organisation comprising several militant outfits – had taken oath of allegiance to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA). Thus, it was IEA’s turn to return the favour by providing them with sanctuary.

Watching closely the events next door, there was no doubt within Pakistan’s security establishment that US President Joe Biden meant what he had said in April that come September, 2021, America would be out of Afghanistan to end its longest war in history.

It’s a struggle for both Islamabad and Kabul to convince regional and global powers that the new rulers in Afghanistan do mean what they say.

Subsequent months saw Pakistanis quietly reaching out to the Afghan Taliban to help reign in the TTP. “This is not the right time,” the Afghans would tell their Pakistani contacts. The IEA had its eyes fixed on the larger goal to see the back of the Americans.

For the IEA, the TTP was a secondary issue and would be dealt with at an appropriate time. Pakistanis were unconvinced, but nonetheless continued their effort to persuade the Afghan Taliban to give up on their guests. “Both are two faces of the same coin,” a cynical security official would tell Pakistani lawmakers during a briefing on Afghanistan weeks before the takeover of Kabul by the Afghan Taliban.

In July, the Afghan Taliban finally acquiesced to Pakistan’s request and formed a three-member high-powered commission to speak to the TTP leadership. Soon enough, the Afghan Taliban returned, telling their Pakistani interlocutors that it would be best if they engaged with the TTP directly through tribal intermediaries or influential clerics. Persuasion, they said, was the best way to rope in the TTP.

But as Pakistan’s security establishment carefully mulled its strategy, events in Afghanistan took a dramatic turn. One provincial capital after the other, started falling like the proverbial house of cards, with Afghan National Defence Forces and the police offering little or no resistance. By mid-August, the Afghan Taliban were at the gates of Kabul and by the evening they were inside the Presidential Palace hours after President Ghani, accompanied by his wife Rula Ghani and National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib boarded a helicopter and headed northwards to Termez in the neighbouring Uzbekistan.

The sudden and dramatic fall of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the return of the IEA took the international community by surprise. Many, including policymakers in Islamabad, had expected Ghani to survive at least another six months.

The American diplomatic mission issued an alert asking all foreign missions to evacuate to the Hamid Karzai International Airport immediately. What ensued was mayhem and chaos as the world watched in shock and disbelief desperate Afghans storming the airport and clinging on to the wings of flying aircrafts and falling off from high altitude to death. There was a scramble, not just by desperate Afghans wary of the return of the hardline militia and fearful for their lives for having worked with foreign forces, but also regional and international powers to evacuate, even though the new rulers announced amnesty for all.

Amid the uncertainty in Afghanistan, Pakistani security establishment was worried about the possibility that some hardcore elements within the TTP might be tempted to join the more radical groups. In October, Prime Minister Imran Khan acknowledged to a Turkish television that his government was negotiating with the outlawed militant organisation with help from the Afghan Taliban. These efforts did yield some result. The TTP announced a month-long truce on Nov 9 though not without preconditions. And, despite optimism in certain quarters, it refused to extend the ceasefire.

The TTP returned to violence and resumed attacks in Pakistan as the year came to a close. This has presented the government with a huge dilemma. With the TTP escalating attacks inside the country, the government can no longer blame foreign intelligence services for fomenting violence inside Pakistan, but, at the same time, it cannot publicly name those who harboured the wanted militants.

But, perhaps paradoxically, neither Islamabad nor Kabul would be able to convince regional and global powers that the new rulers in Afghanistan mean what they say. This singular issue alone would test the strength of Pakistan’s long-time relationship with a group it has long been accused of supporting.



Updated 28 May, 2022

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