THE return to power last August of the Afghan Taliban was a watershed event certain to have far-reaching consequences for the region’s security landscape. For Pakistan, having suffered years of bloodletting at the hands of violent extremist outfits, the stakes are extremely high. According to the 29th report of the UN’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, the first since the momentous development in Afghanistan, the country once again “has the potential to become a safe haven for Al Qaeda and a number of terror groups with ties to the Central Asia region and beyond”. Al Qaeda already enjoys enduring links with Afghanistan’s new rulers, having fought alongside them in the Taliban’s two decades-long insurgency against Western-backed governments in Kabul. During their years in the wilderness, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan gave them refuge on this side of the border. And now the Afghan regime has made clear they will not take coercive action against their former hosts, even as they claim they will prevent terrorist groups from launching transnational attacks from Afghanistan’s soil. The most they will do, it appears, is mediate talks between the TTP and the Pakistani government. Predictably, the initial effort at such negotiations has, aside for a brief ceasefire, gone nowhere. Another source of worry for Pakistan is that, as per the UN report, the TTP and Al Qaeda have joined hands with the Uighur extremist group ETIM to carry out attacks on Chinese interests in this country.
If the turmoil in Afghanistan worsens, breakaway elements from the Taliban, as well as foreign extremists, may be tempted to switch allegiances to the militant Islamic State’s Khorasan chapter which also has roots in the country. The UN report describes the IS-K as the Afghan Taliban’s “primary kinetic threat as the group aims to position itself as the chief rejectionist force in Afghanistan, with a wider regional agenda… .” Despite its limited territorial control, this militant outfit has demonstrated time and again the wherewithal to mount horrific, mass casualty attacks often along sectarian lines.
Afghanistan-based terror outfits have since decades cast a long shadow over this region, but at least earlier it was not smooth sailing for them. Certainly, Afghan and American forces were strategic in their targeting of terrorists — for instance, allowing TTP safe havens to exist largely unhindered despite their cross-border attacks in Pakistan. Nevertheless, tactical drone strikes, such as those that killed Mullah Fazlullah and other senior TTP commanders in Afghanistan, meant they had to be constantly on their guard. Now even that restraint has more or less evaporated. What makes matters even more complex and fluid is that despite some differences, all these terrorist outfits are on an ideological level cut from the same cloth, and they collaborate and enable each other. World powers must urgently formulate a unified strategy to deal with this threat that ultimately menaces all humanity.
Published in Dawn, February 10th, 2022