No good options

Published January 9, 2023
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

THE sight of thousands of people taking to the streets in South Waziristan to protest the resurgence of the Pakistani Taliban offers a ray of hope. It is a reminder that domestic militancy is not organic or an inevitable consequence of ideological inclinations. Rather, it is the result of foreign and security policies gone awry, for which there is declining public appetite.

Unfortunately, the difficulty of pivoting away from those policies is now becoming apparent. The worsening relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan highlight that in the fight against the TTP, Pakistan can only choose from bad options.

With negotiations with the TTP off the table (for now, at least), Pakistan is counting on the Afghan Taliban to rein in the group and prevent cross-border attacks. Islamabad recently upped the ante, suggesting that if the Afghan Taliban didn’t step up, Pakistan would take action on Afghan soil too.

But the Afghan Taliban are in no mood for scapegoating, and their official rhetoric against Pakistan is increasingly laced with bile. Even while expressing a desire for good bilateral relations, the Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid last week warned Pakistan against attacking targets in Afghanistan.

The concept of strategic depth has been perversely inverted.

Taliban commander General Mobeen has been less diplomatic in his online missives. In recent days he has directed Islamabad to focus on its own internal affairs rather than interfere in Afghanistan’s. He has also deployed vile language to describe Pakistan’s political leadership. All this after a provocative tweet from Afghan Taliban leader Ahmad Yasir reminding Islamabad that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, and alluding to the outcome of the 1971 war with India.

The reality is the Afghan Taliban are unlikely to crack down on the TTP for various reasons. The groups have fought together against the US for several years, and those personal bonds are not easily severed. They are also ideologically aligned and an Afghan Taliban crackdown on the TTP would undermine its own legitimacy. Most importantly, the Afghan Taliban know that such a crackdown would intensify intra-militant clashes, fuelled by TTP defections to Islamic State in Afghanistan — a threat the Afghan Taliban are unwilling to countenance.

This means Pakistan must respond militarily to the TTP with increased border surveillance and targeted strikes. This approach will be bolstered by the support of anti-TTP locals in border areas. But the risk of strikes extending into Afghan territory, and sparking open conflict with the Afghan Taliban, is real. The Afghan Taliban have been pulling down fencing along the Durand line, and the TTP moves freely across the border to regroup in Afghanistan. Conflict with Afghanistan would be among Pakistan’s worst nightmares — the defunct concept of strategic depth perversely inverted.

At the same time, there are political advantages for a Pakistan that is tougher on the Afghan Taliban. After the recent National Security Committee meeting that resolved to counter militancy, the US promptly backed Pakistan’s right to defend itself from terrorism, and called out the Afghan Taliban for reneging on commitments to prevent Afghanistan being used as a base for terrorism. This alignment with the US is welcome for Islamabad after some years in the diplomatic wilderness, and particularly with an IMF delegation headed our way. Pakistan is not in a position to snub American overtures.

And so we’re back to where we started, with our state experiencing serious cognitive dissonance with regards to Afghanistan. Its official position is still to support the Afghan Taliban regime on the world stage, in the name of regional stability, and to appease domestic hardliners. At the same time, it finds itself preparing securitised approa­ches to deal with the fact that Pakistan is the main victim of the Afghan Taliban’s laxity on militancy. As I said, there are no good options.

Ultimately, Pakistan will have to reconcile its divergent approaches to Afghanistan. There is a world in which Islamabad maintains a strong stance against militancy, calls out Kabul for its horrific women’s rights record, cracks down on dollar smuggling, and empowers local communities speaking out against the TTP through political inclusion and the creation of economic and educational opportunities.

In this world, Pakistan incentivises better behaviour and security alignment from the Afghan Taliban with offers of formal economic exchanges, geopolitical support, cooperation on regional challenges such as climate change, projects such as the Trans-Afghan railway line, and continued, dignified support for Afghan refugees in Pakistan (no more Afghan children in cages, please).

But to do this, Pakistan will first have to grapple with its own demons, those that stubbornly lurk in outdated security policies and among the religious right. Are we up to that?

The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, January 9th, 2023

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