THE forceful message conveyed to Kabul by the Corps Commanders Conference on Monday captures the disappointment within the top brass over Afghanistan’s seeming unwillingness to stop the flow of militants and ammunition across Pakistan’s western border.
While the seeds for such a rebuke were sown on July 12, when militants staged an organised attack on a military garrison in Zhob, Balochistan, the concerns highlighted by the military are not new and have been festering ever since the proscribed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) first re-emerged after a hiatus of nearly three years.
A security official told Dawn that the Zhob attack was carried out by five “highly trained and well-equipped terrorists.”
“These terrorists had night vision scopes and the latest gadgets with American weapons,” he said, adding that the attackers seemed to be planning a hostage situation — along the lines of the Muslim Bagh attack in Balochistan, that claimed the lives of six soldiers and at least one civilian earlier this year.
It is no secret that following the hurried withdrawal of US-led coalition forces from Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban scavenged all the hardware left behind by their erstwhile foes and put it to use.
Photos and videos of Taliban fighters swaggering around Kabul and other areas, dressed from head to toe in US-origin fatigues and brandishing American-made automatic weapons dominated the pages of many publications in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover.
So it is not too great a leap to believe that the TTP, who have spiritual and operational linkages with the Afghan Taliban, had managed to arm themselves with the same spoils of war that fighters of the Islamic Emirate have been using.
And there is little question of TTP fighters seizing these arms by force, given the bonhomie that exists between the two Taliban factions.
Officials say the TTP confidently uses such weapons in its attacks against Pakistani security forces in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including the merged tribal districts.
They believe that the availability of such advanced weapons has created significant challenges for the security forces in combating terrorism in these parts of Pakistan.
Security sources also believe that the Zhob attack “clearly indicating involvement from the Afghan side”.
While responsibility for the attack was claimed by a little known group calling itself the Tehreek-i-Jihad Pakistan (TJP), there was some consternation among TTP circles about the veracity of the claim.
Asad Afridi, who heads the TTP chapter in Dera Ismail Khan, had challenged the TJP’s claim and insisted that it was the TTP that was behind the attack. This stance, however, was swiftly disowned by TTP’s central spokesperson, Mohammad Khorasani, who issued a counter-statement acknowledging the claim of TJP and terming them “a brother organisation”.
In the wake of this back and forth, the perception that the banned TTP is using pseudonyms to dodge growing pressure from the Afghan Taliban has been strengthened. Indeed, Asad Afridi’s claim is said to have caused embarrassment for the TTP leadership, and it is said that following the supposed gaffe, he was also swiftly replaced.
Kabul’s stance and Doha accord
Sources in the current Kabul administration claimed that they were taking measures to stop TTP fighters, insisting that such groups could be operating out of the mountainous regions of Khost, Paktika and Kunar — areas where, supposedly, the Islamic Emirate’s writ doesn’t apply.
But those aware of the on-ground situation say that TTP fighters are not wanting for sanctuaries, as was previously the case under the Ashraf Ghani regime. Today, these fighters live openly in the main cities and towns of Afghanistan, and freely move from place to place.
The administration in Kabul, however, denies this.
A day after the military first expressed its disappointment, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif also accused the Afghan Taliban of not honouring their commitments under the Doha accord, i.e. that they would not to allow Afghan soil to be used against others.
Zabihullah Mujahid, spokesperson for the Islamic Emirate, disputed the statements from the Pakistani side, saying: “We do not allow them (TTP) to live and operate in Afghanistan. We have faced consequences of wars and do not want others to suffer like Afghanistan,” he told Dawn.
“This is a problem here, but it is also the responsibility of the other side (Pakistan) to find a solution,” he told Dawn over the weekend, urging Pakistani authorities to share evidence with the government in Kabul to substantiate its claims regarding the TTP.
But in a separate interview with BBC Pashto, Mujahid took a harsher line — ostensibly in a bid to play to the Afghan galleries — advising Pakistan to resolve its internal problems itself, instead of pointing fingers at others.
“This is a naïve approach to shift the blame of one’s own failures to others,” the Taliban spokesman had told BBC Pashto, and also warned of a “serious reaction” if Pakistan used force inside Afghanistan.
He had also rebuffed the Pakistani leadership’s invocation of the Doha accord, saying that it was signed between the Taliban and the US, not Pakistan.
In response to the Afghan spokesperson’s reported remarks, Khawaja Asif on Sunday doubled down, saying that “Pakistan stands resolute in uprooting terrorism from its soil, whatever the source… regardless of whether or not Kabul has the will to reign in militants from within its borders.”
The Islamic Emirate’s ‘doublespeak’ on the issue is surprising, considering how Pakistan is effectively working as a bridge between the Kabul regime and the international community, for now.
Since the fall of Kabul in August 2021, Islamabad has been one of the leading advocates of the Afghan cause, with Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari repeatedly telling various international fora that the world must engage with Islamic Emirate, for the sake of Afghans, if nothing else.
While the West has been looking to boycott the Taliban regime over their gross violations of human rights – especially the ban on girls’ education and working women – Pakistan has been urging the global community to solve the issue through engagement rather than abandonment.
Islamabad is also a key partner for Afghanistan’s ailing economy, with most of the country’s trade and a bulk of its food and aid supplies being routed through Pakistan.
Asif Khan Durrani, Pakistan special envoy for Afghanistan, is due to visit Kabul tomorrow (July 19) for a three-day visit, where high level talks are expected this week on a wide range of issues.
But ahead of his trip, the envoy told Dawn that Islamabad wanted the Afghan government to hand over TTP leaders to Pakistan, so they could be brought to justice for their crimes.
“This is our demand… the TTP leaders should be neutralised so they do not pose any threat to Pakistan. They should not use Afghan soil against Pakistan,” Mr Durrani said.
He also ruled out further negotiations with the TTP, saying that Pakistan had exhausted that option and it could not produce any positive results.
Defence analyst and former brigadier Said Nazir Mohmand believes that the stern tone of the military command’s message for Kabul shows a willingness to act against the TTP threat, even if it means striking inside Afghan territory.
“The army’s statement shows that Pakistan will not take the attack [lying down]… the army has conveyed that the country will take whatever steps it considers suitable,” he told Dawn.
“It is a clear message to take revenge on a higher level and that the retaliation that could be on any level. Pakistan has also given the message that the Afghan Taliban cannot play games with us, and if they continue to do so, then Pakistan will be free to give a response.”
Published in Dawn, July 18th, 2023