ONCE again Pakistan has warned the Taliban authorities in Kabul about the consequences of attacks the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is conducting from across the border.
In the most strongly worded statements by Pakistani military and government leaders since the Taliban’s return to power two years ago, Kabul was told to ensure Afghanistan’s soil is not used to perpetrate terrorist attacks against another country. This was the latest indication of growing strains in relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Two consecutive statements by the military last week voiced serious concerns about “the safe havens and liberty of action available to the TTP in Afghanistan”.
The first came after the visit to Quetta by army chief Gen Asim Munir, which called on the Afghan interim government to abide by the commitments made in the Doha agreement (forged between the US and Taliban in 2020). A remark attributed to him warned of an “effective response” by the country’s security forces if attacks continued.
The second statement was issued after a corps commanders conference last Monday which said “the sanctuaries … available to terrorists of proscribed TTP … and availability of latest weapons to terrorists were noted [by the conference] as major reasons impacting [the] security of Pakistan”.
Defence Minister Khawaja Asif’s remarks were just as tough. He accused Kabul of failing to abide by its commitments and said “Afghanistan is neither fulfilling its obligations as a neighbouring country nor safeguarding the Doha agreement”. He said “terrorists who shed the blood of Pakistanis find refuge on Afghan soil”, and warned that “Pakistan would employ all possible resources and measures” in response.
This round of statements was prompted by the terrorist attack on an army garrison in Balochistan’s Zhob town on July 12, which claimed the lives of nine soldiers. The same day an attack in Sui led to three more military casualties.
They were only the latest acts of violence in the area of the province close to the border with Afghanistan, where the TTP has expanded its activities from its main theatre in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In enlarging its operations to the Pakhtun part of Balochistan the outlawed group has increased the security threat to a province already dealing with violence by Baloch militants.
The country should consider policy options that elicit a response to its security concerns from the Taliban.
In fact, there has been a marked escalation in terrorist attacks targeting Pakistan’s security forces since the Taliban took over Afghanistan. A Pakistani defence ministry report leaked to the media in May stated that with Kabul unwilling to act against TTP, its regrouping in Afghanistan after the Taliban’s assumption of power posed a growing threat to Pakistan’s security.
Successive reports by the UN Security Council’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team concluded that “TTP has arguably benefited the most of all the foreign extremist groups in Afghanistan from the Taliban takeover”.
Attacks by TTP surged and became even more brazen after the collapse of its ceasefire with the government in November 2022. The short-lived ceasefire was itself a futile attempt by the Pakistani authorities to end the armed group’s 14-year war on Pakistan. A wave of violence followed.
In one of the worst incidents of terrorism, the TTP attacked a mosque in Peshawar’s police lines in December which claimed over 100 lives and shook the country. Then too dire warnings were issued by Pakistani officials to the Taliban authorities. But to little avail.
Several rounds of talks with Taliban officials also produced no outcome. In these talks Taliban leaders acknowledged the presence of TTP in their country (which they do not do publicly), offered assurances about restraining them but asked for time to accomplish this. They also argued that containing TTP was a question of their capacity and not commitment. But Islamabad’s patience has been running out.
A high-level Pakistani delegation was dispatched to Kabul in February with a one-point agenda: to make Taliban leaders understand Pakistan’s red line on terror attacks from Afghan soil and secure a firm commitment from Kabul to rein in TTP and deny it the sanctuary its fighters enjoy there. In these parleys, Taliban leaders asked for financial assistance, ostensibly to disarm and resettle TTP fighters and their families, estimated to be around 5,000, away from the border with Pakistan. But all this amounted to nothing.
This leaves Pakistan with a predicament on an issue with serious ramifications for the country’s security. What are its options? Issue public warnings and hope that this would pressure the Taliban to respond? That hasn’t worked so far and cannot yield an outcome different from the past.
No strategy can rest on hope. Do what Afghan Taliban leaders frequently urge and engage the TTP in talks again? That was a disaster the last time around and backfired badly on the country, whose consequences it is now having to deal with. Talks broke down when it became evident that TTP’s demands were non-negotiable.
They included withdrawal of Pakistan’s military forces from the border region, reversal of Fata’s merger with KP and imposition of Sharia in certain KP areas. Pakistan’s military authorities have rightly ruled out talks in acknowledgement of the past blunder.
Should Pakistan consider strikes against terrorist hideouts in Afghanistan if the Taliban fail to act against TTP? Undeclared kinetic actions have already been undertaken by Pakistan, targeting TTP and eliminating some senior leaders. But this is not a tenable approach and has obvious risks and drawbacks.
There are other disincentives (and incentives) in the country’s policy toolkit that should be carefully considered with the aim to both persuade Taliban leaders and raise the cost of non-cooperation for them. Islamabad also needs to work on a regional option. It should evolve a coordinated regional strategy so that collective pressure is brought to bear on Kabul.
Security after all is a concern for all of Afghanistan’s neighbours even if their other interests vary. The greatest convergence is between Pakistan and China which underlines the importance of the trilateral Pakistan-China-Afghanistan forum to raise and resolve security concerns relating to terrorist groups based in Afghanistan. What is clear is that Pakistan’s present Afghan policy needs to be revisited and recast to more effectively protect its security interests.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2023