Pakistan’s Afghan predicament

Published January 15, 2024
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

WHILE engagement continues between Pakistani officials and Taliban authorities the core issue at the heart of tensions between the two countries is nowhere near resolution.

Over the past year, relations have become increasingly strained as Pakistan’s security concerns about the outlawed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), based in Afgha­nistan, have not elicited a meaningful response from Kabul. Pakistan’s repeated public warnings to the Taliban about the consequences of TTP’s cross-border attacks seemed to have little effect.

When the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, Islamabad hoped this would help Pakistan secure its western border. But this expectation was not met. Instead, there was a marked escalation in border tensions and terrorist attacks targeting Pakistan’s security forces. Successive reports by the UN Security Council’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team found the “TTP benefitted the most of all the foreign extremist groups in Afghanistan from the Taliban takeover”.

Pakistan’s own assessment, contained in a leaked defence ministry report last May, was similar. The report said that Kabul’s unwillingness to act against the TTP and its regrouping in Afghanistan after the Taliban’s assumption of power posed a growing threat to Pakistan’s security.

Meanwhile statements by the military voiced serious concerns about “the safe havens and liberty of action available to the TTP in Afghan­istan”. In July, Army Chief General Asim Munir warned of an “effective response” by the country’s security forces if attacks continued from Afghanistan. Other Pakistani officials asked Kabul to choose between the TTP and Pakistan.

The surge in terrorist activities in 2023 led to a significant rise in the casualties of security personnel, which hit an eight-year high. This left Islamabad increasingly frustrated. Attacks by TTP became more audacious after the collapse of its ceasefire with the government in November 2022. The short-lived ceasefire was itself a misguided and 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 January 2023, which claimed nearly a hundred 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 and multiple interactions with Taliban officials last year produced no outcome. In these talks Taliban leaders offered assurances about restraining the TTP 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 was beginning to wear thin.

The core issue at the heart of tensions between the two countries is still unresolved.

A high-level delegation was dispatched to Kabul in February 2023 to convey 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 apparently asked for financial help, ostensibly to disarm and resettle TTP fighters, estimated to be around 5,000, away from the border with Pakistan.

All this amounted to nothing especially as this was accompanied by Taliban leaders’ ‘advice’ that Pakistan should revive negotiations with the TTP. This in fact proved to be a turning point urging Islamabad to rethink its Afghan policy.

Against this backdrop Pakistani authorities began to shift course and adopted a tougher policy towards Kabul. Any talks with TTP were firmly rejected. A number of actions followed, designed to mount pressure on the Taliban leadership and raise the costs of its non-cooperation on TTP.

They included the decision to deport tens of thousands of undocumented Afghans from the country and substantial change in regulations governing transit trade by imposition of a ban on many import items from Pakistan (which led to thousands of stranded containers that were prevented from going to Afghanistan.) Islamabad also intensified public criticism of Kabul, accusing it of harbouring Pakistan’s enemies. All this showed that Islamabad was prepared to deploy several levers to pressure the Taliban.

In response, Kabul indicated its keenness to mend ties with Islamabad while urging it to decouple trade from terrorism and desist from forcing it to take actions under pressure. The recent visit of an Afghan delegation to Pakistan marked an effort to reengage on issues of priority for both sides at a time when a regular meeting of the joint coordination committee was also due.

Led by Kandahar Governor Mullah Sherin Akhund, reputed to be a close confidante of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, the delegation was deemed as a serious effort to defuse tensions. The Afghan delegation’s ‘asks’ included the release of containers among other trade issues and a slowing down of the repatriation process for the winter months. The Pakistani side made it clear that movement on the core issue of TTP was essential to address other issues and that patience on that count had already run out.

From accounts of the exchanges on TTP it did not appear any progress was made on this issue. As in the past, the Afghan side asked for more time to deal with TTP citing winter as an impediment this time. It also said it would shift TTP members away from the border but that too would start some months from now.

In playing for time and not setting out any plan of action to deal with TTP, this again raised the question of the Taliban’s seriousness. That Mullah Sherin offered to take Pakistan’s message back to the Taliban chief was about the only outcome from the parleys on TTP. Pakistani officials see this as a test in coming months of the top Taliban leadership’s intentions. They say the jury is out on whether it will change course and address the issue. But then the jury has been out for quite some time.

The key question is what are Pakistan’s options if the Taliban show continued unwillingness to act against the TTP. There are no easy answers as there are limits to the leverage Pakistan can use in a coercive approach without risking a rupture in relations, which it would want to avoid.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, January 15th, 2024

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