End of the Afghan war: possibilities and pitfalls — II: Post-2014 Afghanistan: Pakistan's nightmare?
KARACHI: They are Pakistanis, Afghans, Arabs, Germans, Turks, Libyans, Sudanese, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Uighurs. They operate from Bajaur in the north to the Waziristans in the south. And the areas they target range from Pakistan and its neighbourhood, including Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and China, to the Middle East, Europe and the United States.
In the event that civil war breaks out next door or the Afghan Taliban capture significant power after the Western withdrawal, will Afghanistan become a new safe haven for this motley crew of Fata-based militant groups?
“2014 and the Western withdrawal will not mean Pakistan’s problems are over,” says Rahimullah Yusufzai, an expert on Fata and Afghan militancy. “If the Taliban cannot capture Kabul, which is highly likely, they will be operating from the border areas. So they may still need to come to Pakistan for shelter, funds and medical treatment, and the Pakistani Taliban will find safe havens in Afghanistan.”
That is precisely the fear driving the apparent shift in Pakistan’s mindset from banking on the Afghan Taliban for strategic depth in Afghanistan to realising that a broad-based coalition government there is more likely to be in Pakistan’s best interest. But some within the security establishment worry that even a power-sharing system, with the east and south controlled by the Taliban and Uzbek and other ethnic groups controlling the north, could end up providing sanctuaries and operational bases to Pakistan-based militants.
A model already exists for how these groups might operate from Afghanistan. According to Pakistani intelligence estimates, 223 attacks have been carried out from across the border since June 2010, including 14 major ones in which up to 200 militants were involved.
About 150 security personnel have lost their lives. The attacks are believed to originate in Kunar and Nuristan from 18 to 20 camps run by Pakistani militants Maulana Fazlullah of Swat and Abdul Wali (aka Omar Khalid) of Mohmand.
The obvious implication is that if Fata-based militants are not tackled quickly, they could become an even bigger nightmare for Pakistan as the 2014 deadline approaches.
But conversations with security officials reveal how complex the tribal areas’ militant network is. That in itself poses a problem, considering Pakistan’s historical tendency to try to separate friends from foes.
A prime example is the late Tahir Yuldashev’s Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, with several hundred Uzbeks operating out of North Waziristan, currently led byAbdul Fattah Ahmadi, aka Usman Ghazi. The fierce fighting force is available for hire by Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and could well find refuge in northern Afghanistan.
But what of smaller groups less obviously linked to militancy within Pakistan? Pakistani security officials estimate that the Islamic Jamaat Uzbekistan, a breakaway faction, has a force of several dozen Central Asians in the tribal areas, led by one Hameedullah Kyrgyzstani. There is the East Turkistan Islamic Movement of Uighurs aiming to create an Islamic state in China’s Uighur region, and a group called the Turkish Jamaat consisting mainly of militants from eastern Turkey who have sought refuge in North Waziristan and want support for an Islamic movement in their home country.
The Abdullah Azzam Brigade, currently led by Abdullah Majid, has a handful of men in North Waziristan plotting operations in the Middle East. While none of these might seem focused on Pakistan, foreign groups have supported Pakistan-oriented militants often enough to set a worrying precedent.
Then there are the groups under the TTP umbrella and their multiple goals. The most powerful TTP commander, Hakeemullah Mehsud, mainly attacks Pakistan, but has collaborated with the Afghan Taliban against American troops; the followers of Maulvi Nazir, who was killed in a drone strike last month because he concentrated on Afghanistan, still operate from South Waziristan; and the Hafiz Gulbahadur group in North Waziristan also focuses on Afghanistan but sometimes attacks Pakistani troops.
All have supported the Afghan Taliban in one way or another, and there is no reason to think the favour will not be repaid. And once Fata is no longer needed as a safe haven, even the delicate truces that Pakistan has maintained with militants such as Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gulbahadur will become worthless.
But the Pakistani Taliban web is much wider than these groups. Ten outfits formerly supported by the state for fighting in Kashmir or other purposes are now linked to the TTP, with the deadliest commander being Asmatullah Muawiya of the ‘Punjabi Taliban’, who security officials believe was involved in the 2008 Islamabad Marriott bombing and attacks on the army and ISI.
These and other groups, such as Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, may have their own agendas, but according to Pakistani intelligence, carry out attacks with material and physical support from the TTP. The 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, executed by an LJ-linked group with militants and material provided by the TTP, is a case in point. In the event of the Afghan Taliban controlling parts of Afghanistan, there is little doubt these militants would find a new operational base if they wanted one.
“If the war escalates next door, Pakistan could lose the tribal war,” says Zahid Hussain, author of Frontline Pakistan: the Struggle with Militant Islam.
“The ideological lines between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are very thin; they share world views and their agendas for the region.”
These groups appear to be more of a worry to Pakistan than Al Qaeda, which under Ayman al-Zawahiri — who Pakistani intelligence believes could be in Fata or in Afghanistan’s border region — appears more focused on Iraq and Syria. But even he is believed to have a force of a few hundred men working within Pakistan, led by his son-in-law and deputy, Safiyan al-Maghrabi, and a dozen or so top commanders, including men in charge of training, screening, media, internal communications, finance, IEDs, security and international affairs.
Despite the series of military operations in Fata, security officials admit that besides Orakzai, all the agencies remain unstable to varying degrees. The TTP’s main bases are in North Waziristan, but it has maintained a presence in most other agencies, including Kurram with its sectarian conflicts and Bajaur and Mohmand with their cross-border strikes.
But who will tackle the problem, and when and how they will do so, all remain troublingly open questions.
Neither the military nor the civilians want to take ownership of a North Waziristan operation. Elections could be a few weeks away, which would leave a caretaker government overseeing military action and lack of ownership from the next administration.
And there is still no consensus across the civilian and military leaderships about whether to talk to Pakistani militants and how to combine that with military action.
“There is now an understanding that Taliban control in Afghanistan is not good for Pakistan,” says Mr Hussain. “But the problem is that it is not being translated into a coherent strategy or a national narrative against militancy.”
Through the first week of January, according to military estimates, over 49,200 Pakistanis had become victims of militant violence (contrary to popular perception, this number includes those injured, not just killed). Of those, about 3,600 army and Frontier Corps personnel have lost their lives. How high could this death toll go if militant groups aren’t reconciled or defeated before Western troops leave Afghanistan?