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THE TWIN-TALIBAN CONUNDRUM

The recent dramatic uptick in terrorist violence has again shone the spotlight on the safe havens of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terror group in Afghanistan. “Average TTP attacks per month increased from 14.5 in 2020 to 45.8 in 2022 and expanded in geographical scope, reflecting increased operability and improved weaponry acquired when the Afghan government collapsed in August 2021,” according to the Global Conflict Tracker. Official stats show that terrorist attacks increased by 60% while suicide attacks surged by a whopping 500% in Pakistan since the Taliban’s capture of Kabul.

The TTP continues to use the safe havens and training grounds it had set up in Afghanistan after its rout from Pakistan’s western border regions in 2014. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Afghanistan (TTA) is reluctant to stem the terror emanating from Afghan soil despite irrefutable evidence of TTP’s support base in their country. Instead, the TTA is publicly in denial of TTP’s existence on Afghan soil. This “plausible deniability” from the Afghan Taliban, who were once wrongly dubbed “strategic assets” of Pakistan’s security apparatus, has led some AfPak watchers to conclude that Pakistan’s decades-long Afghan policy might have backfired. The question is why the TTA-ruled Afghanistan is willingly bartering away its vital relationship with Pakistan by shielding the TTP?

The conundrum

It’s not an open-ended question. It is a difficult conundrum. One possible reason could be their ideological affinity. The TTA and TTP are believed to be two sides of the same coin. They are “ideological twins” drawing inspiration from the same source. This makes it difficult for the TTA to crack down on the TTP even if it desires so. But some security experts believe there could also be other factors involved. “It is not just ideology that fully explains the Afghan Taliban’s inaction against the TTP. Some segments with the TTA are apprehensive that the use of force against the TTP could push thousands of TTP fighters into IS-K’s fodder,” says Dr Khuram Iqbal, who teaches at the Department of Security Studies and Criminology of Macquarie University in Australia.

The IS-K, or Islamic State-Khorasan chapter, has emerged as the most potent security threat to the Taliban after the fall of Kabul in August 2021, especially at a time when their nascent regime is grappling with a myriad of near-term challenges, including management of internal tensions, pursuance of international recognition and funding to stave off an economic collapse. But according to Dr Iqbal the TTA fears that a proactive stance against the TTP may inadvertently reinforce IS-K’s narrative that the Afghan Taliban are deviating from the path of jihad. “This represents a classic ‘Catch-22’ scenario for the Afghan Taliban, where decisive actions could inadvertently delegitimise them domestically,” he adds.

Inability or unwillingness?

Others believe a sense of camaraderie is the most important, if not the only, reason for the TTA’s “unwillingness” to use military force against the TTP. “They were bedfellows in jihad [against US-led foreign forces]. They fought alongside each other for a cause [to oust foreign forces]. They belong to the same Pashtun ethnic group,” says Maj Gen (retd) Inamul Haq, who had led the fight against the TTP in Pakistan’s border regions. “For these reasons, the TTP enjoys a lot of sympathy and support in the TTA rank and file. The TTA fears that any military action against the TTP could threaten to unravel their unity and split the ‘Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan,’” says Gen Inam.

Like the TTP, the TTA is not a monolithic entity. This is a distinct division of Kandahari versus Khostwaal factions in their ranks. “The Khostwaal, the Haqqanis, et el, are a bit pragmatic, but the Kandaharis are ideologues, and they wield the real power among the Taliban. They would not agree to any military action against the TTP,” says Gen Inam, who has extensively written on the subject.

The Afghan Taliban have made a commitment in the Doha Agreement that they would not allow the use of their country’s soil by any terrorist group, sub-state or non-state actor against another country. Security expert Syed Muhammad Ali believes Afghan administration’s current approach towards terrorism seems to lack political will more than physical capability and is against its own national and public interest. “The interim Afghan government can only be internationally respected and recognised as a responsible member of the international community once it can be trusted to effectively and verifiably eliminate terrorist organisations from its own territory so that it can receive greater international support, cooperation, investment and recognition,” says Ali, who has more than two decades of experience in writing, teaching and negotiations on security and strategic affairs.

Available options

If the TTA lacks “political will” or is “unable” or “unwilling” to take military action against the TTP, then what options are available to Pakistan to safeguard its security interests? Experts say Pakistan has a whole lot of options available, including kinetic action, regulated kinetic action, and negotiations. Kinetic action involves comprehensive military operations like Zarb-e-Azb with the aim to “roll back” terror gains and to unravel their infrastructure and destroy their command and control system. Regulated kinetic action involves limited or targeted military operations, like the ongoing intelligence-based operations (IBOs), with the aim to regulate threat.

However, the option of negotiation is currently off the table – at least at the official level. Opponents say that this option is not tenable until the group’s fighting capacity is severely degraded, its foot-soldiers surrender, a notion of victory is denied, and their narrative is effectively deoxygenated. Nonetheless, some Pakistani Ulema are said to have launched an unofficial initiative to reach out to the TTA and convince them to rein in the TTP. Little is known of the nascent process led by Fazlur Rehman Khalil and Abdullah Shah Mazhar which does not involve any direct contact with the TTP.

Gen Inam says Pakistan has multiple options available, both in kinetic and non-kinetic domains. “We have the economic option. We have the military option. And we have the Afghan refugees option. I think Pakistan has more leverage. The issue is of using it wisely. Coming back to the option of kinetic operation, I think both cis and trans frontier options are available,” he says.

The TTP is a conglomerate of several terrorist outfits which has always been riven by centrifugal forces. Several senior TTP commanders, including Omar Khalid Khorasani, Mufti Hassan Swati, Hafiz Dawlat Khan Orakzai, Badshah Khan Mehsud, Ateequr Rehman, aka Tipugul Marwat, Saifullah Babuji, Zakirain, Bismillah, alias Asadullah Pehelwan, and Mudasir Iqbal, have been killed in different parts of Afghanistan over the past couple of years. These mysterious killings have given credence to reports that the TTP has been blighted by infighting. The faultlines within the group could be exploited to wean away the reconcilable elements.

Current approach

Pakistan is pursuing a comprehensive approach, using a combination of the available options, to inflict a decisive defeat on the terrorist groups. “This well-planned and coordinated strategy involves armed forces, civil and military intelligence agencies and law-enforcement agencies at the operational level in the form of IBOs as well as kinetic operations against terrorist hideouts and bases,” says Ali.

“In my assessment Pakistan’s current approach represents a superior and more comprehensive multi-domain CT (counterterrorism) strategy based on synergy between several elements of national power and close civil-military coordination than the previous approach which was more situational as well as mainly relied on either kinetic action or peace talks,” according to Ali.

A slew of recent steps, including deportation of illegal aliens and crack down on the black economy and smuggling are further augmenting the kinetic, diplomatic and ideological gains by reducing the social space and financial support of the terrorist organisations which collect money through illegal and criminal activities which range from smuggling, drugs’ trade to abductions for money.

Dr Iqbal believes this “carrot and stick approach” is paying off. “Recent developments, such as the apprehension of TTP fighters in Afghanistan, and few statements by some of the Afghan Taliban leaders condemning anti-Pakistan ‘jihad’ suggest that this approach is yielding some results but not to the complete satisfaction of Islamabad,” he says while referring to a statement from the Afghan interior ministry spokesman, Abdul Mateen Qani, earlier this month.

Qani claimed in an interview with TOLOnews that the Taliban regime had arrested about 40 TTP militants over the past year, emphasising Kabul’s desire to maintain good relations with all neighbouring states. “Today, there is no (terrorist) group operating in Afghanistan,” he said. “There are a large number of Da’ish [IS-K] captives with us, and around 35 to 40 TTP fighters are imprisoned by us.” Surprisingly, a day after Qani’s disclosure, a verified ‘X’ handle purportedly of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, the name TTA uses for itself for political legitimacy, denied any TTP fighters are in custody. Instead it claimed that the 40 imprisoned fighters are Pakistanis and belong to Da’ish.

“Plausible deniability” aside, reports indicate that the TTA couldn’t ignore the irrefutable evidence and has taken some action, leading to the disappearance of large bases in parts of Afghanistan, but the group still maintains small bases, especially in the eastern and southern provinces of Kunar, Nuristan, Paktia, Paktika, Khost, Zabul and Nangarhar. Even if the TTA is to be believed that there is no “state-level” support for the TTP in Afghanistan, the terror group does enjoy considerable support at the local level.

Uneasy relationship

The Taliban regime has reacted angrily to the Pakistani government move to deport illegal Afghan immigrants with senior Taliban officials going as far as hurling veiled threats. Some rights groups and international organisations and countries have also criticised the decision disregarding Pakistan’s growing security concerns. Investigations show that most of the recent terrorist violence, including some brazen mass causality attacks, involved Afghan nationals. Surprisingly, the generalised criticism conveniently ignores that Pakistan is neither expelling registered Afghan refugees nor those having valid travel permits or even some kind of document legalising their stay in the country.

The hostile rhetoric from Taliban officials begs the question: why or if the TTA is turning against Pakistan? AfPak watchers believe the TTA is trying to appease the strategically cultivated anti-Pakistan sentiment for broader political legitimacy and to cast off the Pakistan’s proxy tag. Gen Inam says that the Afghans and Pakistan have never been easy bedfellows. Differences between them have been there all along, but they used to be brushed under the carpet in favour of more strategic objectives. Say, for example, the Afghans have a position on the Durand Line which does not align with Pakistan’s stance.

“The Taliban have a position on the TTP. They are unlikely to budge. It was overask from our side. We had taken for granted that the Taliban after recapturing power in Afghanistan would deal with the TTP problem,” Gen Inam adds. However, he is not pessimistic about the future trajectory of the relationship of the two neighbours who are like “conjoined twins.”

The terror nexus

For years, the spy agencies of India and Afghanistan had colluded with the TTP and Baloch separatists for the shared objective of destabilising Pakistan. The Taliban’s return to power hasn’t stopped TTP’s terror campaign, leading many to question our strategic assessment. “The TTP received funding from RAW through different tiers. Our intelligence assessment, our understanding of the nexus, our policy, everything was right,” says Gen Inam. “We knew everything since long, but our objective was more strategic: to pacify the dual front security scenario which we successfully achieved.”

Of late, several smaller Baloch groups joined forces with the TTP to create a more lethal security challenge for Pakistan. This alignment of interests allowed the TTP to make inroads in the areas of Balochistan where it received strong pushbacks from Baloch groups in the past. The two sides, however, make strange bedfellows as the TTP professes religious motivation for its bloody campaign, while the Baloch insurgency is purely secular in nature. “The relationship between sub-nationalist and religiously motivated terrorist organisations is benign, complex, and utalitation rather than ideological or cultural because both seek international support from the same international source and share the agenda of threatening Pakistan and its state institutions and discouraging foreign direct investment, despite their mutual cultural and ideological differences,” says Ali.

Strategic patience

Last month, the caretaker information minister of Balochistan, Jan Achakzai, suggested that Pakistan may also consider hosting US drone bases to target the TTP, IS-K and other terrorist groups operating from Afghanistan. The statement came a day after at least 23 Pakistani servicemen were martyred in a brazen terrorist attack a compound used by the military in DI Khan district. Achakzai deleted the suggestion only hours after posting it on “X”, but it did make headlines internationally.

Gen Inam advises strategic patience to avoid any policy misstep that might have long-term implications. He believes the TTA-TTP marriage of interest would fall apart sooner or later – and he has several reasons to believe that. The TTP would become a strategic liability; pragmatism would override ideological affinity; TTP might threaten Afghanistan’s sovereignty by becoming a potential stakeholder; TTP might become a hurdle in Taliban regime’s effort to establish its writ across the country; and social pressure would also shrink space for the TTP. “I think we should give time to the TTP issue. It would get resolved on its own with the passage of time,” says Gen Inam. “The TTP fighters would get old, die, and get fed up with their unpopular jihad.”

However, this does not mean Pakistan could lower its guard. It should vigorously pursue the current multi-pronged strategy, including regulated kinetic action, to dismantle the TTP’s local infrastructure, eliminate its sleeper cells in the urban centres, deoxygenate its ideology, choke its local support, bust its facilitators and abettors, and tighten border controls to stop infiltrations.

Dr Iqbal believes Pakistan needs to weigh its options with meticulous calculation in order to safeguard its short-term security and long-term geopolitical interests in the region. “Islamabad needs to strike a delicate balance between coercion and motivation to ensure a friendly neighbourhood on its western border. This is crucial especially when Pakistan is increasingly squeezed by a much larger and assertive neighbour on the east,” he says.

Afghanistan holds a pivotal position in Islamabad’s ambitious pivot towards a geo-economic focus, says Dr Iqbal. “A misstep in coercive actions could have far-reaching consequences on the economic objectives that Pakistan is aiming to achieve amid tectonic shifts in regional and global geopolitics.”

Gen Inam says that the Pak-Afghan relationship is strategic in nature and requires a strategic approach. The Taliban regime needs to wake up because “strategic patience” is wearing thin as Islamabad has now made future relationship with Kabul contingent on “verifiable action” against the TTP. Pragmatism should prevail over plausible deniability. The sooner the better.

BY NAVEED HUSSAIN |
Design: Mohsin Alam
Source: Tribune

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