By Dr. Maleeha Lodhi
The challenge has come sooner than expected. When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan there was relief among Pakistan’s official circles that their neighbouring country did not descend into chaos and civil war. There was also the expectation that Pakistan’s security concerns on its western border would ease. This overlooked both the history of testy relations with the Taliban during their previous rule in the 1990’s and the possibility of facing difficulties with Kabul.
Relief has now given way to rising concern over security threats as the Tehrik i Taliban Pakistan (TTP), based in Afghanistan, have escalated attacks into Pakistani territory. In the past few months, these attacks have intensified with the loss of scores of lives of Pakistani security personnel.
Meanwhile, mixed signals have emanated from the government on Pakistan’s response to this situation. Official statements have indicated firmness to deal with the TTP on the one hand and engaging the militant group on the other. ‘Talk and fight’ is not unusual in these circumstances but the flip flop manner in which this proceeded when the TTP stepped up violent attacks brought this approach into question.
Official efforts to play down border tensions also did not obscure Islamabad’s growing predicament. The rise in militant attacks since the Taliban assumed power, also acknowledged by the Pakistani interior minister, is a grim reality that cannot be minimized. Moreover, credible reports that the TTP has been expanding its theater of operations to Balochistan and even linking up with Baloch dissidents compounds the security challenge for Pakistan. TTP is also better equipped now, having acquired weaponry left behind by US forces. In a TTP attack on a border post in Kurram district earlier this month in which five Pakistani soldiers were killed, militants used night vision devices that Pakistani security personnel there did not possess. Islamabad also worries that personnel deployed by the Taliban government on the border may be infiltrated by TTP.
Islamabad has taken up the issue several times with Afghan Taliban leaders but found a dual approach on Kabul’s part. On the one hand, Taliban leaders have pledged to control and restrain TTP, but on the other hand, they counsel Islamabad to engage TTP in talks. Having been exasperated by the breakdown of a cease-fire earlier negotiated with the militant organization, Pakistan is in no mood to attempt another as this is now seen as affording an opportunity to the TTP to regroup and reorganize itself. Pakistani officials say some action has sporadically been taken by the Taliban government but this has fallen well short of their promise to curb TTP’s activities. In fact, Islamabad’s assessment seems to be that the Taliban leadership is hesitant to take serious or sustained action against TTP because it has fought alongside it against the US for twenty years.
There have also been a couple of incidents in which the fence erected by Pakistan on the Pakistan-Afghan border has been dismantled by Taliban border guards. But officials say this is not a source of concern as the Taliban government has ascribed this to unauthorized actions by local elements and have apparently taken corrective measures in this regard. However, TTP violence is a source of not just concern for Islamabad but also frustration over Kabul’s lack of will to move against its long-time ally. This has urged Pakistan to take kinetic actions against TTP inside Afghanistan with more envisaged if cross border attacks continue.
The February 2022 report of the UN Security Council’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team estimates that the number of TTP fighters in Afghanistan is between 3,000 and 5,500 and notes that Noor Wali Mehsud remains their leader. It observes that since the Taliban’s return to power last August ” terrorist groups enjoy greater freedom there than at any time in recent history.” It also says that “The Taliban views ISIL-K [Daesh] as its primary kinetic threat, as the group aims to position itself as the chief rejectionist force in Afghanistan, with a wider regional agenda.” Pakistan officials would agree as they believe that while the Taliban government has taken strong action against Daesh that is not the case with other groups, including remnants of Al Qaeda, China’s East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and of course TTP.
It is not just Pakistan but China and Russia as well who are increasingly concerned that the Taliban are not living up to their commitment to control terrorist groups residing in Afghanistan that pose a threat to them. Speaking recently at the Security Council the Chinese Permanent Representative to the UN urged the Taliban government to take action to combat terrorism. Expressing concern about the threat posed by ETIM he called for more efforts to address this and to “cut off its links with Islamic State [Daesh] eliminating the space in which it breeds”. According to the UN report, ETIM also “closely collaborates with Al-Qaeda and TTP …..to plan attacks on Chinese interests in Pakistan and elsewhere.”
This only adds to Pakistan’s security predicament. As the spokesman of the Foreign Ministry recently said, echoing an earlier statement by the country’s military spokesman: Pakistan expects Afghan authorities to fulfill their obligation to not allow Afghan territory to be used against any country. He stressed that this was not only Pakistan’s expectation but that of the international community as well. Coming months will therefore see Pakistan and key members of the international community stepping up calls on the Taliban leadership to act against terrorist groups that continue to be based in Afghanistan.
(Dr. Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha)