By Dr. Maleeha Lodhi
While the attention of the international community continues to be fixed on Ukraine, Pakistan’s focus is on its western border with Afghanistan. Last week, another three Pakistani soldiers were killed at a border post in North Waziristan in cross border firing by militants operating from Afghanistan. In fact, there has been a surge in violent attacks on Pakistani security forces since the Taliban assumed power last August. Around 119 security personnel have lost their lives in such attacks in the past nine months.
Expectations that a Taliban government would enable Pakistan to secure its western border have not materialised. The Taliban government itself is facing a mounting security challenge as the recent spate of bombings in Afghanistan testify. Daesh has claimed responsibility for most of these attacks. Pakistan’s security concerns have grown over activities of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that is based in Afghanistan. Islamabad has worked closely with the international community to engage Taliban leaders to persuade them to abide by the promises they made that Afghan soil will not be used to attack any country.
Pakistan’s priority is to ensure an end to violent actions by the TTP. Although the Taliban government itself has done little to contain the group, it has sought to facilitate talks between Pakistani officials and the TTP, except the faction led by Gul Bahadur, which is said to be camped near the border and is reported to be behind several recent attacks. The talks, according to knowledgeable officials, are ongoing but have been frustratingly slow. Among the issues that have been under discussion are release of TTP prisoners and return and rehabilitation of those willing to give up arms. But these talks have not yielded an agreement yet. A ceasefire brokered earlier broke down quickly. According to estimates by the February 2022 report of the UN Security Council’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team TTP fighters in Afghanistan number between 3,000 and 5,500. It also noted that Noor Wali Mehsud remains their leader.
As casualties of Pakistani servicemen have mounted, Islamabad’s patience has been wearing thin. After last week’s killing of three soldiers, the military spokesman’s office issued a statement in which it strongly condemned “the use of Afghan soil by terrorists for activities against Pakistan” and said it expected “the Afghan government will not allow the conduct of such activities in the future.” Earlier, the Foreign Ministry warned Kabul against harbouring terrorists saying “Terrorists are using Afghan soil with impunity to carry out activities inside Pakistan.” It also said while talks have continued on this issue between the two countries, attacks on border security posts have not stopped.
Pakistani officials believe that Taliban leaders are reluctant to take action against the TTP because the militant group has fought alongside them against US forces for twenty years. To send a strong message to militants across the border, Pakistan has carried out undeclared air and drone strikes targeting TTP bases. One earlier this month prompted protests by the Taliban government which warned these attacks would damage relations and “cause instability in the region” according to Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid. While Islamabad seeks a cooperative solution to the TTP issue, continued attacks from Afghan territory will obviously inject strains into the Pakistan-Afghan relationship.
It is not just Pakistan that has rising security concerns about cross border violence. The Taliban are also facing similar concerns from virtually all its neighbors: Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. All central Asian countries are countenancing security problems on their borders with Afghanistan which is creating tensions in their relations. Significantly the UN report says that since the Taliban’s return to power last year, “terrorist groups enjoy greater freedom there than at any time in recent history.” It also found that Central Asian terrorist groups such as Islamic Jihad Group (IJG), Khatiba Imam al-Bukhari (KIB) and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), “which actively participated in fighting alongside the Taliban, are now experiencing greater freedom of movement in the country.” And it cites Central Asian embassies based in Afghanistan as expressing “concern that several leaders of those groups have travelled freely to Kabul.”
One view among Pakistani officials is that except for Daesh, who the Taliban see as their principal threat, they are unable or unwilling to take action against other terrorist groups, including TTP, because they are their hedge against resistance that might grow against their rule down the road. These groups with their ferocious fighters and suicide bombers would be the Taliban government’s key line of defence. Whether or not this lies behind the Taliban leaders’ hesitation to act against militant groups, so long as Kabul doesn’t deliver on its pledge to curb terrorism, it can expect to see rising tensions in relations with all its neighbors.
(Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha)