Pakistan’s Afghan dilemma

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By Maleeha Lodhi

Talks in Kabul between Pakistani military officials and the banned militant group, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have yielded an indefinite extension of a ceasefire even as negotiations continue to reach a broader agreement. The talks have been prompted by Pakistan’s growing security concerns over attacks on border posts and security forces by the TTP operating from Afghanistan. There has been a surge in these attacks since the Taliban assumed power last August. Around 119 Pakistani military personnel have been killed in the past nine months alone. 

The latest report of the UN Security Council’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team says TTP is the “largest component of foreign terrorist fighters in Afghanistan”, with their number estimated at between 3,000 to 4,000 armed men, based in the east and south east of the Pakistan-Afghan border. The May 2022 report also says TTP has benefited the most among all foreign terrorist groups from the Taliban’s return to power.

Given Pakistan’s priority to bring an end to TTP’s 14-year war and restore peace to its border region, it has sought to engage the militant group in talks, with Afghan Taliban leaders acting as mediators. Interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, whose faction of the Taliban is the most powerful in Kabul, has been playing an important mediatory role. The talks themselves have been frustratingly slow and difficult from Islamabad’s point of view. The main sticking points are demands by the TTP for reversal of FATA’s merger into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, imposition of Shariah and withdrawal of Pakistan’s military forces from the border areas. These demands are red lines for Pakistan. FATA’s integration was the result of a constitutional amendment and other demands are also impossible to accept. Among the TTP’s demands that have been acceded to, are the release of some prisoners including high profile commanders and rehabilitation of those willing to forswear fighting and return to Pakistan. Its demand for returning members to keep weapons has been agreed to on the condition that these arms are licensed. Also under discussion is TTP’s insistence on cases to be dropped against its leaders.

Chaman border

In view of the TTP’s intransigent position on its main demands, an agreement is unlikely any time soon. Pakistani authorities have sent a 50-member tribal jirga to Kabul to join the talks in the expectation that this might help bring TTP leaders around and persuade them to drop their hardline demands. But even if that was to happen, which is doubtful, making the agreement stick will be a daunting challenge. Implementation will be tricky and involve trusting a militant group that has been brutal in its tactics and actions. This also casts doubt on how lasting the cease fire will be, given the stop-go experience of cease fires in the past. The UN report observes that the TTP is “focused on a long-term campaign against the Pakistani State, suggesting that ceasefire deals have a limited chance of success.”

While the TTP tops Pakistan’s concerns with a neighbor that allows the militant group a safe haven in Afghanistan, other issues are also a source of growing worry for Islamabad. Like the rest of the international community, Pakistan is troubled by the Taliban’s reversion to past practices in closing down girls’ secondary and high schools and imposing strict restrictions on women’s employment, travel and movement. Last month the Taliban authorities also decreed women totally cover themselves in public and preferably don a burqa. Punishments were prescribed for non-compliance. Other restrictions include disallowing women to go out in public without a male guardian and banning women and men from visiting parks together. This has been followed by crackdowns to check compliance and impose punishments.  

This signifies a throwback to the Taliban’s previous rule in the 1990’s and has prompted strong censure by the international community. While Pakistan has refrained from public comment, it has privately conveyed its concern to Taliban leaders.  It also got a prominent Pakistani religious scholar to write to the Taliban chief in April urging him to reopen girls’ schools. In his letter, Mufti Taqi Usmani, vice president of Darul Aloom, stressed the need for women’s education in accordance with the Shariah. 

One consequence of the closure of girls’ schools in Afghanistan has been that Afghan families anxious to educate their daughters have shifted them to private educational institutions in Peshawar and elsewhere in the country. This has put pressure on schools in Pakistan and added to Islamabad’s worries. 

Pakistani officials see the Taliban government’s regressive policies endangering international economic support for Kabul and have cautioned their leaders accordingly. Top UN officials and Western countries have denounced the restrictions and curbs on girls’ education and warned this would jeapordise international assistance to the country. Last month, the UN Security Council unanimously called on the Taliban to “swiftly reverse the policies and practices” restricting women’s rights.  Its resolution also urged the Taliban to “adhere to their commitments to reopen schools for all female students without further delay.” But whether or not hardline ideologues among the Taliban calling the shots in Afghanistan will be responsive to such entreaties is open to question.

(Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

Twitter @LodhiMaleeha