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Has quest for 'strategic depth' become Pakistan’s tactical disaster?

As of now, Pakistan’s much-sought ‘strategic depth’ with a friendly government in Afghanistan has proved elusive, writes Mahendra Ved for South Asia Monitor

Mahendra Ved Feb 18, 2022
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Afghanistan-Pakistan flags (File)

Six turbulent months are certainly too short a time to measure the success of strategic objectives that are by their very nature long-term. But as of now, Pakistan’s much-sought “strategic depth” with a ‘friendly’ government in Afghanistan has proved elusive. 

Tensions with the new Taliban rulers have persisted on the border and they continue to impact Pakistan’s internal security. There is more than just a touch of irony in Pakistan asking the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to help stop attacks on its territory from Afghanistan, especially after it facilitated the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul. 

That irony is multiplied when Pakistan campaigns with all that its diplomacy can command to push the Taliban’s case for recognition by the world community. It has been urging all to rush humanitarian aid, also warning that the turmoil Afghanistan is currently going through could breed militancy and terrorism in the region. 

Fallguy India

Pakistan’s representative complained to the UNSC on February 16 that the ‘handlers’ of the ‘masterminds’ behind the rising frequency of attacks across the border with Balochistan and alleged that they were “in India and Afghanistan”. 

India is, of course, the ‘regular’ culprit. But with zero presence (its embassy, consulates and assistance projects now closed), it has ceased to be a ‘factor’ in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan -- ask any security pundit in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and elsewhere. 

Then, why the “war of words” at the annual meeting of the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) in New York on February 15? 

Pakistan raised the issue of cross-border terrorism from Afghanistan after India used that UN forum to accuse Pakistan of sponsoring terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir. The tit-for-tat wordy duel apparently became sharper since India happens to be the chair of the UN CTC since January. 

Afghan and Pakistani soldiers fought last December over the erection of fencing along a border that successive Afghan regimes have refused to recognize. But more worryingly for Islamabad, terror attacks have taken place on borders in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces.  

Rising attacks

At least 50 soldiers and civilians have died since the beginning of this year in these attacks on Pakistani posts that have also seen 13 attackers being killed. Claims for the attacks have been made by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Islamic State-Khorasan. Media reports also talk of the role of Baloch rebels who are said to be better armed and organized than before. Those in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have been attributed to Pashtun ‘nationalist’ groups. 

The common point for both has been that they operate from Afghan territory. That they are taking place simultaneously, at the far-flung northern and the southern parts of the 2-600-km Afghan-Pakistan border has caused concern among the Pakistani security community. 

The blame, again, is being laid at the door of Afghanistan. Officially unstated, but clearly implied, is the new Taliban rulers’ inability or unwillingness to curb the activities of the TTP and other groups, even while Kabul assures through pro forma statements that the new government will not allow its territory to be used for militancy.    

To Pakistan, the problem that is souring the already edgy bilateral ties is that it is not receiving the expected quid pro quo from the Taliban whom it hosted for two decades. Since the latter launched a military offensive in May last year, a UN report in July last year said 6,000 TTP fighters were part of the Taliban campaign. This month, a report by the United States Monitoring Group has said there still are between 3,000 and 5,000 TTP fighters. The Monitors have spoken to the families of these fighters who would like to return to Pakistan, settle in their homes and lead peaceful lives. So, there is no ambiguity about the TTP presence in Afghanistan. 

Intransigent TTP

However, the Pakistan government’s efforts to enter into a “peace deal” with the TTP have run into trouble. Announced at the level of the President and endorsed by Prime Minister Imran Khan and his cabinet last October, this forgive-and forget move has proved a non-starter. The government goes quiet on it each time the TTP is found involved in attacks from across Afghanistan. 

Additionally, it has knocked off an argument the Pakistani government had long made that the TTP was largely a by-product of the US presence in Afghanistan combined with external support from the former Afghan government in cahoots with India. Hence, Pakistani officials often implied, the US exit from Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban would limit the TTP’s threat against Pakistan. That has not happened. 

Actually, the Taliban and the TTP are ideological brothers working in tandem. The Afghan Taliban work on the same principle of ‘honour’ for the guests that had made them not hand over Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to the US two decades back. 

A paper by Asfandyar Mir for the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) says: “Ever since the Taliban’s takeover, the TTP has emphasized that the Afghan Taliban is not only a model insurgency but also the mothership of their movement. TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud has publicly reiterated his pledge of allegiance to Afghan Taliban leader Maulvi Hibatullah Akhundzada and claimed the TTP to be a branch of the Taliban in Pakistan.” 

The Taliban have asked Islamabad to tackle the TTP as its internal issue. They brokered a ceasefire that began on November 10 last but collapsed on December 10 when the TTP unilaterally ended it.  Subsequent efforts to involve chiefs of tribal Loya Jirga to get TTP around have reportedly not succeeded so far. 

'Dark forces'

While most political parties remain silent, any peace talk with the TTP invites criticism. The critics include parents of the children the TTP killed at the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014.  It is an emotive issue. 

Although written in the context of the misuse of the draconian blasphemy law, a Dawn editorial (February 15, 2022) states: “Successive governments have capitulated to the rising forces of religious extremism. From the TLP that has laid siege to the capital on more than one occasion, to the murderous TTP that has left no stone unturned to target men, women, children and security forces, the rulers have been open to engaging with all. What more can strengthen the sense of impunity in the dark forces that are propelling this country towards collapse?” 

(The author is a veteran journalist and South Asia analyst. Views are personal) 

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