It is impossible to escape multiple ironies emerging in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region two years after the Taliban, facilitated by Islamabad, returned to power in Kabul. The net result is the re-emergence of the region as the world’s hottest terrorism centre.
Terror outfits, to fight whom the United States went to Afghanistan in 2001 in the wake of 9/11, are using arms Americans left behind. While the Taliban retained much of that hardware, huge piles of arms and equipment are being utilized by the TTP which has a growing nexus with Al Qaida.
Taking advantage of this militant-military mishmash is the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ITKP) or Al Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). It defies the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and significantly, helping it is the Haqqani network.
Although part of the Kabul regime and holding some of the key portfolios in it, the Haqqanis are using this nexus and the clout to defy the diktats and decisions taken by the Taliban leadership based in Kandahar.
“The extent of this perceived bitterness in relations is not known, and neither the Haqqanis nor the Pakistani establishment have officially indicated the nature of any dispute between them,” Pakistani security analyst Mohammed Amir Rana writes.
An analysis published by the American think tank Critical Threats (The State of al Qaeda and ISIS in 2023, Katherine Zimmerman and Nathan Vincent), focuses on AQ-TTP ties. “Al Qaeda’s relationship with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has been reinvigorated in the Taliban-provided sanctuary in Afghanistan. AQIS’s relationship with the TTP may be deepening, as reports indicate it may be helping the TTP work around certain Taliban-imposed restrictions in Afghanistan and providing strategic guidance to the TTP’s operations in Pakistan. AQIS seeks to expand outside Af-Pak into Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar.”
In all this, the US that signed the Doha Agreement in 2020 finds that it cannot verify and enforce its provisions. The IS, whatever the name it goes by, has become “a more enduring threat than Al Qaeda” after the US withdrawal, Gen Kenneth Frank McKenzie, former head of the US Central Command, who oversaw the Afghan withdrawal last week said he regrets the decision that the Trump administration took and Biden’s enforced.
At the receiving end of it all is Pakistan. The TTP’s reach, as enunciated by the attack in Chitral in the security-sensitive region, is dangerously close to its borders with Afghanistan, Tajikistan and China, through the Wakhan Corridor. At the south-western end, the TTP opened a new front at Zhob in the already-turbulent Balochistan.
“The neighboring Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan have long been known as the centre of Al Qaeda-backed, religiously inspired militancy. The area became a safe haven for Pakistani militants fleeing from military operations in this country. The return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan helped them reorganize,” analyst Zahid Husain wrote in Dawn .
He surmises: “We are now back to the pre-2016 situation, or even worse, with the resurgence of militant violence. The militants appear more organized and better equipped with sophisticated weaponry.”
While they only hint at the role of the ‘establishment’, the military-civil elite that rules Pakistan, both Rana and Husain criticize ‘appeasement’ by successive regimes in Islamabad. Each has held ‘peace’ talks with the TTP, releasing their jailed leaders including those convicted of murders, and allowing their families to return from their Afghan hideouts. They have signed ceasefire agreements that the TTP has willfully and unilaterally called off.
Husain states: “What is most alarming are reports of the Afghan Taliban also joining the TTP in some of the terrorist attacks inside Pakistan.”
This, along with the altercation at the Torkham border where soldiers of the two sides clashed led to the principal outlet for landlocked Afghanistan closed shut, indicating deep deterioration in Afghan-Pak relations.
Some reports quoting TTP sources maintain that the worsening sectarian tension in the nearby area of Gilgit-Baltistan has also been the reason behind the latest TTP incursion into Chitral. The militants are reportedly regrouping under the TTP banner in the area.
The Growing political and economic instability in Pakistan “also seems to have given impetus to the militants. The security forces now seem overstretched, with the expansion of militant operations along the long and porous border with Afghanistan,” Husain writes, drawing a larger picture of the situation in Pakistan and how it impacts the Af-Pak region. Presence of militants in Chitral can embolden them to move towards Indian borders which may be encouraged by Pak Army too. India to think about it.