After 'Breaking Chains Of Slavery' In Afghanistan, Taliban Are Coming For Pakistan

After 'Breaking Chains Of Slavery' In Afghanistan, Taliban Are Coming For Pakistan
Since the start of December 2022, Pakistan has come under relentless attack from Taliban militants in its western frontier regions. Not only have the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) stepped up their terror attacks since calling off their ceasefire in late November, but the Afghan Taliban "border forces" have also launched mortars at civilian areas in Chaman at least twice by now.

The first of these shelling incidents drew strong condemnations, including an admonition from Pakistani premier Shehbaz Sharif who urged the Afghan Taliban not to allow it to happen again. However, another incident of heavy weapons fire at the Chaman-Spin Boldak border occurred just a few days later.

On Monday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on the Taliban to ensure an end to "all forms of activities of terrorist organizations" that posed a threat to Pakistan and other countries in the region.

Many are now openly saying that Pakistan's (read: the security establishment's) Afghan policy of "strategic depth" has turned out to be a dismal failure. The Afghan Taliban, long assumed to be clients and favored "assets" of the Pakistani intelligence, no longer appear to be beholden to their alleged patrons. Moreover, the Afghan Taliban have proven to be less and less inclined to pursue the policies that Pakistan wants them to.

As for the Pakistani Taliban or TTP, their attacks on Pakistan Army troops, on Frontier Corps paramilitary personnel, and particularly on police installations and policemen across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, are now being openly acknowledged as having increased manifold. Over the past year, more than a hundred personnel of the KP police have been 'martyred' in militant attacks across the province bordering Afghanistan. The Government of Pakistan or the ISPR are yet to give their official detailed statistics on the casualty estimates for 2022.

The TTP, even with its factional complexities, is just one component of the emerging asymmetric threat to Pakistan's national security. Islamic State Khorasan province (ISKP) continues to present challenges to Pakistan as well as to the Afghan Taliban. And subnationalist or separatist groups are also ratcheting up their attacks in Balochistan and even Sindh provinces.

Even former prime minister Imran Khan tweeted his concern at the situation, but tried to blame the incumbent federal government for the mess — though his party has now governed KP province for nine years.

The most spectacular "attack" in just the recent days took place in Bannu's heavily guarded cantonment area, where dozens of detained militants overpowered CTD personnel and gained control of the holding facility sometime on Sunday. By Tuesday night, a security operation to retake control of the facility had reportedly concluded, and at least one hostage and two security personnel were 'martyred' according to official sources. But independent sources present in Bannu said that the confrontation continued into Wednesday morning, and intermittent gunfire was taking place near Bannu Cantt. These reports can be presumed to have come in during the security forces' "search and combing" operations. Militants were also reported to have secured themselves in an armored vehicle, from which they fired on security personnel.

The hostage crisis in Bannu cantonment's CTD holding facility wasn't the only security incident reported in the past 72 hours: the outlawed TTP also claimed responsibility for attacks on police in Lakki Marwat, in Wana and in Peshawar, as well as a bomb attack on a "military truck" in South Waziristan.

All of this is apart from the grave security situation in Balochistan, Pakistan's most underdeveloped province with its own history and dynamics of militancy, where attacks were reported, among other places, in Khuzdar on 19 December and again today (Wednesday, 21 December).

Even during the most recent (and now failed) attempts to negotiate peace with the TTP, attacks on Pakistani forces continued without respite. These attacks were often claimed either by TTP-affiliated militant factions (like the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group or "HGB network") or by hitherto unknown groups like Majlis-e-Askari or Ittehad-ul-Mujahideen. Under the cover of this façade, the TTP turned the tables on Pakistan and gave effect to its own "talk-fight" approach with the Pakistani state.

It has also been argued that the Afghan Taliban could have some "scores to settle" with Pakistan, because of which they might be using the TTP as their own tool of "strategic depth" against Pakistan.

In hindsight, Pakistan's desire to achieve a negotiated settlement with the TTP, mediated by the Afghan Taliban, now seems overly optimistic at best and utterly misguided at worst. This desire deliberately ignored (and at times, whitewashed) the true sentiments that the rank and file of Afghan Taliban hold for Pakistan, and especially for the Pakistani military.

Moreover, Pakistan's transactional approach overlooked the symbiotic relationships between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, who have not only fought together on the Afghan battlefield, but also have close ethnic, linguistic, tribal and family linkages with each other. The cultural code of Pashtunwali is an additional binding force for the Taliban, which also prohibits them from surrendering any of their 'guests': this was the same argument given by Mullah Omar when the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden to the U.S. in 2001.

Since coming to power in Kabul late last year, the Afghan Taliban are clearly eager to dispel the notion that they are "puppets of Pakistan". To this end, they have increased whatever form of international engagement they can undertake on behalf of Afghanistan, with or without Pakistan. An Indian technical team has reportedly been assigned diplomatic duties in Kabul, ostensibly to discuss the modalities of Indian humanitarian aid and economic projects in Afghanistan. The Afghan "interim" government also engages with diplomats from the U.S., China, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and other consequential countries.

The Taliban may just be the "interim" government of Afghan, but as the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" they are also the Afghan state. This is the second time such an entity has been established after the Taliban's previous attempt from 1996 to 2001, which ended in a U.S. and NATO invasion. Pursuing policies independent of — and sometimes even detrimental to — Pakistan could also be one way that the Afghan "interim" government would establish its sovereign credibility in the international community.

That is to say nothing of the acrimony that many Afghans — whether in exile, or with the Taliban — feel for Pakistan. Sources reported that interim Afghan defense minister, Mullah Yaqoob, refused to meet Pakistan's minister of state for foreign affairs Hina Rabbani Khar during her recent visit to Kabul.

Pakistan appears to have been "betrayed" by the Afghan Taliban, as both remain largely isolated by — and irrelevant to — the international community. But Pakistanis appear less concerned with how this is posing an existential threat to Pakistan's own national security. Instead, the Pakistani public, by and large, is affixed to the mainstream media's reporting on daily political developments, and on the economic morass the country can never seem to get out of.

Pakistanis are more likely to have an opinion on whether the Punjab or KP assemblies should be dissolved, or what some politician purportedly said in a leaked audio, than how to deal with the twin menace of terrorism and extremism which have effectively hollowed out Pakistan as a functional nation-state in the 21st century.

Even if Pakistanis are asked about their views on Afghanistan, the responses are mixed and often multiplicitous. Many still consider Afghanistan a "brotherly neighbor" and the Afghan Taliban as a "friendly government" in Kabul. Some believe that the Afghan Taliban are struggling with governance and should be given more time to stabilize their control over the country. Others are now arguing that the Taliban need to start governing more "efficiently", since their lackluster performance is now threatening Pakistan's own security. Naturally, these views favor the Taliban and trust them to be rational actors.

Yet another position concerns Pakistan's longtime promotion of the Taliban as the "most viable constituent" of the Afghan national mosaic, and also of the idea that "some elements of" the TTP can be negotiated with. It is these very policies of "strategic depth" that have now turned into "strategic death" for Pakistan.

Some narratives go so far as to purport that the Pakistani military should be left alone to fight its own "strategic assets", and that the military establishment would be better served by focusing on the deteriorating security situation rather than "leaking audio tapes" of political leaders.

It is these conditions of political polarization, economic implosion, widespread misinformation, deliberate disinformation, and misguided priorities in which Pakistan is now facing this latest bout of increased terrorist attacks. This deficiency of national cohesiveness still prevents Pakistan's security establishment from implementing the policies necessary to contain the growing threat, and to reverse the state's losses in the 'kinetic' domain at least.

Taliban narratives on Pakistan in general, and on the Pakistani military in particular, are more cohesive. Considering this perspective allows for a unique insight into the current morale of Taliban militants, which has seemingly been higher than that of KP police lately.

TTP has claimed responsibility for multiple attacks where it ambushed Pakistani policemen, confiscated their weapons, and then released the policemen after they promised they "will not assist the Pakistan Army" in counterterrorism operations.

A rogue militant organization, no matter how operationally dominant, can be overpowered with a coherent policy and an effective approach to internal security. But the capacity building of local law enforcement and provincial counterterrorism forces since devolution under the 18th Amendment, or lack thereof, is painfully evident for all and sundry.

Rogue 'fifth generation warriors' on social media will indeed have found another reason to blame Pakistan's security establishment, this time for not being able to deal with a mess of its own making. But commentators also point out that the entire KP provincial government, including chief minister Mahmood Khan, is holed up with PTI chairman Imran Khan at Zaman Park in Lahore.

While former prime minister Khan is most certainly to blame for allowing the most recent bout of negotiations with TTP — giving the TTP sufficient time to regroup, recuperate and even infiltrate parts of KP province — he cannot be blamed for previous rounds of negotiation which also failed miserably. But Khan's anti-establishment rhetoric does seem to have debilitated the likelihood of any strong response to the TTP's ongoing guerilla activity in multiple districts across KP and Balochistan.

The problem, then, appears to be that the TTP is more willing to engage in a hostile conflict than the Pakistani state or security establishment is. In fact, the TTP is already attacking and claiming responsibility for attacks, while Pakistani security forces are either reacting or, as the case appears to be in Bannu, on the defensive in the information domain at least.

This can largely be attributed to an extremely unhelpful lack of clarity on Pakistan's counterterrorism approach and its security policy paradigm. Of course, beautiful words can be written in well-formulated reports that can be published with eye-catching graphics. But the implementation of those policies in real life, and the rectification of strategies that yield undesirable results, is the true test of policy efficiency. Unfortunately, this is where even the Pakistani security establishment — reputed to be the 'only functional institution' in the country — now seems to be failing as of late.

Calling for discussions in Parliament to undo the ambiguity on Pakistan's relations with the Taliban would be a step in the right direction. However, the prevailing political environment does not seem conducive for any serious discourse on pressing security matters, at least not in the public domain. Unless Imran Khan and the PTI return to the National Assembly, or at least agree to hold constructive hearings in the Senate on the worsening security situation in KP and Balochistan, there can be no cogent hope of a new "whole of nation" approach against terrorism and extremism.

To those who are forgetting: in 2014, Imran Khan was leading a movement to force then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif to resign. He held a sit-in in Islamabad for nearly 124 days, but called it off because of the APS Peshawar attack on 16 December that year.

Khan had the courtesy to sit with the national political leadership of the time and agree to pursue a "national action plan" to rid the country of terrorism. In contrast, this time around, sources report that Khan was being convinced the security situation would not be conducive for early elections, but Khan announced a date for the dissolution of assemblies anyway.

So it would be foolish to hope that any terrorist attack, even of "spectacular" proportions, would get Imran Khan to sit with prime minister Shehbaz Sharif and decide how to deal with this growing national security threat. Instead, Khan is more likely to blame the "regime change conspiracy", former army chief Gen (retd) Bajwa, or even the PDM government that replaced him, for the rising terrorism in the province his party governs.

This is the result of wantonly handing out certificates to presumed traitors, and calling some of your countrymen your enemies. The ultimate national 'common denominator' that Pakistan has (or had) is itself facing an identity crisis, as "freedom of expression" has been weaponized into the freedom to excoriate and expose. There is no longer any common ground left where Pakistanis, or their political leaders, can agree to disagree. And, as history continues to remind us, Imran Khan would much rather hold talks with the TTP than with his political opponents.

This is, perhaps, also the result of Pakistan's elites having failed the country, the state, and the people at large, especially since the turn of the century. The world moved toward globalization, integration and progress; Pakistan seems to be moving slowly but surely in the opposite direction.

An inherent differentiation in the "rules of the game", and the extraordinary surge of wealth and endowments one receives through association with the state and its sociopolitical military industrial complex, is also being challenged and mocked. News investigations by journalists like Ahmad Noorani continue to shine a spotlight on the Pakistani military's enormous power over the state and nearly all sectors of the national economy. And in a post-truth era where social media influencers masquerade as journalists, sensationalism sells, and opinions are packaged as "reliable information" for the masses who, in turn, remain content within their own bubbles of selfrighteousness and whataboutery. Decades of manufactured histories and distorted narratives have turned us into a fractured polity.

It still remains to be seen whether Pakistan's military leadership, under new army chief General Syed Asim Munir, is willing to take this aggravating national security crisis head on, or not. But the establishment's — or their subordinates' and deputies' — constant attempts to try to manipulate the narrative, and control information flows, show that the focus continues to be on the wrong priorities. Manipulation of narratives and any deliberate attempt to refocus public attention is easily detectable, while imposing controls on information flows is essentially futile. Both result in a loss of credibility.

Instead, for a substantive catharsis and truly honest introspection, serious questions must be asked, and they need equally serious and comprehensive answers.

Pakistan now appears headed for another period of conflict: one that might begin as a limited counterterrorism operation targeting "some elements" of the TTP in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (and maybe even Balochistan), but could potentially conflagrate into a wider war with the Afghan Taliban across the contested 'Durand Line' border. Given all that it is facing on the internal political and economic fronts, Pakistan seems to have neither appetite nor willingness to invest the time and the energy (and most importantly, the valuable resources) to contend with this inevitable re-emergence of militant extremism in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Shemrez is a researcher and academic specialising in public policy, economic security, and the political economy of terrorism, extremism and identity.