Counter-Terrorism Options

Counter-Terrorism Options
Many Pakistanis are thrilled that America has got its come-uppance in Afghanistan. This is understandable. Since the 1990s when America turned its back on Pakistan and sanctioned it for developing a nuclear program, followed by exhortations to “do more” in Afghanistan in the 2000s and later accusations of being “a veritable arm of the Haqqani network”, anti-Americanism has been steadily growing in the country, including among the ruling civil-military elites which remain the main beneficiaries of US aid and trade, visas, green cards and jobs. This sentiment was echoed by Prime Minister Imran Khan when he gleefully praised the Afghan Taliban for “breaking the chains of slavery” after seizing Kabul. But sober reflection about the Taliban conquest should necessitate a rethink about its implications for Pakistan.

Pakistan’s “interest” in Afghanistan is based on several objectives. First, if there can’t be an overly friendly regime in Kabul, at least it shouldn’t be unfriendly, let alone be hostile and pro-India. Second, Afghanistan should not provide sanctuaries or safe havens for anti-Pakistan terrorist groups like the TTP, IS, Al-Qaeda and various Baloch separatists. Third, it should be peaceful and stable so that Pakistan and China can jointly extend the CPEC corridor to Central Asia and beyond to reap the dividends of oil and gas pipe lines, mineral extraction, trade and commerce. None of these conditions was fulfilled during the American occupation of Afghanistan. What are the chances now that things will be brighter for Pakistan on each front?

To be sure, the Taliban regime will not be friendly towards India or unfriendly towards Pakistan since Pakistan has resolutely supported the Taliban since 1996 and India has consistently backed the US-installed anti-Taliban governments of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani. But Pak-Afghanistan relations are going to depend on how the second, and in consequence, the third factor, plays out in the near future. Consider.

The main concern of the regional countries, no less than that of the US and the international community, is that Afghanistan should not ever be an export-haven for terrorist groups that threaten them. This is a core commitment of the Taliban’s agreement with America. But serious doubts persist about the ability or willingness of the new Taliban regime to guarantee such an outcome for each of the stakeholders.

This would help explain why, even before any inclusive Kabul government has been established and law and order restored, Russia and China have jointly scrambled to lay down their condition for assisting and recognizing the Taliban government: crackdown on those terrorist groups holed out in Afghanistan that threaten the Central Asian states and China. The Americans have dispatched no less than the Director of the CIA to negotiate counter-terrorism strategy with Mullah Baradar and are linking economic aid/sanctions/recognition to headway on this front. And the Pakistanis are desperately seeking affirmation from various Taliban spokesmen and representatives that a crackdown on the TTP and Baloch insurgents will materialize sooner rather than later. Indeed, Islamabad’s desperation can be gauged from the various statements of the Interior Minister that Pakistan’s concerns in this matter have been conveyed to Kabul and that assurances have been received, no less than the flotation of fake news by “interested quarters” that the Taliban have set up a committee to address exactly such problems.

Interestingly, the Taliban have made no policy commitments to any of these stakeholders so far. That, too, is understandable: they are preoccupied with consolidation of power and administration internally so that the unstable situation on the economic, political and military fronts doesn’t spiral out of hand. But a calibrated statement from Khalilur Rehman Haqqani, the head of possibly the most powerful faction in the Taliban, is revealing about the thinking that prevails on this subject in the Taliban leadership.

Asked by veteran reporter Azaz Syed about the concerns of China, Pakistan and Uzbekistan regarding local and international militant organizations, Khalil listened to the question and answered with carefully selected words. “We want peace among all Muslim countries. My advice is peace. For the entire world and Muslims, my message is that all countries should give rights to all the people following different religions; have peace with them and should not do oppression.” Asked again that Pakistan has reservations about a few militant groups, Haqqani replied that “Muslims in the world should have peace among them, so in this case I also advise the same."

Clearly, Khalilur Rehman Haqqani is saying that Pakistan should hold negotiations with the TTP and Baloch separatists and not press the Taliban for kinetic action against them. He is also advising China to look after its religious minorities (Uighurs) and resolve their grievances peacefully. Therefore it is highly doubtful that Mullah Baradar was persuaded by the CIA Director to allow American counter-terrorism experts and intelligence to assist the Taliban in going after Al Qaeda and IS in Afghanistan.

The Afghan Taliban’s reluctance to launch counter-terrorism operations against these groups suggests that, given the support-networks and ideological affinities that exist among them not just inside Afghanistan but also in Pakistan – as evidenced by the attack on Chinese engineers in Gilgit , Gwadar, etc., recently – there is little chance of success of military action. Indeed, even when the Americans were in full flow with all their sophisticated armaments, Intel and training, they were unable to wipe out pockets of Al-Qaeda and IS whose attacks were becoming more outrageous and bloody over time. Under the circumstances, short of a significant “foreign” intervention aided by the Taliban government to wipe out these groups – an impossibility when the Taliban are not even ready to allow some extra time for evacuating the tens of thousands of Afghan civilians wanting to flee – there is no possibility of the new Taliban government swiftly addressing regional and international concerns on counter-terrorism.

In the coming weeks and months, we shall note two opposing tendencies. The regional powers and international community will try to bully the Taliban to “do more” with offerings of carrots and threat of sanctions; the Taliban will drag their feet and urge peace negotiations. Tensions will mount. Meanwhile, the terrorist groups will seek to thwart these efforts, exacerbate tensions and strains between the stakeholders and try to increase their own footprint at home and abroad. Certainly in Pakistan, there is no shortage of wannabe Taliban, drawing militant inspiration from across the border.

Under the circumstances, those Pakistanis cheering the Taliban may have occasion to regret their early enthusiasm for “breaking the chains of slavery”.

The End

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.