Where's Our Afghanistan Policy?

The Afghan Taliban are proving to be a highly destabilizing regional force. In the absence of a coherent foreign policy for Afghanistan, Pakistan remains highly vulnerable to the spillover of violence.

Where's Our Afghanistan Policy?

Does Pakistan have an Afghanistan policy? The simple answer is it doesn’t. It is simply the opinions and preferences of powerful institutions and influential officials which prevail in Pakistan’s dealing with the Taliban regime in Kabul. Even if we believe the claim of the Pakistani officialdom that the country does have an Afghanistan policy, the purported policy does not correspond with the political and military reality that exists on the ground in Afghanistan.

Our official attitudes and perceptions of Afghanistan doesn’t take into account the complicated security situation that prevails past our western border. Pakistan’s foreign policy posture towards Afghanistan is not based on any well thought out or coherent strategy that seeks to deal with the evolving military situation and security threat that is developing on our western border. One may argue that the most influential official in Pakistan’s context is none other than Chief of the Army Staff, General Asim Munir. The Chief recently made his views known about the terror threat and how he plans to deal with it, “Pakistan has concerns over sanctuaries available to banned outfits and the liberty of action they enjoy on Afghan soil. Pakistan will spare no effort to dismantle terrorist networks and protect its citizens at all costs.”

However, this can’t qualify as a policy; rather, this could be described as the opinion of an influential official of the government of Pakistan. A policy would take into account the evolving threat in the context of the developing political and military situations in Afghanistan, and would enunciate guidelines for dealing with any number of permutations of circumstances. General Asim Munir’s speech in Peshawar, where he highlights that there are sanctuaries for Pakistani militants on Afghan soil, seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to the increase in terror attacks in Pakistan’s border areas and the media hype associated with them. This opinion may change if there is a lull in the violence, or if media coverage paints a contrasting reality in Afghanistan. Policy, on the other hand, has to be based on an in-depth understanding of the evolving political and military threats emanating from Afghanistan.

What are these political and military realities in Afghanistan? Afghanistan is a deeply unstable society at the moment, with multiple terror threats existing or originating from Afghan soil. The country is currently hosting two international terror organizations, including Al-Qaeda and ISIS-Khorasan. Both Al-Qaeda and ISIS operate in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. So whether the Afghan Taliban recognize the Durand Line as an international border or not, for the members of these two transnational terror organizations, the international border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is without any meaning.

The Afghan Taliban are presently engaged in a fight for survival with ISIS-Khorasan, which regularly carries out terror attacks against Taliban leaders and government installations to destabilize the regime. However, the extremely dangerous reality is that at the level of foot soldiers and fighters, it is very difficult to draw a line between members of the Taliban regime, and ISIS-Khorasan fighters. For instance, Taliban intelligence is presently keeping its own cadres under heightened surveillance in order to detect any sympathizers with ISIS-Khorasan among its ranks. Reports in international media suggest that Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistani Taliban as they are commonly referred to, are supplying American weapons to ISIS-Khorasan in Afghanistan.

There are clear signs that both the Afghan Taliban and TTP have proven themselves to be highly destructive forces in the regional security context. Official Pakistani attitudes and opinions don’t take this into account; reports and stories depicting the destructive nature of these two groups are plastered all over international and local media. The Pakistani officialdom’s inclination towards the Afghan Taliban is based on the whimsical belief that the Taliban 2.0 is friendly towards Pakistan, or at least more friendly than the American backed government of former President Ashraf Ghani. Pakistan’s officialdom is also mistaken in its belief that the Taliban government is Pakistan's best option in keeping India out of Afghanistan. Two policies of the Afghan Taliban prove that their destructive capacity is immense, and they might pose a serious foreign policy crisis for Pakistan in the coming weeks.

The Taliban’s policy towards transnational terror groups

The Afghan Taliban are issuing conflicting signals when it comes to the regime's policy towards terror groups that are presently stationed on Afghan territory. While on the one hand, the Taliban government is said to have restricted the movement and activities of groups like Al-Qaeda and other militant organizations from Chinese Turkestan. On the other hand, the same Taliban regime is hosting terror groups in large cities, and in some instances, reportedly paying them stipends. There are reports that the Taliban have asked al-Qaeda not to undertake or plan any terror attack against the United States and its allies. Washington, however, seems to be wary of these reports as is indicated by the fact that the US administration was alerted to a terror threat after al-Qaeda chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri was killed in a US drone attack in a safe house in Kabul. Al-Zawahiri was said to be a guest of Taliban Interior Minister Siraj-ud-din Haqqani, which indicates the Taliban’s continued desire to provide safe heavens to terror groups inside its territory.

On the other hand, the Taliban regime is said to have relocated Chinese militant groups from Chinese Turkestan, away from the Chinese border. This was in keeping with the promise Taliban officials made to the Chinese foreign minister before they took over Kabul in 2021. The Taliban regime did make an attempt to relocate TTP away from the Pakistani border, but that attempt has failed to materialize. Nevertheless, TTP leaders have since started saying that they are not based in Afghanistan. Experts say that all of this indicates a strong desire on part of the Taliban regime to host and harbor terror groups, while restricting their movement inside Afghanistan in order to make sure that these groups don’t endanger the continued survival of the Taliban regime. The Taliban seems to retain these groups as “strategic assets” in their long-term confrontation with the west. It is pertinent to mention here that under the terms of the Doha Agreement between the US administration and the Taliban, the latter have promised the former that they would not allow terror groups to operate from Afghan soil. 

Military experts say that terror groups, especially Al-Qaeda, have limited capacity to plan and strike the US mainland. Chinese groups, however, have silently obeyed the Taliban’s orders and moved away from Chinese borders. Whereas the TTP continues to pose a major threat to Pakistan’s internal security. Some military experts opine that TTP’s capacity has also dwindled. The Taliban’s intelligence service, GDI, is reportedly the only government department that is keeping contact with these terror groups. Interestingly however, the GDI also chase, kill and arrest ISIS-Khorasan members inside Afghanistan. 

How the Afghan Taliban are dealing with large cache of American weapons they have come to possess

American weaponry left behind by the withdrawing American military in Afghanistan has started to make its way into far-fetched parts of the world, as international monitoring organizations have started to report that the Afghan Taliban and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan have made arms smuggling into a profitable business for themselves. Some international experts monitoring the situation told The Friday Times that some of these weapons have been used in combat in Indian controlled Kashmir, as well as in Israel controlled Gaza.

After the August 2021 takeover of Kabul, the Afghan Taliban have taken control of American weapons in the possession of the Afghan Defense Forces, as well as in house-to-house searches in Kabul, Kandahar and other cities. The Taliban has also recovered lots of American weapons from traditional smugglers who were engaging in arms smuggling without authorization from the Taliban government. “Thanks to both American largesse and Taliban smuggling networks, those arms are going everywhere. Experts say the same routes that proffer drugs, gems, and assorted other contraband get weapons to Islamist terrorists like al-Shabab in sub-Saharan Africa, and Islamic State affiliates in the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and the same Persian Gulf countries that produced Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in the first place,” reads a UN recent report.

The Afghan Taliban have initiated a permit system for their sympathizers to deal in American weapons and most of these permits have gone to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which is engaged in a low-key insurgency in the Pakistani tribal areas. The Pakistan Taliban, according to experts, have supplied these Americans weapons to terror groups like ISIS-Khorasan and al-Qaeda. Taliban intelligence GDI have taken possession of a large amount of these American weapons.  “Anecdotal reporting suggests that the Taliban have been particularly careful to assert control over remaining stockpiles of US-manufactured M4 and M16 assault rifles, night vision and thermal sights, and other high-value items not normally in circulation in the region. M4s and M16s are valued at roughly two to three times the price of an AK-pattern assault rifle. Nevertheless, groups allied with the Taliban, including the TTP, continue to gain access to US weaponry. These supply patterns indicate an inability or unwillingness to block these transfers, further complicating relations with Pakistan.” American weapons have been used by TTP and ISIS-Khorasan in their attacks on Pakistani security forces in Peshawar, Dera Ismail Khan and Balochistan.

Pakistan is once again single-mindedly pursuing a policy of keeping India out of Afghanistan. And for this, the Taliban are viewed as an acceptable option. What a waste this appears to be in the face of India's growing diplomatic presence in Kabul. The Taliban reportedly welcomed India’s move to resume developmental work in Afghanistan. There are reports in the Indian media that the Taliban regime have appointed a charge d ’affairs in New Delhi who is battling with the Ashraf Ghani appointed Ambassador to take control of the Afghan embassy building in New Delhi.

Maybe Pakistan’s officialdom is still dreaming about strategic depth? What a waste, if seen in the light of the fact that the TTP, backed by the Afghan Taliban, is attacking our garrisons inside Pakistani territory. Pakistan needs a coherent and comprehensive Afghanistan policy, which takes into account the on-ground reality that the Afghan Taliban are ostensibly working on an agenda which is highly destructive for regional peace.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.