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To preserve its own stability, Pakistan must stabilize Afghanistan first

Alongside the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the insurgency has made a comeback and is using its resurgence to instill fear in Pakistani traders, government officials and law enforcement.

February 23, 2022 / 09:07 PM IST
A Taliban fighter stands guard at a checkpoint during a snowfall in Kabul, Afghanistan, January 3. (Image: Reuters)

A Taliban fighter stands guard at a checkpoint during a snowfall in Kabul, Afghanistan, January 3. (Image: Reuters)

The euphoria felt by many in Pakistan over a Taliban victory in Kabul six months ago is subsiding. The government had hoped that a friendly — some would say proxy — regime in Afghanistan would ease its concerns about the Pakistani Taliban.

But instead, there has been a spike in terror attacks in recent months, which Pakistani officials say were planned by militants hiding inside Afghan territories.

Still, senior Pakistani civil and security officials remain sanguine about the future, or, at the very least, stress that a stable Afghanistan is essential for a stable Pakistan. It’s a position that puts Pakistan in a tight corner: The country must continue to help the new Taliban government, while also contending with the growing security and economic risks to Pakistan that have come with the new regime.

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“Is there a chance that if the Taliban government is squeezed, there could be a change for the better? No.” Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan said in an interview with CNN earlier this month.

He stressed that the world will also eventually have to deal with the Taliban for the lack of a second or better alternate.

“So the only alternative we have right now is to work with them and incentivize them for what the world wants: inclusive government, human rights and women’s rights in particular,” he added.

So far, however, the government’s efforts for the diplomatic recognition of the Afghan Taliban and calls for more global financial assistance have yielded few results. Pakistan itself not diplomatically recognizing the Afghan Taliban shows the dilemma the country faces.

Pakistan witnessed a 42% increase in terrorist attacks in 2021 compared to the previous year, according to the Islamabad-based Pak Institute of Peace Studies, with a significant surge after Kabul fell. The report noted that the fall of Kabul had started adversely influencing the country’s militant landscape and security, saying the change in Afghanistan is “not helping in any way Pakistan’s efforts to deal with the militant groups threatening its security.”

The institute documented that the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, a banned militant group responsible for some of the country’s worst terrorist attacks, alone was responsible for 87 attacks that killed 158 people, an increase of 84% relative to 2020.

Until late 2020, the Pakistani Taliban seemed considerably weakened, its top leadership killed or pushed into Afghanistan after a Pakistani military offensive in 2014. But alongside the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the insurgency has made a comeback and is using its resurgence to instill fear in Pakistani traders, government officials and law enforcement.

Using telephone numbers starting with the Afghanistan international dialing code, the Pakistani Taliban have been calling and threatening affluent Pakistani traders to pay extortion money.

“Traders have been forced to pay huge amounts of extortion money because of fear,” said Muhammad Azam, a Karachi-based trader, who says he paid around $2,850 last month to the terror outfit.

“If a trader refuses to pay it, the militants detonate small bombs near their homes to frighten them into succumbing to their demands. If they continue to refuse payment, militants harm them or their family members,” Azam said.

Such threats have also extended to senior government officials, many of whom say they pay because they fear being attacked at political rallies or during other public events — as has been the fate of senior political leaders in the past.

One senior federal government minister, hailing from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, said he recently paid a few million rupees to the Pakistani Taliban to avoid being attacked. Another official, who spoke to The New York Times on the condition of anonymity because of security fears, said when he refused to pay, a militant threatened him in person.

Police officers, particularly those protecting polio vaccinator teams, have been a key target of such attacks. In 2021, militants, mainly belonging to Pakistani Taliban, killed 48 officers and injured 44 others in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province alone, according to police statistics. Much of the violence occurred in the last few months of the year.

Despite repeated attempts, Pakistan has been unable to get firm guarantees from the Afghan Taliban that they would take action against the Pakistani Taliban operating in Afghanistan. The worsening security situation was one of the top agenda items in talks between Taliban authorities and Moeed Yusuf, the Pakistani national security adviser, when he visited Kabul last month.

The Afghan Taliban are “committed to taking necessary steps to ensure that Afghan soil is not used for attacks against Pakistan,” Yusuf said, adding that Pakistan “will continue to extend humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, and engage with the Taliban on matters of mutual interest and concern within the internationally permissible framework.”

Analysts also note that Pakistan’s economy has been hurt by the situation across the border, as millions of U.S. dollars are reportedly smuggled over the border per day. To mitigate this, the State Bank of Pakistan in October limited the amount of U.S. dollars that travelers are allowed to take to Afghanistan.

One of the upsides for Pakistan of the collapse of the former Afghan government has been the damage it did to India’s second front against Pakistan, according to Asif Durrani, a former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan and Iran.

Pakistani officials had long accused India of supporting terrorism in Pakistan through Indian consulates inside Afghanistan, with the support of the former Afghan government’s intelligence agency. After the Taliban takeover, Pakistani officials say that the Indian footprint has been diminished, although they still blame India for funding the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and Baluch separatist groups.

This has been particularly acute in southwestern Baluchistan, a natural gas and mineral-rich province and the site of major Chinese projects.

On Jan. 27, the Pakistani military said 10 of its soldiers were killed in a firefight in the Kech district of Baluchistan province. Less than a week later, more than a dozen suicide attackers, heavily armed with rocket launchers and sophisticated weapons, attacked two Pakistani paramilitary camps in the remote districts of Panjgur and Naushki along Pakistan’s southern border with Iran and western border with Afghanistan.

“The Baluch insurgents are also drawing strength from the Taliban’s example of defeating the United States, and the TTP has been helping them with training and tactics for some time,” said Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace, referring to the Pakistani Taliban. “With Afghanistan more permissive to the TTP, Afghanistan-based Baluch insurgents — despite losing the patronage of the former Afghan government — still have help in Afghanistan.”

Senior security officials in Islamabad also say they are mindful of the capacity issues of the Afghan Taliban, who don’t have total control over all of their members. Some low-level Afghan Talibs, they say, maintain their links with the Pakistani Taliban, a fact recognized by the senior Afghan Taliban leadership who acknowledge their shortcomings and resolve to allay Pakistan’s concerns.

Some analysts, however, warn that Pakistan is overreaching in its optimism and hopes placed with the Afghan Taliban.

“The ideological convergence between the Afghan Taliban and the TTP terrorist network is inescapable,” said Mosharraf Zaidi, an Islamabad-based policy and security analyst. “Combined with the allure to explicitly support Pashtun nationalism, this ideological convergence between Kabul and the TTP terrorist network means that the Taliban are not aligned with Islamabad on two key security issues.”

Pakistan, Zaidi said, now has largely the same Afghanistan on its border that it did before August 2021, when Kabul fell, but with one profound difference.

“It no longer has a capable counterterrorism partner, a la the U.S. government, to work with,” he said.

(Authors: Salman Masood and Zia ur-Rehman)/(c.2022 The New York Times Company)

New York Times
first published: Feb 23, 2022 09:07 pm