Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan chief Mullah Fazlullah’s death in a US drone attack has potentially provided grounds for a reset in Pakistan–Afghanistan and Pakistan–United States relations. Still, many ifs and buts remain to muddy the waters ahead.
The long wanted terrorist’s elimination happened towards the end of a series of happenings on the Afghan front related to the unprecedented ceasefire in the war-ravaged country which renewed hopes of a peaceful settlement of the protracted conflict. Therefore, Fazlullah’s death also came to be seen in the context of those developments and many felt all these happenings were scripted.
Very few people would actually know if all these actions that started with Pakistan Army expressing its desire to see US going back after success in Afghanistan and pledging to employ all available leverages to bring the Taliban around on the issue of reconciliation; and a senior Trump administration National Security official calling on Pakistan to assist in the peace process and assuring that its security concerns would be addressed were actually choreographed moves. It certainly has to be more than a coincidence that these gestures from Rawalpindi and Washington were followed by ceasefire, albeit a brief one and Mullah Fazlullah being killed. One should also not forget Ghani’s offer to include presence of foreign forces as a negotiating point in future peace talks with Taliban and US immediately afterwards, expressing openness to any such negotiations on future of international actors.
The actual test starts now. Fazlullah’s presence on Afghan soil was a major irritant in Pak-Afghan security cooperation and his handover or elimination was always on the top of Pakistani demands for US and Afghanistan. It was because of this reason that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who called caretaker Prime Minister Nasirul Mulk and Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Bajwa to inform them about Fazlullah’s death, also asked them to now do their part. To quote Ghani’s own words: “I urged the PM and COAS to take practical steps to bring Afghan Taliban residing in Pakistan to the negotiation table.” He further said that both Pakistani leaders agreed that Fazlullah’s killing was “a great step toward building trust between the two nations” and also “promised to support Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process”.
It is a separate debate as to how significant is Fazlullah’s exit with regards to terrorism in Pakistan, but the action was definitely a confidence building measure on part of Afghanistan and US to prove that they were serious about the deal. I call it a CBM because Fazlullah’s removal may constrain TTP operations for the time being, but may not have a long-lasting effect as long as the space that TTP terrorists have in Afghanistan is not denied to them. Unverified reports already suggest that TTP is working on succession and has identified a prospective successor, if not having finally picked him. The multiple cross-border raids by terrorists on Pakistani posts along Pak-Afghan border, just a day after Fazlullah’s killing, is a reminder that the terror king may have been killed, but the threat lives on.
Fazlullah thing needs to be taken only as a gesture in Pakistan from US and Afghanistan that seeks to convey that cooperation on security issues would be mutually beneficial. The ultimate goal, therefore, should not be the elimination of a certain terror figure, but complete denial of space to such subversive elements on Afghan soil.
It is not just a one-way affair. Kabul and Washington, too, have expectations from Pakistan.
Pakistan has long insisted that there is no more organised presence of Taliban and Haqqani Network on its territory after Operations Zarb-e-Azb and Radd-ul-Fasaad, but Americans and Afghans seem unconvinced about it. The nominated US top commander in Afghanistan Lt Gen Austin Miller, in his testimony before the US Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, underscored the American military’s concerns when he said that despite serious security operations and many sacrifices by Pakistan Army, “We have not yet seen these counterterrorism efforts against anti-Pakistan militants translate into definitive actions against Afghan Taliban or Haqqani leaders residing in Pakistan.”
General Miller, therefore, suggested that US should have “high expectations that they (Pakistanis) are part of the solution, not just diplomatically, but from a security standpoint as well.” We may not agree with General Miller’s assessment, but his observations point towards the prevailing thinking in US military establishment and the mind set with which the new commander is coming to Afghanistan.
The Afghans are thinking in the same manner. A high-ranking security delegation that visited Islamabad this week reportedly emphasised on Pakistani side to go the proverbial extra mile for reviving the Eid ceasefire, according to a diplomatic source. The Afghan delegation included Interior Minister Wais Ahmad Barmak and comprising National Security Adviser Mohammad Hanif Atmar, intelligence chief Masoum Stanikzai and other officials.
The Afghan government, it should be recalled, extended the Eid ceasefire, but Taliban soon after the completion of the three-day truce, resumed fighting in at least nine provinces. The immediate priority for Kabul is that the Eid spirit lives on. For this they have started to reach out not only to Pakistan, but other countries that potentially can influence Taliban. In this regard, a contact between Afghan NSA Atmar and his Saudi counterpart also took place.
Taliban’s inflexibility will be a major challenge for the sustainability of the newly established goodwill between Pakistan, US and Afghanistan. Some believe that elements in Afghanistan, who are hostile to Pakistan, like former NDS chief Amrullah Saleh and the Helmand Peace Convoy could spoil the game. But, in reality it is the Taliban who can make or break the prospects of peace in the region.
Pakistan needs to play smart here.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad