In August 2021, when the Afghan Taliban captured Kabul and established a government there, many serious observers expressed the view that the durability of this regime will depend on Taliban’s capacity and ability to contain the violence within the borders of Afghanistan. The Taliban lacked expertise and capacity to effectively deal with violence within Afghan territory—they don’t have trained and professional security forces and higher organisational structure and political skills needed to deal with the multifaceted internal security threats in Afghanistan at the strategic level, which were absent in the war-torn country. Now it appears that the Afghan Taliban not only lack technical capacity and organisational structure, they also lack political determination and a cohesive ideology to deal with the threat of violence.
One year after they took control of Afghanistan it has become crystal clear that they are not interested in containing violence within their territory. Four neighboring countries including Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Iran have clearly witnessed violence spilling over into their territory from Afghanistan in recent months. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Iran have reported minor incidents of violence that originated in Afghanistan and in all the three cases ISIS-Khorasan was instrumental in these incidents. The respective governments in these countries had treated incidents of violence within their territory as not very significant. Their significance – such as it is – stems from the fact that ISIS-Khorasan claimed responsibility for them.
However, Pakistan on the other hand, is facing a serious threat of violence spilling over into its territory from Afghanistan. Both the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) whose leadership and cadre is based in the border towns and cities of Afghanistan, and Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), whose members are mostly drawn from former radicalised members of TTP, have become active in carrying out terror attacks in Pakistan. IS-K is also using eastern Afghanistan as its operational base. All this is enough to reach the verdict that Afghan Taliban have failed to contain violence within the territory under their control. The nexus between TTP and Afghan Taliban couldn’t be clearer: the Afghan Taliban mediated between Pakistani military officials and TTP leaders in indirect talks between the two, which failed to register any progress nevertheless. And recently a group of terrorists which took control of Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) center in Bannu city were demanding that they be provided safe passage to Afghanistan. This clearly shows that terrorists in Pakistan see Taliban-ruled Afghanistan as a sanctuary.
The US State Department offered assistance to Pakistan in dealing with the renewed terror threat in the north-western part of the country. The State Department spokesman made this offer the day Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto reached Washington for talks with US officials. The assistance from Washington could be in the form of training or military equipment—US and British experts had been training Pakistani soldiers in counter insurgency and counter terrorism operations, but training was discontinued after Pakistan sent the trainers back after the May 2011 raid in Abbottabad that killed Osama Bin Laden. Pakistan officials indicate that in principle they were not averse to any foreign assistance, “but we are quite capable of dealing such a threat on our own,” said a senior official.
Observers believe that US offer is still significant from the standpoint that US was again showing an inclination to remain engaged with the region and its problems of terrorism and militancy. Despite expression of confidence by Pakistani officialdom in their capacity to deal with the threat of terrorism, the Pakistani government is clearly short of funds to launch a full-scale military operation in the tribal areas against TTP. The US once used to provide the Coalition Support Fund that was utilised for financing such operations, but it has stopped since 2018.
Pakistan is passing through one of its worst economic crises. Not surprisingly, the Pakistan military and other security forces are carrying out financially easy-to-manage small raids against terror groups and militants in the erstwhile tribal areas. Large-scale operations require larger funds which are not available. Experts say that large-scale operations are not required at the moment in any case, as TTP has not shown any inclination or capacity to take control of any part of territory in the erstwhile tribal areas as a base for their operations. This may be the lucky part of the whole situation, as the absence of funds coincides with the absence of a strategic requirement for large-scale operation.
Perhaps the strategic and military requirement to go after TTP fighters in a big way is absent in our calculus. But observers say we are fast reaching a point where we will have to make a strategic decision with regards to the Afghan Taliban on the foreign policy front. Despite the rise of violence in the north-west, the Pakistan government has not wavered in its support for the Afghan Taliban. It was Pakistan which tried to convince the Americans to cooperate with the Afghan Taliban in the field of security and it was Pakistan which tried to convince them to extend diplomatic recognition to the Afghan Taliban.
This wholehearted support for Taliban had the backing of regional powers like Russia, Iran and China—all these three regional powers have pursued relations with Afghan Taliban and have been pushing Islamabad to continue to spearhead the diplomatic campaign in support of Taliban. All these three countries are not sensitive as far as the Afghan Taliban’s human rights records are concerned. They are particularly apprehensive about the rise of Sunni militancy including the rise of IS-K in Afghanistan. These countries have even shown a willingness to share intelligence with the Afghan Taliban for them to be in a position to deal with the threat of IS-Khorasan.
It is now clear that Pakistan is keeping its options open with consultations with Washington on the Afghan situation. For now, it appears that even Americans would not insist on regime change in Kabul before they start cooperating with Taliban or their mentor, Pakistan, to deal effectively with the threat of IS-K in Afghanistan. Despite this apparent anti- IS-K consensus between big powers, the larger canvass of their conflicts in international politics may make the possibility of both China and the United States supporting the same side in Afghanistan difficult.
However, Foreign Minister Bhutto’s assertion in Washington, after meeting US officials, that his preferred mode of dealing with the TTP threat is to talk and cooperate with the Afghan Taliban, is significant. This means that Washington is ready to accept the Taliban in Kabul, even though it is not ready to directly deal with them. Bhutto, however, added that cooperating with the Afghan Taliban is not the only way to deal with the threat of TTP. This most probably indicates that other options also came up for discussion in Pak-US talks on Afghanistan. What are those options? Could it be that the military option was also considered?
In case of Pakistani exercising military options, is it possible that Washington revives substantial funding for Islamabad?
a) the Pakistan military wants to keep all its sources for modern weaponry open: Although China now provides most of the weapon systems to Pakistan, the military has a penchant for Western weapons systems. There was a lot of frustration in Pakistan when sometime around 2018 France, Britain and the United States cancelled major defence deals with Pakistan,
b) the generosity of our traditional friends like China and Saudi Arabia is not enough to keep the country floating financially. We still need IMF loans to keep us afloat. All this will reflect on our position on Afghanistan.