Afghanistan and Pakistan face a potential threat to become involved in a war of attrition over their Islamist terrorism policies that have now come to haunt both of them.
In recent months, the Islamic State of Khorasan is creating mayhem inside Afghanistan as it targets the Taliban. Pakistan is now eager to wash its hands off the links with terror groups it supported and gave shelter to in the last few decades. In Pakistan, at the same time, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), sheltered in the inaccessible hilly terrains of Afghanistan, is planning attacks inside Pakistan.
Both countries and their governments are confronting each other over the resultant violence. They are blaming each other for encouraging the terrorist groups to attack the other side. The terror groups that have close links with state agencies on both sides have now become Frankensteins neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan want to pamper no longer. But they find their hands ties for several reasons.
This year’s Ramadan period was particularly violent with suicide bombers targeting civilians and religious places in both countries. The last such incident was a powerful explosion at the Khalifa Sahib Mosque in the west of Kabul that killed over 50 worshippers.
The ruling Taliban was quick to counter global criticism that it had failed to secure the country because it was still supporting terrorist groups in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, the TTP through leaflets has been asking people in Afghanistan’s Khost province to support its ‘jihad’ in Pakistan. The TTP has been fighting the Pakistan regime since 2007.
In late March, a terrorist attack by the TTP in Miran Shah town of North Waziristan in Pakistan killed three Pakistani soldiers. From January to March this year, 97 Pakistani soldiers and officers have been killed in “terrorist attacks”, according to the Pakistani military.
The International Forum For Right And Security (IFFRAS) is quoted by the media as saying that “the Afghan Taliban is unlikely to take any action to curb TTP, giving strength to the possibilities of more attacks in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border along the Durand Line”.
According to IFFRAS, “there was a belief that the Afghan Taliban would not allow TTP to carry out attacks on Pakistan”. It is claimed that there are “3,000-5,000 fighters in Afghanistan, and family members of several terrorists wish to resettle in Pakistan”. The TTP have close links with the Taliban for over a decade and have pledged allegiance to the Taliban leader. Hundreds of jailed Pakistani Taliban terrorists were “released from prison last year as the Afghan Taliban seized control of major cities and liberated their prisons”.
Pakistan foreign office says “terrorists are using Afghan soil with impunity to carry out activities inside Pakistan”. The Afghan Taliban countered warning Pakistan of “consequences” and saying it would not tolerate “invasions” from its “neighbours”. The warning came after nearly 50 people were killed on April 16 in alleged Pakistani air raids in the border provinces of Kunar and Khost. Pakistan never confirmed if it was behind the air raids.
The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan was celebrated by officials in Islamabad and it was hoped that the armed group would rein in TTP and ISIL fighters, but instead attacks have risen. More attacks have been recorded this year than in the same period last year.
Simultaneously, relations between the two neighbours are also under strain because of Pakistan fencing the 2640-km border with Afghanistan called the Durand Line. Pakistan launched the project in 2017 after facing a spate of deadly attacks from Afghanistan-based Pakistani militant groups in the previous year.
According to media reports, “the border barrier consists of two sets of chain-link fences, separated by a 2-metre (6-foot) space filled with concertina wire coils”. It is a double-fence, “which is 3.6 metres high (11 feet) on the Pakistani side and 4 metres high (13 feet) on the Afghan side, is fitted with surveillance cameras and infrared detectors”. Around a “1,000 forts are also being constructed along the border to increase security” and “cross-border movement will only be allowed through 16 formally designated crossing points after the completion of the project”.
The regions surrounding the Durand Line were used in the last couple of decades by terrorist groups, such as the Haqqani Network, al-Qaeda and the TTP to conduct attacks both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Kabul has long accused Pakistan of providing sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban. Islamabad, on the other hand, has raised similar concerns about TTP’s presence in Afghanistan.
Here is what western analysts say of the fence: “Critics of the project argue that while the fence will likely deter Afghanistan-based anti-Pakistan militants from conducting cross-border attacks, the Afghan Taliban will continue to cross the border at will, with a wink and a nod from Pakistan. Pakistan is also hoping that the border barrier will prevent any future turmoil in Afghanistan from spilling into its territory. Indeed, if Afghanistan once again descends into chaos in the coming years, the wall will help curtail the refugee influx from Afghanistan into Pakistan.”
There is a geo-political reason for Pakistan erecting the fence. As the media says, “the fence will also help Pakistan politically by cementing the Durand Line as the permanent border between the sovereign territories of Afghanistan and Pakistan”.
The problem is Afghanistan disputes the border which was originally drawn by the British in 1893. The border divides the ancestral lands of the Pashtun tribes that inhabit the region between the two countries.
The Taliban backs the Pashtun demand for Pashtunistan, as claimed largely by “Pashtun Taliban”. It encompasses a large area of Pakistani territory south of Kabul including Pakhtunkhwa (formerly the North West Frontier Province or NWFP) inhabited by their ethnic clansmen, thereby taking their long-standing homeland claims to the municipal limits of Islamabad.
The confrontation between both countries has increased after the fencing work was taken up. Afghanistan says the fence affects the daily lives of families living on both sides of the border. The farmers whose lands straddle the border also face problems. Same is the case with traders who make a living by exporting food products and other items from Afghanistan to Pakistan and vice-versa.
There is tension at the border after Taliban soldiers last December disrupted the fence construction work by the Pakistan military. The situation was not allowed to escalate by both sides backing down subsequently.
However, this January, a Taliban commander, Mawillawi Sanaullah Sangin, issued a warning to Pakistan. He was quoted by Afghanistan’s Tolo News as saying: “We (the Taliban) will not allow the fencing anytime, in any form. Whatever they did before, they did, but we will not allow it anymore.”
The strained relations over the border fencing, the Taliban openly backing the demand for Pashtunistan demand, and Pakistan and Afghanistan both experiencing terrorist attacks, the region is literally sitting on a powder keg.