In recent statements, the army chief has shifted from an appeasement policy with the Afghan Interim Government to an aggressive policy, warning it to rein in the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militant umbrella group, which has been using Afghan soil to launch attacks in Pakistan, adding that Pakistan has “serious concerns about the safe havens and freedom of action available to the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan militant group.” He made these remarks after two militant strikes in recent days killed 12
Pakistani soldiers on the Pakistan-Afghan border in Balochistan, when on July 12, TTP attacked a military base in the Zhob area, resulting in the Army’s biggest single-day death toll in several months. Three soldiers were martyred in a separate attack on the same day when gunmen targeted an army convoy in Sui, infuriating the Army chief, who warned, “Such attacks are intolerable and will provoke a robust response from Pakistan’s security forces.” He also expressed his concern about Afghan nationals being involved in terrorist acts in Pakistan.
This is not the first time such heinous and abhorrent actions have been carried out from Afghanistan. TTP has been continuing its attacks with complete impunity since canceling a ceasefire agreement in late 2022, and even earlier. TTP attacks were in full swing across Pakistan between 2007 and 2014, killing 80,000 Pakistanis, including women, children, and security officers. After the TTP assaulted the Peshawar Army Public School and massacred 150 people, including 130 schoolchildren, the Pakistan army launched Zarb-e-Azb operation in December 2014 which drove the leaders and fighters of TTP to Afghanistan, where they reorganized themselves started re-launching their attack with tacit approval of the Afghan Government.
The Army chief who is fully aware of the seriousness of the TTP presence in the safe havens in Afghanistan, did not mince his words when he warned the Afghan Government to abide by the Doha agreement signed on February 29, 2020. The agreement which was aimed at ending the war contained the commitment by the Taliban to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a safe haven for terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State but did not specifically say the same thing about TTP and since there was no guarantor of the agreement therefore, soon as US troops withdrew in haste leaving behind war spoils which were looted and paraded by the Talibans, and fleeing of Afghan Government with suitcases stuffed with dollars, the Doha agreement had died then and there. Talibans have been refusing to comply with any of its provisions including education to women and respecting human rights. In fact, the guarantors of the Doha Agreement were Talibans themselves who now have amazing assets in their hands, the terrorist groups of Pakistani, Indian, Russian, Chinese and Central Asian Republic origins, which they use as trump card to get favorable deals but point blank refusing to take actions against them or banish them to the country of their origin. They keep these assets close to their hearts and only either slow down or increase their activities when and where it suits them.
With Pakistan, too, they play the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) card most effectively. They keep the Pakistani government under constant pressure without taking the blame of blatant attacks into Pakistan, directly, while simultaneously providing safe havens for TTP and the freedom to attack inside Pakistan with total impunity. As soon as Pakistan refuses to capitulate to their demands, they employ TTP to accomplish their objectives. TTP according to a report by the United Nations Security Council are 6,000 trained and armed fighters in Afghanistan who have been targeting Pakistani security forces, Chinese nationals, and Chinese enterprises in Pakistan.
Ironically, there has never been a constant and persistent policy pursued by Pakistan with Afghanistan. Since 1990, Pakistan’s policy towards the Taliban in Afghanistan has undergone several shifts due to changing geopolitical dynamics and regional security concerns. In 1990 Pakistan supported the Taliban to establish a friendly government in Afghanistan to counter the influence of its rival, India. After 9/11, from 2001 to 2010, Pakistan shifted its policy and joined the U.S.-led global coalition against terrorism. It pursued a policy of supporting reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2014. Prompted by the APS attack, from 2014 to 2020 Pakistan’s focus shifted towards combating domestic terrorism, and from 2020 to July, 2023, Pakistan intensified its efforts to facilitate talks between Taliban and USA and its allies and in the later period to pursue the policy of engagement and dialogue.
The Army Chief’s statement during his visit to Balochistan was indicative of the failure of the prior government’s and former army chief’s policy of “engagement and dialogue” which was an attempt to forge a fresh path forward in the Afghan peace process, with the underlying assumption that the Taliban could be persuaded to come to the negotiating table and agree to a political settlement. It held several meetings with the TTP, some open and others not, and released Taliban prisoners, including some considered high-level commanders, granted amnesty to TTP members who agreed to adhere to the Pakistani Constitution, and allowed the TTP to live in Afghanistan in exchange for the TTP ceasing its terrorist activity against Pakistan. This approach opposed the notion that the Taliban are merely terrorists who should be ignored or forcefully defeated. Instead of achieving the set objectives, this appeasement policy emboldened TTP even more, and as a result, they renewed their attacks inside Pakistan with ferocity, violated and damaged the barbed wire security fence on many points across the entire length of the the Pakistan-Afghan border, caused unrest in Swat, Dir, and northern areas, and escalated their attacks against civilians, security forces, and the army inside Pakistan.
These were and are grave violations of the Doha agreement and the norms of a decent neighborhood, necessitating a stern, commensurate, and appropriate response. However, when dealing with Afghanistan, we must exercise extreme caution, as antagonizing the Afghan interim government could lead to increased tensions and hostility, which could result in cross-border attacks, the influx of refugees, and the spread of extremist ideologies. It would strain bilateral relations, impede efforts to improve economic cooperation, trade, and regional connectivity projects such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), CASA 2000, and TAPI pipeline, and India would cease the opportunity to increase its influence in Afghanistan.
As the adage goes, haste makes waste; therefore, it is in our best interest to maintain a stable and cooperative relationship with the Afghan government and develop a comprehensive strategy and multifaceted approach to persuade the Afghan interim government to prohibit the use of its territory for attacks within Pakistan, keeping in mind that implementing such a policy requires time, patience, and ongoing commitment from both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The proposed strategy may involve a sustained and comprehensive diplomatic engagement to establish a cooperative relationship and build trust through high-level visits, diplomatic channels, and regular dialogues; addressing security concerns and promoting mutual understanding; jointly developing a robust intelligence cooperation mechanism; improving surveillance technologies; increasing the presence of border forces and coordinating efforts to secure the border; and conducting joint exercises. At the same time countering extremist ideologies by promoting moderate and inclusive narratives, with an added emphasis on educational programs, social media campaigns, and community engagement initiatives to promote tolerance, peace, and pluralism in Afghanistan.
Army chief’s plate is already full due to complex security issues, which include but are not limited to precarious borders with Iran, where many of our security personnel have been martyred by insurgents who, after ambushing army troops, seek refuge in Iran Balochistan. Our borders with Afghanistan, where despite barbed wires along the entire border, the Pakistani Taliban who have been given safe haven inside Afghanistan carry out terrorist attacks along the borders and within the country, as well as our hot borders along the line of control in Jammu and Kashmir, are experiencing increased pressures. Recently, he had to deal with the politically motivated attacks on over 200 military installations across the country by PTI activists, and for the first time in the annals of the armed forces, he had to take stern action against serving and retired army officers.
It is unfortunate that, instead of leaving him alone and allowing him to focus on the extremely urgent and grave external and internal security and safety, he has been drawn into almost all civilian matters. He had to save foreign, financial, and economic affairs by convincing Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and China to re-roll their deposits. He had to intervene in trade and commerce by attracting substantial investment from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the livestock and agriculture sectors. He was the driving force behind the transfer of Karachi port terminals 6 to 9 to a Dubai-based company, which will bring in foreign currency and enhance the performance of the Karachi port, as well as initiating the process of auctioning the inoperable steel mill. Now he is on a diplomatic offensive in Iran, where he has conferred with the Iranian president, foreign minister, and armed forces leadership to ease tensions along the Iran-Pakistan border and devise a joint strategy to combat terrorism and extremism in the region.
It is the responsibility of the civilian government and civilian institutions to shoulder the full weight of the civilian domain’s responsibilities, which include, among many others, the development of a multifaceted strategic policy and approach to engage the Afghan government and to resolve the issue of cross-border terrorism diplomatically, politically, and economically, without resorting to the use of kinetic force, which history tells us has never worked in the case of Afghanistan.