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Conjoined terror of TTP & Afghan Taliban

Plausible deniability will no longer work for Afghanistan’s de facto Taliban rulers.

By Naveed Hussain |
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PUBLISHED November 12, 2023

The ongoing spurt in high-profile and mass casualty terrorist attacks in Pakistan is worrying. Of more concern is the fact that Afghanistan serves as a springboard for most of these attacks. The brazen assault on the Mianwali training airbase and the deadly ambush on a military convoy in Gwadar happened in quick succession, preceded by a bomb attack on a police patrol in DI Khan, and followed by a deadly clash in the remote Tirah Valley of Khyber district. Tellingly, this terror spike came soon after the expiry of a deadline that the government had given to illegal aliens, primarily 1.7 million Afghans, to voluntarily repatriate to their home countries or face deportation.

Pakistan saw a relative lull in terrorist violence before the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in August 2021. Pakistan’s security establishment expected that after their ascendency the Taliban would rein in the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the banned umbrella of terrorist groups harboured by the Afghan and Indian spy agencies on Afghan soil to destabilise Pakistan. But they were wrong. Dead wrong! It was wrong to expect the Afghan Taliban would go after their Pakistani namesakes. It was wrong to expect the Tehreek-e-Taliban Afghanistan (TTA) would take on their ideological twin. It was wrong to expect Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada (TTA chief) would order crackdown against Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud (TTP chief) who has sworn allegiance to him. It was wrong to expect the TTA would give up camaraderie with their ‘brothers in arms’ against the NATO forces for 20 years. In fact, the TTA and TTP are two sides of the same coin.

Contrary to Pakistan’s expectations, the embarrassing exit of the US-led forces from Afghanistan emboldened the TTP and motivated the group to replicate the TTA’s “stunning victory” over NATO. A TTA-brokered peace tryst with the TTP soured quickly and the semblance of normalcy was shattered by an uptick in TTP violence. Pakistan has seen a 60% increase in terror incidents and a 500% rise in suicide bombings since the Taliban recaptured Kabul, killing nearly 2,300 Pakistanis, according to the official figures shared by the caretaker prime minister, Anwarul Haq Kakar, last week. He noted that 15 Afghan nationals were among the suicide bombers, while 64 Afghans were killed fighting Pakistani security forces this year. Pakistan has repeatedly reached out to the de facto rulers in Kabul with documentary evidence, asking for action against the TTP’s safe havens and seeking handover of wanted terrorist commanders. The TTA remained non-committal – even in denial about the presence of the TTP on Afghan soil.

Kakar’s claim is not exaggerated. The Global Terrorism Database also ranked Pakistan 4th on the Global Terrorism Index 2023, a two-notch increase from 2022 when there were 648 recorded attacks, resulting in 1,058 fatalities, while Afghanistan recorded 75% drop in terrorist violence, and 58% decrease in fatalities during the same period. The attacks were mainly carried out by the TTP, its outgrowth of Tehreek-e-Jihad Pakistan (TJP), Islamic State-Khorasan, and Baloch Liberation Army (BLA). The TTP seeks to peddle a religious justification for its terror campaign while Baloch groups are fighting a secular insurgency, but, of late, the two have cobbled up a nexus against the state and its security agencies. In 2022, two Baloch groups, one led by Mazar Baloch from Makran division, and the other headed by Aslam Baloch from Noshki district, swore allegiance to the TTP chief. Reports claim that in 2022 Mufti Noor Wali also “approved the application of ‘Majeed Brigade’ to join the TTP. Majeed Brigade is the BLA’s elite squad tasked with carrying out suicide attacks. This nexus helped the TTP increase its footprint in Balochistan, especially in the non-Pashtun areas, while the Baloch separatists haven’t objected to this ingress.

The latest violence surge has its origin in Afghanistan. Most attacks were planned and launched from there and involved Afghan nationals. Abdul Aziz Khan, the TJP commander who reportedly led the Mianwali airbase assault, was an Afghan national, while foreign weapons – including American M-4 and M-16A4 – were found on the attackers killed by security forces. The US-led forces and their Afghan protégés left behind an estimated $7 billion worth of weapons during their chaotic exit from Afghanistan in 2021. These modern weapons, including might-vision goggles, precision rifles, quadcopters, and advanced snipers, have been made easily available to terrorist outfits of Pakistan, mainly to the TTP, BLA, TJP and BLF, on Afghan soil. Both Kabul and Washington deny it, though.

You cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. The caretaker PM has given an unequivocal message to Kabul: choose between Pakistan and the TTP. But the Taliban regime is reluctant. Some Kabul-watchers believe the Taliban might have capacity issues to simultaneously take on both the TTP and IS-Khorasan at a time when they were seeking to stabilise their country post-NATO exit. They feared that the TTP, if threatened, would join forces with the IS-Khorasan and become a more potent existential threat for their nascent regime. Or a possible action against their ideological affiliates would create divisions within their own ranks. So, they prioritised the IS-Khorasan purge, claiming plausible deniability about the TTP’s use of Afghan soil for a bloody campaign against Pakistan. Some reports indicate that the TTA top leaders use the TTP as a bargaining chip against Pakistan as they have multimillion-rupee businesses and other financial and strategic interests in Pakistan including unidentified properties, recruitment from Islamic seminaries, smuggling in foreign currency and narcotics, and exploitation of Afghan transit trade.

Afghanistan not only serves as a springboard for terrorist attacks, it also offers a launch-pad for the sinister propaganda campaigns of the TTP and Baloch insurgent groups. TTP’s Umer Media, newspapers like Sautul Ummah, magazines like Mujalla-e-Taliban and Khadija–ul–Kubra, Passon podcast, and Twitter and Facebook accounts, Baloch groups’ website/Telegram channel ‘Baluchistan Post’, Radio channels Zembesh and social media accounts are handled from Afghanistan to radicalise and recruits.

PM Kakar said that despite repeated assurances, the de facto Kabul rulers didn’t deliver on their counterterrorism pledges. “Instead, clear evidence of enabling terrorism by Afghan Taliban members also emerged in some instances,” he added. The Taliban’s persistent refusal to assuage its security concerns pushed Pakistan to take a series of steps to secure itself that include enhancing border control, enforcing proper documentation and passport requirements, deporting illegal Afghans, and combatting smuggling in foreign currency and commodities through the porous border with Afghanistan. The crackdown on undocumented aliens stems from the upsurge in nationwide terrorist attacks as illegal foreigners are linked to those “fueling terrorism and instability in Pakistan.”

The Taliban regime reacted angrily. They rejected PM Kakar’s allegations outright and instead asked Pakistan to put its own house in order. “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is not responsible for maintaining peace in Pakistan,” the Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, said in a scathing rejoinder. “They should solve their internal problems by themselves and not blame Afghanistan for their failures.” The interim foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, parroted the same narrative. “The TTP is not our issue. It’s Pakistan’s internal issue. The TTP is Pakistan’s reality. This is why 80,000 Pakistanis have been killed. Pakistani army and intelligence agencies must deal with them,” he said in a BBC interview. The Taliban’s plausible deniability is both disturbing and surprising. Disturbing, because Pakistan has repeatedly shared solid evidence to substantiate its claims that the TTP uses the Afghan soil to plan, orchestrate, and launch attacks inside Pakistan. And surprising, because the Taliban have consistently pushed Pakistan for negotiations and even hosted TTP’s senior leaders in Kabul for direct meetings with Pakistani officials. If TTP and Baloch terror is an internal matter for Pakistan, then why most senior TTP and Baloch insurgents have been killed on Afghan soil?

While Mujahid and Muttaqi were diplomatic in their reaction, other Taliban regime officials were blunt – and even threatening. Interim prime minister Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund accused Pakistan of “humiliating” the Afghan refugees and warned: “You [Pakistan] are a neighbour, you should think about the future.” Mullah Yaqoob, the defence minister, also warned Pakistan to refrain from “committing acts of cruelty” against the Afghans before hurling a naked threat: “As you sow, so shall you reap.” Dismayed by the Taliban’s response to its legitimate security concerns, Pakistan decided to stop speaking for the de facto Kabul rulers on international forums and to withdraw the “special privileges” extended to the interim Afghan administration. This could further dim the chances of international recognition for the Taliban government because Pakistan is perhaps the only country which has consistently advocated Kabul’s case internationally. This move must be unsettling for the nascent Taliban regime, but all is not lost yet as Pakistan keeps a “channel of communication open” with Kabul despite all misgivings.

Plausible deniability wouldn’t work because Pakistan claims to have evidence of the Taliban’s control over the TTP. The Kabul regime has to rethink its policy of using the TTP and its affiliates as a veritable arm of their security apparatus to coerce Pakistan. They can never stabilise their country by destabilising or letting its proxies destabilise its neighbours. Pakistan and Afghanistan are not just two hyphenated neighbours, but, to quote former Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, they are “conjoined twins”. Their destinies are intertwined and fortunes interlinked. Their internal security, economic stability, and regional connectivity are interdependent; therefore, there is need to dial down angry rhetoric, reengage politically and diplomatically, and assuage each other’s concerns for a peaceful neighbourhood where their peoples can progress and prosper.