Asim Munir carrying coffin of young officer exposes Pakistan’s failure—Taliban not listening

The TTP is emboldened by the Taliban’s victory and American withdrawal. But Pakistani media makes it appear as if nothing is wrong in the country other than audio leaks.

Pakistan’s National Security Committee was in a two-day huddle to think through its options on how to handle the threat from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and deal with the Afghan Taliban. While the latter are Islamabad’s friends, they are unable to control the TTP. Ever since America withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, attacks by the TTP on Pakistan have increased. Except for expressing State intent at having zero tolerance for terrorism and not allowing any country to perpetrate violence inside Pakistan, there was no decision to demonstrate that the army was getting ready to hit back at the TTP. It is easier said than done. The Kabul government has already expressed its displeasure with Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah’s statement on the possibility of Islamabad attacking TTP hideouts in Afghanistan. Although the Taliban won’t stop the TTP, their spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, condemned the idea of possible transgression by its neighbour.

The problem now is that the TTP is also gathering other insurgents under its umbrella—it is feared that some Baloch separatists have joined it as well. It is partly due to this reason and the Pakistan military’s flawed politics that’s behind the rise in attacks on security and law enforcement agencies in the southwestern province of Balochistan. Seemingly, there is greater anger within the security establishment regarding attacks in Balochistan that has led to more crackdown on the Baloch people. The State narrative is also sharper—it is obvious from pictures like that of the Pakistan Army Chief General Asim Munir and the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, General Sahir Shamshad Mirza carrying the coffin of a young officer recently killed in an attack in Balochistan.  There is perhaps a need for similar images regarding the bigger and more potent threat from the TTP. Lest anyone forgets, after the mid-2000s, Pakistan was rocked by terrorism, and various factions of the Taliban and all the other snakes in the backyard, too, had a role to play.

The 23 December suicide attack in Islamabad, in which a police official died, was a reminder of the period before 2018 when Pakistan’s capital, like Peshawar, Quetta, Karachi and many other cities, was constantly on the edge. That’s a period no one in Pakistan wants to return to—military, politicians, or ordinary people. It seems as if all the fancy sounding counter-terrorism operations such as Radd-ul-Fasaad (elimination of discord)Zarb-e-Azb (the comprehensive blow), and Khyber-4 have come to nothing. This raises two vital questions: What’s happening in Pakistan’s relations with the Taliban and what position does the latter want to take in solving the immediate security threat at the Afghan border?

Exposed holes, vulnerability

Instead of showcasing military camaraderie, Gen Munir and Gen Mirza shouldering the coffin make for a scary sight — it exposes the absence of political options to solve the Balochistan problem. At the same time, it shows the holes in Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy and Kabul’s vulnerability. Afghanistan can no longer depend on the Taliban, which Pakistan has supported since the 1990s as the only genuine representatives of Pashtuns who form the majority in the country. Other ethnic groups, however, challenge the notion of Pashtuns representing the absolute majority. This idea, in fact, informed the discussions about a new political system for Afghanistan at the recently held 10th Herat Security Dialogue (HSD) in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Islamabad, as is obvious from its policy since America withdrew, remains wedded to the idea of the Taliban getting international acceptance and dominating the Afghanistan debate.

The lobbying for the Taliban, after America withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, hinged on an expectation that it would contribute to Pakistan’s security, which meant controlling the TTP. But the terrorist group’s attacks on Pakistan have increased since then, especially after the TTP announced ending the ceasefire agreement in November 2022. The terrorist faction is a bigger headache for Pakistan but could be handled through an ally in the Taliban government—Afghanistan’s acting interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani. According to British counter-terrorism expert Antonio Giustozzi, in recent months, the TTP has moved into an area controlled by the Haqqani network.

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An emboldened TTP

The TTP, unlike the Taliban, is more focused on enforcing its version of Sharia in Pakistan, especially in the tribal areas. The TTP has demanded the reversal of the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas-Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province merger. It wants the old system of political control restored, which means they want control of the area and State intervention to happen only through its political agent. This system of governance is well explained in Tilak Devasher’s recent book The Pashtuns. Interestingly, during the late 1990s, some of the senior generals in the General Headquarters (GHQ) were not averse to the idea of letting Taliban supporters — even Mullah Fazlullah — implement Sharia in Swat. The idea, as expressed by former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lt General (retd) Ziauddin Butt — who was hurriedly made the Army Chief by Nawaz Sharif to replace Gen Pervez Musharraf — during an interview with me in 2010 was to let the Taliban run the area and disconnect it from rest of the country. The idea was not workable then and is not workable now. Whatever comes to the tribal areas doesn’t stay there. It will spread to the rest of Khyber-Pakhtunkjwa province and slowly to the rest of Pakistan.

The TTP is emboldened by the Taliban’s victory and American withdrawal. It would be unreal to think of the TTP or Taliban as militants or non-Pan-Islamists who would stay restricted to their regions. Besides the group’s emphasis on its religious ideology, there is also an element of Pashtun nationalism. The Taliban and the TTP have nothing in common with secular Pashtun nationalists; the former also reject Pakistan’s handling of ‘the Pashutun nationalism problem’, which is to construct a fence along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border with the idea of slowly converting the Durand Line into an international boundary.

The idea was contested by the Taliban during the 1990s and has given way to clashes in recent times. Sources who I spoke to argue that reasons for clashes are based on these above-mentioned relatively long-term objectives and some tactical short-term issues such as suspicion of Pakistan’s involvement in al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zwahiri’s killing by the US. His death, it is argued, has enhanced infighting within the Taliban. Experts on Afghanistan I spoke to say that some of the key leaders from the Kandhari Taliban are now questioning Sirajuddin Haqqani’s leadership — he was responsible for security in the country and guarding people like Zawahiri. The Haqqani network, or the larger Taliban, although they do not blame Pakistan for having a hand in the incident, suspect that the Americans used Pakistan’s air space for the drone attack. This may have caused Haqqani to turn a blind eye to TTP operations.

Such accidental and tactical coming together of certain factions of Taliban mentioned above does not bode well at a time when the Shehbaz Sharif government and its army chief seem distracted by political instability at home. Watching Pakistani news, it appears as if there is nothing wrong in the country other than the frequent audio leaks of different politicians. The severe political infighting has also negatively impacted cooperation between the federal and provincial governments of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, including coordination on security. There is also the fact that the pro- versus anti-Imran Khan divide within the security and law enforcement apparatus tends to affect the coordination needed to fight the Taliban, who, incidentally, are pro-Imran. The terror group probably likes Imran Khan because he opposed a military operation against the Taliban. He understands the Taliban’s relatively stronger position vis-a-vis Pakistan better and believes that military operation by Rawalpindi may not be possible. That’s why he castigates Bilawal Bhutto’s pronouncement to fight back by saying that the young foreign minister does not know Afghanistan.

Define the redline

Pakistan’s former senior diplomat Riaz Mohammad Khan and former head of ISI, Lt Gen. (retd) Asad Durrani argue for caution and dialogue and advise against rushing into a war with the Taliban. They also speak about not involving foreign powers, which is probably a reference to the American offer to help against the TTP. Possibly, the fear is that using American drones may bring just a tiny amount of financial relief to the military but would leave it with a larger problem of a non-stop fight with the Taliban, something it cannot afford. The country’s Afghanistan policy has been so out of balance in favour of the Taliban for so long that correcting it is likely to create more problems even if American help is not sought.

The Shehbaz government is left with little option but to negotiate directly with the Taliban and convince Kabul that the TTP is Pakistan’s redline. Any cooperation with the international community should more be at the diplomatic level. And if the military wants to deliver effectively, it must ensure political and ideological unity within its ranks. A full-scale military operation today is not as easy as it was when the US was around.

Ayesha Siddiqa is Senior Fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. She is the author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

Source: The Print