By Mahendra Ved
How would the Taliban and other militant groups in Pakistan respond to the United States-led foreign forces leaving neighbouring Afghanistan by end-2014?
Does Pakistan score its much-sought triumph, and the resultant “strategic depth”, if the AfghanistanTaliban return to Kabul, possibly taking or sharing power?
In a belated realisation, Pakistan’s establishment finds that the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, far from ending militancy and sectarian turmoil at home, is most likely to exacerbate it.
Having supported and sheltered the Afghan Taliban leaders for a dozen years, it realizes that even a partial success by them to win power in Kabul is bound to boost the morale and strength of their Pakistani cousins, working under the umbrella of Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The TTP’s challenge to the state, both the political and the military leadership, would be graver than it is now.
Islamabad is yet to take into its calculus the possible fallout on it of the Afghan Taliban’s partial or total triumph in Afghanistan.
A document just out says that the US-led foreign troops withdrawal will create “a sense of euphoria” among the Taliban in Afghanistan and the TTP-led militants in Pakistan.
It is erroneous to believe that militancy in Pakistan will end automatically with the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, states an assessment prepared by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP)’s Home and Tribal Affairs Department. The 35-page document is entitled ‘Checkmating Terrorism: A Counter-Terrorism Strategy’.
The government is looking at what Dawn newspaper on July 25 called it as “an official strategy document” prepared by the KP government.
It is a provincial level study, but with implications that are also national and global. How Islamabad views it, or how and whether, it will act upon it is not clear.
Notably, the document has been made public amidst Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s continued military campaign against the TTP in which over 200 militants have died since his government took office.
This is significant in that Sharif had during the poll campaign, and immediately thereafter, promised talks with the militants.
A detailed analysis by Reuters said the same day (July 24, 2013): “Sharif's tougher line signals that Pakistan's powerful military still has the upper hand in policy-making, despite hopes that the government would have a larger say after he came to power in the country's first transition between civilian administrations.”
It is significant also because both Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) of cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan have been sympathetic to the militants and have fanned anti-US sentiment among the people. They have benefitted immensely from the pre-poll violence the militants unleashed against their rival, relatively liberal parties – Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), the Awami National Party (ANP) and Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM).
There are indeed moves to engage the militants. But while the ground for peace moves is being sought to be laid, the mutual distrust and the military campaign have persisted.
The TTP too has continued to raid government offices, including the military establishments, practically daily. The most recent one among them was the local office in Sukkur, Sindh province, of the Pakistan Army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
“The strategy document was prepared after long and hard analysis of the aims, tactics and modus operandi of the militants minutely. We have put forward concrete steps to counter the same. What we need is a whole state machinery response of which law enforcement is just one element. And this cannot happen without KP and Islamabad joining forces,” KP Home Secretary Azam Khan, a senior civil servant who had a major role in preparing the document, has been quoted as saying.
Dawn says the document was prepared last year and submitted in January this year to the previous KP government, which was headed by the ANP that was routed in the May general election.
Apparently shelved by the outgoing government in view of the election, the document has gained currency in recent weeks. There have been several meetings where participants discussed formulation of a counter-terrorism policy. Participants pressed Prime Minister Sharif to take civil-military control of the Afghan policy to pre-empt the fallout of post-US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“I think, there was an agreement,” Khalid Aziz, head of the Regional Institute of Policy Research and Training, who attended one such meeting, said. “Exit (of foreign forces) does not mean the cause of action will disappear (for our militants). There will be a new push for the enlargement of influence in Balochistan, KP and Fata.
“Our miseries begin with the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. The prognosis is bad but this is what it is. This is the writing on the wall,” Dawn quoted him as saying.
Prime Minister Sharif was cautioned against taking the militants’ talk-for-peace offer on face value. Aziz noted that Prime Minister’s Adviser on National Security Sartaj Aziz’s statement in Kabul that Pakistan does not have favourites in Afghanistan was a reflection of the realisation dawning on Islamabad.
Besides Sharif and his government, the way the all-powerful military establishment views the fast-developing Afghan situation is crucial to Pakistan since the latter continues to direct the country’s Afghanistan policy since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The Pakistan Army has been conducting continuous operations in Swat and Waziristan since 2007 and has lost over 3,000 soldiers to the TTP, whose campaign has claimed 40,000 unarmed civilians.
At a background briefing to the media early this year, a senior security official tried to push home the point that the Afghan Taliban “would look towards Kabul” once they became part of the political dispensation, and the Pakistani Taliban “would start looking towards Islamabad, implying that the nexus between the two ideological twins would sever once foreign troops left Afghanistan,” the newspaper said.
But some government officials warn that while Pakistan seems to be preparing itself for a possible civil war and chaos in Afghanistan in the absence of a political settlement in the post-US withdrawal scenario, “there is still no understanding about the likely implications for Pakistan if the Afghan Taliban gain full or partial control in their country”.
“A part of the common discourse on the issue to which a substantial portion of our intelligentsia, political leadership and ‘other stakeholders’ subscribe is that militancy would cease in Pakistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa once foreign troops leave Afghanistan and militants (in Pakistan) would then lay down arms to lead normal lives,” says the 35-page paper.
“This is a fallacy. It will not happen and it is not difficult to understand why,” says the document.
While Pakistan establishment has in the past talked of the need for gaining “strategic depth” vis-a-vis India by having a friendly government in Kabul, the document looks at the issue from the standpoint of the Afghan Taliban and their Pakistani counterpart.
The Afghan Taliban enjoy ‘strategic depth’ in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and the Pakistani militants, because of the ideological, material and coordination linkages with the Afghan Taliban have acquired strategic depth in Afghanistan, the document says. Attacks from across the border by Pakistani militants enjoying shelter there are a case in point, it says.
“Why would the Afghan Taliban provide strategic depth to Pakistan-based militants is not difficult to understand? Ideologically, Taliban do not recognise state boundaries. For them it is Darul Hurb vs. Darul Islam and there are no boundaries within Darul Islam and “fighters in the way of Allah” are to be welcomed.
That the TTP takes its relationship with the Afghan Taliban seriously was evident recently when it sacked its chief spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan for making statements against the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
The document says that the Afghan Taliban would be bound to help Pakistani militants due to numerous ideological, ethnic, religious and financial linkages developed between them for decades and the support that was extended to them both in men and material terms in their struggle against foreign forces’ presence in Afghanistan.
“Wishing the militants away would not make them disappear,” Azam Khan, the principal architect of the strategy document and secretary of Home & Tribal Affairs, has been quoted as saying.
“With the departure of the US troops, the TTP and its multiple partners will pursue their ‘jihad’ with renewed vigour under the banner for setting up a true Islamic Caliphate in Pakistan.”
“There is no on-off switch button. You can’t unplug Pakistani militants from their ideological battle-hardened brethren from across the border,” Azam Khan maintains.
The Pakistani militants, already well-trained and organised with specialised wings for finance, training, operations and justice, would surely replicate the successful tactics of the Afghan Taliban in their struggle against the Pakistani state and the democratic dispensation which they deem un-Islamic, it says.
Without naming any country, but ostensibly meaning immediate neighbours India and Iran, and possibly other stakeholders in Afghanistan, the document warns that “hostile agencies” may exploit the situation. “That the waters have become quite murky thereby enabling foreign intelligence agencies to fish in these troubled waters, compounding the matter further to the peril of the Pakistani state, is a logical manifestation of facts on ground in the areas.”
(Mahendra Ved is a New Delhi-based writer and columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com)