Disclaimer: This article was first published elsewhere and is republished here with recommendation and full permission of the author.
By Mushtaq Rahim
Afghanistan and Pakistan experienced one of the most heinous stretches in their recent past this February. The Afghan Supreme Court was targeted on February 7, leaving 21 people dead including nine women. Then a suicide bombing on February 11 in Laskar Gah, the center of Helmand province, caused death and injuries to over a dozen people. In Pakistan, on the other hand, a suicide bomber attacked senior police officials in front of Punjab Assembly in Lahore during a demonstration on February 13 — 16 people, including three top police officials, lost their lives. The deadliest of all these attacks took place on February 16 in Pakistan’s Sindh province, when Lal Shahbaz Qalander Sufi shrine was targeted in the Sehwan area. That attack killed over 80 and more than twice as many were injured.The last attack, in Sehwan, made the Pakistani military furious. They decided to take radical actions while pointing the finger at Afghanistan as the hideout for the attackers. As a result, the Pakistani government closed border crossings, including the key points of Torkham and Chaman, assuming that this would restrain terror outfits from traveling into Pakistan. Afghan embassy representatives in Islamabad were summoned in an uncharacteristic manner by Pakistani military headquarters, which handed over a list of 76 suspected terrorists believed to be hiding in Afghanistan and demanded action from Kabul. In the meantime, the Pakistan Army started shelling Afghan territory under the pretext of targeting terrorist sanctuaries in the vicinity of the Durand Line, the line separating two countries. The spokesperson of Pakistan’s armed forces also said that General Qamar Javid Bajwa, the chief of army staff, telephoned General John Nicholson, commander the the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, asking him to support a crackdown on the operation of terror outfits from Afghan territory.
Drastic actions by the Pakistani military, such as those listed above, in the wake of terrorist attacks are understandable as the security agencies need to calm the national fury caused by the wave of terror. However, these actions cannot guarantee a permanent solution to the broader challenge facing the region. Short-sighted efforts, mostly centered on playing the blame game, can spark discussions in the media and silence public wrath but cannot eliminate the peril. This has been proven time and again. Similar actions were taken in the wake of Army Public School (APS) attack in Peshawar in December 2014, yet terror continues to prevail in Pakistan. The recent attacks confirm that the post-Peshawar efforts did not turn out to be a permanent solution.
The fight against terrorism requires a broader regional partnership founded on honesty. The Afghan government has been trying to convince Islamabad to join hands with Kabul to fight regional terrorism. President Ashraf Ghani on his trip to Pakistan soon after he took office in 2014 opted to meet General Raheel Sharif, then the chief of army staff of Pakistan, at the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. It was a rather unusual step for a head of a state, with the goal of building a partnership against regional terrorism. Ghani’s visit was a strong and honest gesture by the Afghan government toward building a military alliance with its eastern neighbor to tame terrorism in the region. During that very trip, and later on, a number of bilateral agreements were also signed on fighting terrorism and intelligence sharing.
However, despite all the efforts by the Afghan side, the Taliban and Haqqani Network continue to operate from safe havens present inside Pakistan, infiltrating into Afghanistan from time to time. Mullah Mansour, the Taliban’s supreme leader after Mullah Omar, was killed by a U.S. drone attack in Quetta while he was travelling back from Iran on a Pakistani passport in May 2016. This was another piece of strong evidence of the Taliban using Pakistan as their base for targeting Afghan and international collation forces inside Afghanistan. Sartaj Aziz, advisor to the prime minister of Pakistan on Foreign Affairs, even admitted that Pakistan was housing the Taliban leadership and had some influence over them.
In a scenario where terrorist groups continue to challenge the control of the Afghan government in different parts of the country, it is very possible that some terrorist groups targeting Pakistan will be hiding on Afghan soil. However, due to the difficult terrain and ongoing clashes between the Afghan government and the Taliban, infiltrating from Pakistani soil, it is not possible for Kabul to eliminate such groups and individuals hiding inside Afghanistan.
In order to confront the challenge of terrorism in the AfPak region as well as in broader Asian region, there is a need for far more strategic efforts instead of radical, immature, and ill-planned initiatives built upon haste. Such attempts can only harm relations between Kabul and Islamabad instead of defeating terrorism in the region. Rather, cracks in relations between the two capitals will create a conducive environment for terrorist groups to pursue their strategic objectives in both countries.
An assessment of the current security environment of the region reveals that it is “now or never” for a renewed effort from the two countries. At a time when groups such as the Taliban and Haqqani Network continue to flourish while groups claiming to be aligned with Islamic States (ISIS) are in the process of establishing its foothold in the region, a strong and honest strategic partnership is need of the hour. Particularly, Islamabad will have to dismantle the sanctuaries of militants on its soil to create breathing space for the Afghan government, which can then eradicate terrorist groups targeting Pakistan. The Pakistani security apparatus will have to restrict the Taliban’s operational bases in Quetta, Peshawar, and tribal areas before expecting Kabul to target enemies of Islamabad.
The Afghan government’s goodwill initiated by Ghani’s visit in 2014, should be revisited and the two countries should form an alliance to defeat terrorism. Islamabad will have to try and rebuild the lost trust of Afghan intelligence agencies by acting upon information provided by Kabul. Such confidence-building measures will motivate the Afghan side to at least limit mobility of anti-Pakistan groups until they are able to encircle and eliminate them.
A bolstered and honest strategic partnership between Afghanistan and Pakistan can easily defeat terrorism in the region. A collective effort by the two sides will help both countries thwart terrorism in the AfPak region. Radical but non-strategic efforts, on the other hand, can calm the anger of populations that are faced with the misery of losing loved ones but cannot defeat the menace of terrorism. Also, such actions cannot ensure that attacks like those on the Kabul Supreme Court and the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar Shrine will not take place again. Rather, a lack of regional cooperation in battling terrorists will further embolden them to pursue their strategic objectives. In such a scenario, the winner will be terrorism and the people of the two countries will have to face the consequences.