Twixt cup and the lip in South Asia

For the people of Pakistan’s restive Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa province the year 2015 ended just like the past one had: on a bloody note. On December 29 a bomb explosion targeting a government office killed 26 in Mardan some 40 miles northwest of the provincial capital Peshawar. The breakaway Jamat-ul-Ahrar faction of the jihadist terror group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has claimed responsibility for the attack. Separately the TTP bragged about the attacks it carried out in 2015 in a year-end report, along with charts and info-graphics, posted to its website. Regardless of which faction of the Pakistani Taliban claimed what attacks it is clear that for Pakistan’s Pashtun heartland the war against the jihadist terror is not over by any means. Pakistan army’s Zarb-e-Azb operations, now into its nineteenth month, does seem to have disrupted the TTP’s command and control structure and its ability to launch cohesive attacks inside Pakistan at large though.


The TTP and its splinter groups might not have been able to hit a high-profile government or military target throughout the past year but they certainly focused on the soft civilian targets, especially the beleaguered Shia sect, indicating that its cadres remain intact and lethal. Along with the bombing campaign, the low intensity but systemic targeted killings of the Shias and those belonging to the secular political outfits such as the Awami National Party (ANP), continued relentlessly. The Pakistan army has boasted of eliminating 3400 terrorists - a curiously precise number- during its Zarb-e-Azb campaign. There is no independent confirmation of these figures, however, as the media is not allowed into the area of the operation, raising a flag about not just the bloated numbers of the terrorists eliminated but the whereabouts of those who might have escaped before and during the military operation. One is hard-pressed to find a single eye-witness account, even from the journalists who were taken on military-escorted tours of areas such as North Waziristan, where the thrust of the operation has been, confirming the rather tall claims by the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR).


The upsurge in the jihadist violence in Afghanistan and the transient fall of a provincial capital Kunduz, just as the TTP activities ebbed in Pakistan raises a concern that some, if not most, of these jihadists have been off-loaded onto the east of the Durand Line as the Afghan President Dr. Ashraf Ghani said at the Heart of Asia Conference (HAC) on Afghanistan’s future, which he jointly hosted with Pakistan, in Islamabad last month. Contrary to the Pakistani leadership framing the Wilayah Khurasan wing of the Islamic State as an exclusively Afghan phenomenon, there have been clear reports that many TTP leaders and cadres from Pakistan have joined this IS affiliate, which is now operating in the region straddling the Durand Line. The rebranding of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban as IS indicates that while this jihadist franchise is of Middle Eastern origin it is recruiting locally and allows considerable operational autonomy to such affiliates. More importantly, the jihadist milieu in which such recruitment takes place still seems preserved, the operations a la Zarb-e-Azb notwithstanding. The anti-Soviet Mujahideen of the 1980s morphing into Taliban and al-Qaeda in the 1990s and now mutating into the virulent IS becomes possible when there is a continued demand for their lethal product. Pakistan’s consistent use of jihadism as a tool of statecraft and foreign policy over the past four decades has created a jihadist ecosystem which would require much more than tactical measures like the military operations it has undertaken so far. It remains to be seen whether Pakistan is willing to divest itself of its Afghan Taliban protégés and, if so, to what extent.


Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed at the Heart of Asia summit to resume the peace process leading to negotiations with the Afghan Taliban. While the US and Chinese representatives were also present at the last round of talks with the Taliban, when the news of Mullah Omar’s death disrupted the exercise, the process is being formally dubbed quadrilateral this time around. International guarantees like US and China do add a layer of accountability and transparency but it is neither unprecedented in the Pak-Afghan relations nor foolproof, unless the two world powers opt to make their presence felt meaningfully. The US and the erstwhile Soviet Union were the formal guarantors of the 1988 Geneva Accords between Pakistan and Afghanistan but were neither able nor willing to enforce the non-interference obligation enshrined in the article II of that agreement. Going into the peace talks, Pakistan continues to provide sanctuary to the current emir (leader) of Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, as it did to his predecessor Mullah Omar and the Mujahideen leadership before him. Mansoor was reportedly injured in a gunfight with a rival last month in the Kuchlak suburb of the Pakistani city Quetta suggesting that despite all the fanfare to the contrary, Pakistan still harbors the most vicious of the Taliban elements.


It is no surprise then that the Pakistan army chief General Raheel Sharif was not only acting virtually as the foreign minister of the Afghan Taliban but was rightly seen as their emissary by many Afghan political leaders when he arrived in Kabul last week to hash out the details of the starting the negotiations. On the other hand, a senior Afghan government official told me that they are optimistic about resuming the peace process and that Pakistan for the first time has “recognized centrality of the Afghan elected government and constitution” and to “differentiate between the reconcilable and irreconcilable ones (Taliban)” and to act against those against peace by “all available means”. And their in lies the rub: scaling back from harboring the Taliban leadership near a provincial capital to actually acting against the ones unwilling to come to the negotiations table would require a considerably larger Pakistani effort than meets the eye currently. The general Afghan expectation is that there has to be a pronouncement of ceasefire by the Taliban and no new assaults come Nowruz, the Afghan New Year, which sadly has marked the start of the Taliban offensives for the past decade and a half. The Afghan redline, and deadline, thus is an end to the Taliban hostilities before March 21st.


Dr. Ashraf Ghani’s government has bet on Pakistan two years in a row now; it would have almost no political wiggle room at home f Pakistan reneges on its pledges yet again. The ex-spokesperson for the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Mr. Aimal Faizi told me that “the problem is certainly not with engaging Pakistan. As two neighbors, Kabul and Islamabad should be engaged in inter-states relations and affairs. But the problem is the lack of clarity in President Ghani's stance towards Pakistan and the confusing signals he is giving to the people of Afghanistan.  For a decade, the core problem in relations between Afghanistan and the US was Washington's lack of clarity towards Pakistan. Now President has seemingly joined the US in this regard”. The lack of clarity in the US stance that the former Afghan official is alluding to is that the US has not done enough to prevent Pakistan from continuing to harbor the Taliban and Haqqani network, which attacks and kills not just Afghans but the the US and Nato troops as well.


The US certainly has a bigger role to play in the upcoming quadrilateral talks to play than it is willing to acknowledge. It can continue to look the other way while the assorted jihadists infiltrate from Pakistan into Afghanistan or it can put its foot down and curtail if not end a hostile neighbor continuing to fuel the pyres in Afghanistan. China has economic stakes in Afghanistan but much bigger ones in Pakistan and a security alignment with that country. With Pakistan having obliged China by consistently acting against the China-oriented Uighur terrorist groups, the security question is not necessarily part of the equation for China, leaving the heavy lifting to the US in the quadrilateral talks. Is the US willing to undertake the responsibility for holding Pakistan’s feet to a diplomatic and, in worst case scenario, a sanctions fire? The answer is, at present, no. In an election year the US is unlikely to change tack and President Barrack Obama will quite likely bequeath the Afghan imbroglio to his successor. What Mr. Obama could do is to remove the caps on troops strength as his top commander in Afghanistan General John Campbell is expected to request.


More importantly, the US has to stop pointing to calendar for its withdrawal dates. The Taliban and their backers love nothing more than waiting the US and its allies out in Afghanistan. President Ashraf Ghani and his team, however, has the responsibility of making their case in Washington, D.C. Let’s face it, the Afghans have no military or militant leverage over Pakistan and even if they did, it would be patently horrible idea to exercise it. With the specter of the IS rising the last thing a US president would want to do is replicate in Afghanistan the mistakes committed in Iraq. Afghan leadership should not feel coy about having allies like India that are willing to build the parliament in Kabul and support the democratic process. Pakistan is unlikely to change its negative perception of the Indian support to Afghanistan no matter what Kabul does to assuage that as it is anchored in Islamabad’s perennial desire to seek parity with India. Pakistan army may have been willing to let the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visit his counterpart in Lahore last week but has remained stubbornly averse to dismantling the India-oriented Pakistani jihadists, whom it seems to consider as force-multiplying assets against the larger eastern neighbor.


The terrorist assault on the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot this past Friday indicates that the jihadist groups still retain both the will and capability to hit India without sanction from the Pakistani state. It may be too early to say who authorized the Pathankot attack but it clearly benefits those who risk going out of business if the peace process between India and Pakistan, jumpstarted by PM Modi’s visit to Nawaz Sharif’s ranch, goes through. Pakistan is the only country that the anti-India terrorist groups have historically operated out of and it would be hard for the Indians not to point a finger of blame in that direction. Keeping the attack focused and its intensity rather low, unlike the 2008 Mumbai massacre serves two purposes: it throws a spanner in the peace process and does not provoke India into a retaliatory strike, which it had pledged, and perhaps prepared for, since the Mumbai attack.


The Indian media and analysts are blaming the Pakistan-based jihadist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), while the Pakistanis are responding by saying that actions of individuals or even non-state groups do not amount to state-sponsored terrorism. The problem is that groups like JeM and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) have remained under the Pakistan army’s wing for so long that the plausible deniability being invoked in that country seems abysmally farcical. The JeM leader Masood Azhar has been operating out of Bhawalpur, Pakistan to as far as Muzafarrabad in the Pakistan-held Kashmir, without any fear of prosecution or arrest throughout General Raheel Sharif’s stint despite the latter’s declaration that he’d vanquish terrorism in the year 2016. Chances are slim to none that Pakistan’s powerful military will allow normalization of relations with India for it perceives such normalization as a recipe for forgetting the Kashmir problem, which to it is the core issue and “the unfinished agenda of Partition”. Whether or not Kashmir is a core issue to Pakistanis at large it certainly is the army’s trope to justify its existence and appropriation of the lion’s share of country’s resources.


The onus is on Pakistan to prove that it is part of the solution in Afghanistan not the cause of the problem there and not a constant pain in the India side. But in South Asia there is many a slip betwixt cup and and the lip. It remains to be seen whether Pakistan will correct its course or continue to back those who attack the Afghan parliament and Indian military and civilian installations.