The endless threat of terrorism in Afghanistan
Afghanistan might not be at war currently but its notoriety as a hub for terrorism against ethno-religious minorities and neighboring countries is gaining traction again under the Taliban.
The specter of cross-border terrorism originating from Afghan soil haunts Pakistan in particular, fueling its worst fears of the chickens coming home to roost once again.
After the Taliban defeated the US-led coalition and returned to power last summer, Afghanistan had a glimpse of a possible fragile peace for the first time in more than 40 years: The Taliban regime did not face any potent political rival, nor did the so-called Islamic State of Khorasan Province pose any formidable danger. The key challenge was economic in nature, as the US refused to unfreeze Afghan funds worth about $10 billion. This money was desperately needed to tackle the unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the country.
Fortunately, the UN intervened on behalf of the suffering Afghan population as this crisis worsened during the winter. Consequently, international aid and relief agencies were able to tackle the country’s socioeconomic woes to some extent. Afghanistan’s neighbors, particularly Pakistan and the Central Asian republics, also helped in this process. Islamabad even organized a special session of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s Council of Foreign Ministers in December to secure humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan.
Of course, the primary cost of the successive rounds of war in Afghanistan since 1979 has been borne by its people. They have been killed, uprooted from their homes or forced to seek refuge across the world.
But neighboring countries have also paid a huge price, as terrorism rooted in the persistent Afghan conflicts undermined their peace and security. The human cost for Pakistan alone was more than 70,000 deaths at the hands of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan during the war on terror.
The end of the war therefore brought a collective sigh of relief from the Afghan people and their neighbors. Before and after taking over Kabul, the Taliban promised to grant Afghan women and minorities their due fundamental rights and deny terrorist organizations a safe haven. It was rightfully expected that the Taliban regime would deliver on these promises. Instead, they have chosen to replicate their previous era of regression.
This betrayal has cost Afghan minorities dearly. Facing double jeopardy, the Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks and other non-Pashtun communities are not only denied any presence in governance but also left to face the brunt of Daesh terrorism alone. Their mosques, madrasas, schools and hospitals have come under attack, with the intensity growing in recent weeks. In April alone, about 100 innocent people of Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek descent, half of them children, were killed in terrorist attacks in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz.
In neighboring countries, the situation is equally bleak. Twice since December, Taliban soldiers have fought with Iranian border security guards. Militant incursions have been reported across the border with Turkmenistan.
A serious rift has also developed between the Taliban regime and Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over the return of Afghan planes and helicopters that flew out of the country during the Taliban onslaught on Kabul last year. The Central Asian republics face the prospect of a revived security threat from terrorist outfits with bases inside northern Afghanistan, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
The Islamic State of Khorasan Province poses additional danger. This month, it claimed responsibility for launching a barrage of rocket attacks on an Uzbek border town from its hideout in Balkh province.
Though Russia is distracted by the war in Ukraine, the Chechen conflict taught Moscow that the threat of extremism in Afghanistan does not take too long to morph into terrorist violence in the Caucasus.
Unless sanity prevails, Afghanistan and Pakistan are set to face more trouble.
China, meanwhile, fears the spread of militancy by the East Turkmenistan Movement along the Wakhan corridor into Xinjiang province. Concerned about impending instability under Taliban rule, Beijing is also keeping tabs on Afghan mining and energy projects.
Pakistan faces the worst of circumstances. It has lobbied for the diplomatic recognition of the Taliban regime and humanitarian relief for the Afghan people. Yet its repeated requests to the Taliban to nudge Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s terrorist hideouts inside Afghanistan have fallen on deaf ears. The growing mistrust between the erstwhile allies was clear when the Afghan delegation failed to turn up for the OIC Council of First Ministers’ annual meeting in Islamabad last month.
The Taliban’s unwillingness to go after the TTP confirms Pakistan’s worst fears. After the tragic attack in 2014 on the Army Public School in Peshawar, the army crushed the organization, forcing it to seek refuge inside Afghanistan. The US withdrawal last year allowed its estimated 10,000 militants to regroup and wage cross-border attacks against Pakistan, in which hundreds of civilians and more than 100 military personnel have died.
Pakistan’s patience ran out when seven soldiers were killed in an attack on April 14. Two days later, its air force carried out sorties on suspected militant sites in the eastern provinces of Kunar and Khost, causing 47 casualties. Since then, with the Taliban warning Pakistan of “bad consequences,” more TTP attacks have taken place.
In a sense though, Pakistan is reaping the whirlwind of its own flawed approach of “good Taliban versus bad Taliban.” The Afghan Taliban were considered good, for serving the cause of jihad in Afghanistan. The TTP was considered bad, for carrying out terrorist attacks in Pakistan. Overlooking the ideological affinity between the two fanatical militias was a strategic blunder, which is now apparent in the Taliban’s unwillingness to act against the TTP.
The Taliban regime has also fueled Pakistan’s insecurity by attempting to undermine its costly fencing of the Durand Line, the colonial-era porous border. On this issue, the predominantly Pashtun Taliban have — like previous Afghan rulers — resorted to Pashtun irredentism, justifying the cross-border movement of Pashtun tribes.
Unless sanity prevails, Afghanistan and Pakistan are set to face more trouble. Other neighboring nations might also be feeling uneasy. This is bad news for others with a stake in peace in Afghanistan, including China and Russia.
The mess the US and its Western allies left behind in Afghanistan might also cause more mayhem for its hapless people. Only proactive engagement by the UN in Afghan affairs can heal their wounds.
The Taliban regime has clearly flouted the international will by refusing to follow up on its commitments relating to the prevention of terrorism and the protection of human rights. A carrot-and-stick approach is needed to persuade, or coerce, the Taliban into meaningful action on these issues. Disengagement is not an option.
The good news is that China, Pakistan, Russia, Turkmenistan and Iran have granted limited accreditation to Taliban diplomats, while the Central Asian republics continue to meet Afghan energy needs.
Moreover, as a force for regional stability, China continues to maintain a level of trust with the Taliban leadership. It brought the Taliban together with neighboring countries and Russia by hosting a meeting of their foreign minister last month. Beijing’s leadership can surely make a big difference in limiting the scope of the Afghan conflict that is reemerging under the Taliban’s nose. If left unaddressed, its implications will reach far and wide.
- Ishtiaq Ahmad is a former journalist who has been vice chancellor of Sargodha University in Pakistan and Quaid-e-Azam Fellow at the University of Oxford.