How to preempt the second wave of terrorism in Afghanistan
When Afghanistan was under Taliban rule previously, it unleashed a global wave of terror that claimed thousands of innocent lives in the 9/11 attacks and so many tragic incidents before and after. The war on terror dealt a mortal blow to Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups until the US withdrew from Afghanistan a year ago. Now the conflict-wracked country is again in danger of becoming a hotbed of global terrorism.
It is clear from the recent killing of Al-Qaeda chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri in a US drone attack in Kabul that the Taliban regime has never severed its links with Al-Qaeda. It has also continued to shelter other groups with terrorist ambitions in Pakistan, Central Asia and China. The UN estimates that over 10,000 terrorists are currently present in Afghanistan. These facts refute the Taliban’s repeated claims that they do not harbor any terrorist group on Afghan soil.
The Taliban regime also faces no direct threat from the Islamic State Khorasan Province since both have persecuted the Afghan minority and female population. The Daesh affiliate has been responsible for a spate of bombings on soft targets, such as mosques, hospitals and schools, in the past year, with Hazaras and other Afghan minorities among key victims. It has also claimed responsibility for killing Sheikh Rahimullah Haqqani, a prominent Afghan cleric and proponent of female education, in a suicide bombing in Kabul on Thursday.
The Islamic State Khorasan Province is the most potent remnant of Daesh. If allowed to flourish under Taliban rule, it will become a menace to Middle Eastern nations once again. The same goes for Al-Qaeda. Both also share global terrorist ambitions. The former has already crossed the Afghan frontier at least once: In April, its militants reportedly fired a barrage of rockets on a border town in Uzbekistan from their hideouts in Afghanistan’s Balkh province.
Uzbekistan is worried about the resurgence of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which carried out several terror attacks against the state from its bases in Afghanistan under the previous Taliban rule. The Turkistan Islamic Movement likewise struck terror in China’s western province of Xinjiang during that time. Hundreds of extremists belonging to these two groups are present in Afghanistan. They could have resumed terrorist activities had Russia and China not closely collaborated under the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to fight the three evils of separatism, extremism and terrorism.
Initial signs of a possible second wave of global terrorism are quite apparent in Pakistan’s border region with Afghanistan. The Swat Valley is of symbolic value in this regard. When the Afghan Taliban gained prominence through rapid military conquests in 1995, they inspired Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi to revolt in the valley the same year. A decade later, the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan produced Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
The Taliban regime no longer deserves trust after being exposed for its counterterrorism claims.
For several years, the people of Swat and tribal areas paid a heavy price due to terrorist activities by these two organizations. The TTP claimed the lives of more than 70,000 people across the country, including 134 students in the 2014 Army Public School attack. Ultimately, a formidable army operation forced the extremists to take refuge in Afghanistan. According to the UN, TTP militants make up the largest group of foreign terrorists present in Afghanistan, ranging in number from 3,500 to 5,500. Since last October, the Pakistani government has sought the help of the Taliban regime to negotiate peace with the TTP, but to no avail. A ceasefire also remained in force for several months. No longer. The reason is obvious.
A week after Al-Zawahiri’s assassination, TTP commander Omar Khalid Khorasani was killed in a bomb attack in the Paktika province of Afghanistan. Since then, the TTP has resurfaced in various regions of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, including North Waziristan, Dir and the Swat Valley. There are reports of army and police officials being captured by TTP militants, and also of provincial ministers paying extortion money to the group. A member of the provincial assembly was also shot and seriously injured. On Friday, the TTP also reportedly established a check post in the Swat Valley.
The sudden surge in the TTP’s militant activities is understandable. If we connect the dots, two major assassinations in a row — of the Al-Qaeda leader and the TTP commander — have seriously upset the Taliban regime. Its apparent relationship with Pakistan is close, but devoid of trust. The reason lies in Pakistan’s betrayal of the Taliban after 9/11, when it decided to join the US-led war on terror. It is likely that Taliban leaders suspect Pakistan of having a role in Al-Zawahiri’s killing. This creates common cause between the Taliban regime and the TTP to terrorize Pakistan.
Pragmatically speaking, renewed counterterrorism cooperation with the US augurs well for Pakistan. The country is in dire need of a revival of the economic bailout program with the International Monetary Fund. It will also need international support to counter the resurgent TTP, especially if the Taliban regime is also seeking to stoke the fires of regional terrorism once again.
The global and regional stakeholders of peace in Afghanistan will be more than willing to offer such support. The US and its Arab allies in the Gulf would like to crush Al-Qaeda and Daesh in Afghanistan before either terror outfit becomes strong enough to threaten the Middle East again. Russia, China and India would also like to destroy terrorist groups that previously have threatened their peace and are still being nurtured by the Taliban.
To be sure, the Taliban regime no longer deserves trust after being exposed for its counterterrorism claims and for reneging on the promised restoration of rights for women and minorities. Hence, there should be zero tolerance for its dillydallying on both issues. Nevertheless, the world must still engage with Afghanistan, if only for the sake of helping its traumatized people at home and abroad.
How the TTP’s resurgence in Pakistan unfolds in the coming days will further reveal the Taliban’s terrorist face. Last time around, Pakistan’s border regions were the first to suffer before terrorism unleashed by a Taliban-led Afghanistan caused mayhem in the rest of the world. Preempting this rising danger in Afghanistan and Pakistan is the right step to take, before it is too late.
• 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.