For the people of Pakistan's restive Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, the year 2015 ended just like the past one had: on a bloody note. On Dec. 29, a bomb explosion targeting a government office killed at least 26 in Mardan, some 30 miles northwest of the provincial capital Peshawar. The breakaway Jamaat-ul-Ahrar faction of the jihadist terror group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan 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 infographics 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 jihadist terror is not over by any means. Pakistan's army Zarb-e-Azb operation, now into its 19th month, does, however, seem to have disrupted the TTP's command and control structure and its ability to launch cohesive attacks inside Pakistan at large.
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, continued relentlessly. The Pakistani army has boasted of eliminating 3,400 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 eyewitness 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.
For the people of Pakistan's restive Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, the year 2015 ended just like the past one had: on a bloody note.
The upsurge in the jihadist violence in Afghanistan and transient fall of the provincial capital Kunduz, and the attacks on the U.S. troops in Helmand and on the Indian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif 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 Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said at the Heart of Asia Conference 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 self-proclaimed Islamic State as an exclusively Afghan phenomenon, there have been reports that many TTP leaders and cadres from Pakistan have joined this ISIS affiliate, which is now operating in the region straddling the Durand Line. The rebranding of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban as ISIS 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. There is evidence that Pakistanis from the country's Punjab heartland are also joining ISIS ranks.
The anti-Soviet mujahideen of the 1980s morphing into Taliban and Al Qaeda in the 1990s and now mutating into the virulent ISIS 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.
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 U.S. 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 U.S. and China do add a layer of accountability and transparency, but it is neither unprecedented in Pak-Afghan relations nor foolproof, unless the two world powers opt to make their presence felt meaningfully. The U.S. 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 article II of that agreement. Going into the peace talks, Pakistan continues to provide sanctuary to the current emir or leader of the 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 recently to hash out the details of the starting of 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 [the] centrality of the Afghan elected government and constitution" and is able to "differentiate between the reconcilable and irreconcilable ones [Taliban]" and to act against those against peace by "all available means." And therein 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 currently meets the eye. The general Afghan expectation is that there has to be a pronouncement of cease-fire by the Taliban and no new assaults come Nowruz, the Persian New Year, which sadly has marked the start of the Taliban offensives for the past decade and a half. The Afghan red line, and deadline, thus is an end to the Taliban hostilities before Mar. 21. Pakistan's wager, however, still seems to be that the Taliban would gain enough ground militarily, such as in Helmand, for them to be presented as a fait accompli to Kabul.
Ashraf Ghani's government has bet on Pakistan two years in a row now; it would have almost no political wiggle room at home if Pakistan reneges on its pledges yet again. The ex-spokesperson for the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, 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 U.S. was Washington's lack of clarity towards Pakistan. Now President Ghani has seemingly joined the U.S. in this regard." The lack of clarity in the U.S. stance that the former Afghan official is alluding to is that the U.S. has not done enough to prevent Pakistan from continuing to harbor the Taliban and the Haqqani network, which attacks and kills not just Afghans but American and NATO troops as well.
The U.S. certainly has a bigger role to play in the upcoming quadrilateral talks 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 U.S. in the quadrilateral talks. Is the U.S. 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 U.S. is unlikely to change tack, and President Barack 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.
The U.S. 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.
More importantly, the U.S. has to stop pointing to a calendar for its withdrawal dates. The Taliban and their backers love nothing more than waiting the U.S. and its allies out in Afghanistan. President Ashraf Ghani and his team, however, have the responsibility of making their case in Washington. Let's face it, the Afghans have no military or militant leverage over Pakistan, and even if they did, it would be a patently horrible idea to exercise it. With the specter of ISIS rising, the last thing a U.S. 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's army may have been willing to let the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visit his counterpart in Lahore, but it 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 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 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.
It appears that Pakistan may already be cognizant of the fallout from Pathankot and going into damage control mode. The umbrella group of Kashmiri jihadist groups, United Jihad Council, which is led by Pakistan-based Syed Salahuddin, has claimed responsibility for the Pathankot attack, shielding Pakistan to an extent. The attackers of the Indian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif reportedly left a note, quite curiously in Urdu script, on a wall calling their action a revenge attack for India hanging a Kashmiri terrorist, Afzal Guru, in 2013. Two Indian consulates have been attacked in Afghanistan since Guru's hanging, but no one claimed it as retribution for his hanging. The Indian ambassador to Afghanistan, His Excellency Mr. Amar Sinha, told me that the wall-chalking "was red herring to divert attention from the real culprits as one saw in the case of Pathankot."
The Indian media and analysts hold the Pakistan-based jihadist group Jaish-e-Mohammed responsible for the attack, 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 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 Muzaffarabad 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.
While pledging peace with India, the Pakistani political leadership cannot do much without the blessings of the country's powerful army. There is a possibility that under the international, especially the U.S., pressure, some form of legal proceedings could be initiated against Syed Salahuddin and/or Maulana Masood Azhar, but I don't hold my breath for any convictions or extradition. After all, the LeT's Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi has been in and out of prison in Pakistan since allegedly masterminding the 2008 Mumbai massacre. The U.S.-based scholar Arif Jamal notes in his book on the LeT that Lakhvi even sired a son while in prison. In contrast, Aqeel alias Dr. Usman who attacked the Pakistani GHQ was hanged and his hanging video leaked by, likely Pakistani authorities, while Lakhvi has been afforded a never-ending due process. This time around the Pakistani civilian leadership is pledging to cooperate with India and act on the leads provided by them to apprehend the Indian air base attackers.
Whether a Pathankot attacker or planner is tried and punished by a Pakistani court in a timely manner would be the test of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's capacity to deliver the Indo-Pak peace. Sharif's intentions for peace have never been moot, but his ability to deliver on the pledges is sketchy at best. 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 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.
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