Features | Security | South Asia

Balochistan’s Role in the Afghanistan Quagmire

How the Pakistani province became embroiled in the Afghan conflict.

Muhammad Akbar Notezai
Balochistan’s Role in the Afghanistan Quagmire

Investigators examine the site of a bombing in Quetta, Pakistan, May 13, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Arshad Butt

Once again, Balochistan is in the news for the wrong reasons. The brother of Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada was reportedly killed along with three other worshipers in a bomb blast at a mosque in Kuchlak, on the outskirts of Balochistan’s provincial capital, Quetta. According to some rumors, Akhundzada himself was the target, but he had not come to the mosque for Friday prayers. Instead, his brother had gone to say Friday prayers, and was killed.

Pakistani officials refuted reports of Akhundzada’s brother’s death in the mosque attack.

Notably, Akhundzada was promoted the new emir of the Afghan Taliban following the killing of the former Afghan Taliban emir, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in a drone attack. Mansour was travelling to Balochistan province from Iran, with a Pakistani passport, when a U.S. drone strike killed him.

Following the death of Mullah Mansour, Akhundzada went into hiding. As per media reports, he had led prayers for years in the very mosque attacked recently.

The mosque attack occurred just days after the eighth round of negotiations was held between the Taliban and U.S. officials in Doha, Qatar. The two sides are reportedly closer to a peace deal than at any point in the 18 years since the United States invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime.

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Following the U.S. invasion, Afghan Taliban leaders have allegedly found refuge in the places bordering Afghanistan – including Pakistan’s Balochistan province. U.S. officials have accused Islamabad of providing safe sanctuaries to the Afghan Taliban from day one, a charge Pakistan vehemently denies. Pakistan’s army has been battling against Taliban militant groups for the last several years.

Balochistan’s northern area not only borders Afghanistan but also Pakistan’s former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), now merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Over the years, the northern areas of Balochistan have been disturbed by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants, who found refuge there following Pakistani military operations in the former FATA. These militants have also targeted law enforcement and state installations in northern Balochistan.

As for the Afghan Taliban, they have poured in into northern Balochistan for an obvious reason: Pashtuns live on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and they are bound and linked by marriages and familial relationships.

Unlike the former FATA, Taliban leaders – whether Afghan Taliban or TTP — were not afraid of being hit by drones in Balochistan. They lived without fear until Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a drone attack. Since then, the Taliban leaders do not consider themselves safe anywhere in Pakistan.

The United States is aware of the fact that Pakistan, if not in control of the militant group, has enough influence over the Afghan Taliban to push them ti negotiate with U.S. officials for Afghanistan’s future. In recent years, the Taliban have increased their attacks in Afghanistan, and there are reports of the Afghan Taliban gaining ground in Afghanistan. The attacks carried out by the Afghan Taliban have exhausted both the U.S. and Afghan forces; now Washington is ready to withdraw. The Afghan Taliban has consolidated its position, to the extent of compelling the United States to talk to them on their own terms and conditions.

Since taking office, U.S. President Donald Trump has spent considerable rhetoric on bashing Pakistan. In so doing, he aimed to scapegoat Pakistan for U.S. failures in Afghanistan. But the more Trump pressed Pakistan, the more Islamabad slipped into China’s camp. Eventually the United States realized it could not reach a deal in Afghanistan without the help of Pakistan. This was one of the reasons Trump welcomed Pakistani President Imran Khan in Washington, D.C. earlier this summer. During the meeting, Trump’s tone had noticeably softened.

There has always been a strong American perception that Pakistan is harboring the Afghan Taliban. Due to this, U.S. officials and analysts hold Pakistan responsible for the long drawn-out war in Afghanistan. On the other hand, Pakistan has officially denied harboring the Afghan Taliban. According to Pakistani officials, peace and prosperity in Afghanistan is in the best interest of Pakistan itself. So why would Islamabad oppose peace in Afghanistan, which is interlinked to Pakistani interests?

In a word: India. Pakistani officials are concerned about the growing Indian presence in Afghanistan since 2001. Again, there is a strong connection to Balochistan. The accusations of cross-border terrorism cut both ways. Pakistan accuses India of disturbing Balochistan province by using Afghan soil to nurture Baloch militants. In Islamabad’s thinking, the greater the Indian role in Afghanistan, the greater the consequences Pakistan will have to face in Balochistan.

These complex geopolitical trends were at play in the recent mosque attack. A splinter group of the Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombing in Kuchlak. Following the killing of Mullah Mansour, some differences emerged in the Taliban rank and file over the appointment of the new emir. Nevertheless, some Pakistani officials believe that Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) is targeting the Afghan Taliban leaders for the purpose of derailing the Afghan peace talks.

As evidence, they point out that the mosque attack was not an isolated incident. After the Kuchlak incident, unknown assailants shot and killed a prayer leader in Girdi Jungle, an Afghan refugee camp, in Chaghi district of Balochistan. Chaghi district also shares a border with Afghanistan. It was also reported that one more prayer leader was killed in the same area. In other words, in a short span of time, three similar incidents took place in Balochistan. That doesn’t augur well for the future of the Afghan peace talks.

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To ensure a peaceful political settlement in Afghanistan, all stakeholders need to sit together around a negotiating table. Although it is bitter a truth, Afghanistan cannot be peaceful and prosperous without taking on board the Afghan Taliban. This is what the United States has now realized, too.

More than others, Afghan themselves want a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan. They have suffered war after war for decades, bringing countless miseries. Under these circumstances, Afghans need to sit together for peace in their country. The international and regional powers will keep viewing Afghanistan through their own national and security interests – which is why Afghanistan is burning to this day.

Muhammad Akbar Notezai works with the Pakistan daily Dawn.