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Pakistan’s New Afghan Policy: Another Disaster in the Making?

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Pakistan’s New Afghan Policy: Another Disaster in the Making?

Angry with the Taliban regime for not helping it against the TTP, the Pakistani government is lashing out at Afghan refugees.

Pakistan’s New Afghan Policy: Another Disaster in the Making?

Afghan children onboard a truck wait for their registration at a UNHCR voluntary repatriation center for returning to their homeland, in Peshawar, Pakistan, Monday, Oct. 30, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Muhammad Sajjad

In an unprecedented, but unsurprising, policy shift, Pakistan has decided to take a tough line on the Taliban’s de facto regime. It will not be supporting its case at the international level or extend any other assistance. This was decided following the Taliban’s persistent refusal to rein in Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)’s growing attacks in Pakistan from its sanctuaries in Afghanistan.

On October 8, Pakistan’s Caretaker Prime Minister Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar accused the Taliban of sheltering and facilitating the TTP in a strongly worded presser. Kakar maintained that “since the Taliban’s return to power, “terrorism in Pakistan has surged by 60 percent and suicide attacks by 500 percent, killing over 2,300 people.” Furthermore, he claimed that of the 24 suicide bombings witnessed in Pakistan in 2023, 15 were carried out by Afghans.

The announcement has come on the heels of Pakistan’s decision to expel around 1.7 million “illegal Afghan refugees” in October. Since then, approximately 375,000 Afghans have left Pakistan amid chaos and harsh Himalayan winters to an uncertain future. Even those possessing legal documents, such as the Proof of Registration cards, are being deported.

Most of the Afghans expelled from Pakistan are those who left Kabul to escape the Taliban’s harsh rule. Despite being victims of conflicts, proxy wars, and terrorism, the hapless Afghan refugees find themselves in the crosshairs of the growing Taliban-Pakistan tensions. They have been slapped with unsubstantiated accusations of facilitating terrorism, the illegal drug trade, and smuggling in Pakistan.

It bears mentioning that the Taliban have decried Islamabad’s forced deportation policy as unjust and inhumane. Rejecting Pakistani allegations of supporting TTP, Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid maintained that Kabul “is not responsible for maintaining peace in Pakistan and (Islamabad) should address its domestic security problems instead of blaming Afghanistan.”

If Pakistan’s Afghan policy, based on the hope of securing the Taliban’s support against TTP for helping it return to power in Afghanistan, was a strategic blunder, the new policy consumed in anger is an even bigger disaster. As hope is not a strategy, anger cannot be a policy.

On one hand, the unilateral decision to eject the Afghan refugees will erode the little diplomatic goodwill left for Pakistan in Kabul. On the other, it will further alienate the already hostile anti-Pakistan public opinion in Afghanistan. More importantly, it is counterproductive, instead of curbing TTP’s attacks, it will add to the existing levels of violence in Pakistan. A new generation of Afghans will hate Pakistan for pushing their country under the Taliban’s harsh rule and then throwing them under the bus for its strategic myopia of expecting the Taliban’s cooperation against TTP.

Following the Taliban’s return to power and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, Pakistan’s then Prime Minister Imran Khan wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that “Afghans have broken the chain of slavery.” Likewise, while responding to a media query, in Serena Hotel, Pakistan’s former spy chief Lt.-Gen. (Retired) Faiz Hameed, who flew to Kabul a few days after the Taliban’s takeover, remarked, “Don’t worry, everything will be okay.”

However, more than two years later, the initial euphoria and jubilation have evaporated as violence surges across Pakistan. The near-daily killings of Pakistani security personnel in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions have resulted in unprecedented pressure on the top military leadership to do something.

The Taliban’s lack of cooperation, Pakistan’s domestic political turmoil and the slow-performing economy have left the Pakistani establishment between a rock and a hard place. It does not have the political and financial bandwidth to launch a large-scale military operation in the country. At the same time, pushing the war inside Afghanistan, against TTP’s sanctuaries, will be seen as an assault on the Afghan sovereignty by the Taliban regime. Hence, to generate the impression that Pakistan is doing something to improve the deteriorating security situation, the anger has been taken out on the Afghan refugees to increase political and economic pressure on the Taliban to halt support to the TTP.

Ironically, Pakistan supported the Taliban by providing them sanctuaries and assistance after the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan in October 2001. The objective was three-fold: i) have a friendly regime in Kabul, ii) curtail Indian influence in Afghanistan, and iii) rein in anti-Pakistan militant and insurgent networks in Afghanistan.

In its oversimplistic thinking, Pakistan not only undermined the Taliban’s agency of acting independently, but their deep-seated ideological, ethnic, historical, and geographical linkages with TTP as well. Soon after the Taliban returned to power, the exact opposite of what Pakistan expected happened.

TTP and the Baloch insurgents’ attacks in Pakistan’s northwestern and southwestern peripheries surged. The Taliban’s takeover had a rejuvenating impact on TTP. Thousands of jihadists freed from the Bagram and Pul-e-Charkhi prisons and more than 40 jihadist factions which have joined TTP since July 2020 swelled its ranks. Currently, the group boosts of 4,000-6,000 fighters in its ranks. Several of Pakistan’s serving and retired diplomats and security officials were under the impression that if push came to shove, the Taliban would choose Pakistan over TTP given the former’s geographical, political and economic leverages on Afghanistan. However, such unfounded assumptions have backfired.

For two years, the Taliban regime did not dismiss Pakistan’s security demands and to allay its fear it brokered two short-lived ceasefire agreements with TTP in November 2021 and June-September 2022, respectively. However, the peace deals proved to be counterproductive as they allowed TTP more time and space to reconsolidate its network. The myopic policy of allowing some TTP elements to secretly return to their native areas on conditions of living peacefully proved to a fatal error.

In subsequent months, the repatriated TTP elements proved instrumental in resurrecting TTP’s footprint inside Pakistan. As soon as these militants trickled back into different parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the local populations came out to protest, warning the state against such a misadventure. Later, in December 2022, the National Counter Terrorism Authority, Pakistan’s central counterterrorism agency, informed the Senate that peace talks emboldened TTP, and the group used the negotiations to swell its ranks.

Had Pakistan’s strategic thinkers learnt any lessons from history, they should have known that the Taliban’s founder Mullah Muhammad Omar defied the U.S. pressure and sacrificed his government instead of giving up al-Qaida leader and mastermind of the September 2001 attacks, Osama bin Laden.

TTP is the Taliban’s ideological extension in Pakistan and seeks to create a mirror image of its self-styled Islamic Emirate in the country. Furthermore, TTP’s strongholds in the ex-FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) region, now merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, provide the Taliban regime a buffer against Pakistan. Moreover, TTP is the Taliban’s partner-in-crime to strengthen the de-facto regime’s irredentist claims that Pakistan’s Pashtun majority areas up to Attock district belong to Afghanistan.

The Taliban consider the Durand Line a British colonial imposition, which has divided the Pashtun community living on both sides of the border.  TTP pledges its oath of allegiance to the Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. At this juncture, the Taliban are extremely cautious about their organizational coherence and ideological legitimacy. Hence, any move on the Taliban’s part to expel TTP from Afghanistan would expose and widen the movement’s internal cracks between ideological hardliners and political pragmatists. Furthermore, any action against TTP would trigger a mass exodus of its fighter to the Islamic State of Khorasan, the Taliban’s ideological arch-foe. Evidently, Pakistan failed to anticipate the long-term consequences of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan for its internal security as well as the depth and breadth of the Taliban-TTP ties.

For two decades, Pakistan supported the Taliban against the international community’s will and to the detriment of its reputation and internal security. Though many foreign governments urged Pakistan to indiscriminately fight religious extremists, the country maintained an imaginary bifurcation of the good and the bad Taliban. In fact, Islamabad encouraged the international community to engage with the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan through a politically negotiated settlement. Two decades later, when the international community is finding ways to engage with the Taliban, Pakistan has decided to scuttle the ties and go on another tangent.

Pakistan’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan Asif Durrani’s recent statement “peace in Afghanistan has become a nightmare for Pakistan” sums up the failure of two-decades of investment in the Taliban. Policies are made on rationality and logic, not on assumptions or anger. As Islamabad is rethinking its ties with the Taliban, it is high time it abandons the use of religion to further its regional interests and creates a holistic counterterrorism framework that targets the extremist groups instead of venting out its frustration on hapless Afghan refugees.