Discover more from Asia Sentinel
Pakistan's Permanent Terror Problem
Support for the Afghan Taliban comes home to roost
By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
The July 30 terror attack in Pakistan’s mountainous, spectacular Khyber Pakthunkhua area, which killed 56 people and injured nearly 200 is a reminder that Pakistan’s “war on terror” is far from over and that it results from a major failure of the decades-long policy of supporting and investing in the Afghan Taliban. To a very large extent, the key reason is Pakistan’s unchanged policy of not targeting all groups involved in violent politics and accommodating terror groups as a means to establish peace.
The Bajaur attack, and dozens of other attacks that have taken place since August 2021, claiming almost 700 lives in Pakistan, involves three different actors fighting each other. On the one hand, the TTP (and its local allies, such as the JUI-F) and IS-K are fighting a war to establish their ideological/sectarian dominance in the region. Pakistan, on the other hand, is fighting both the TTP and the IS-K to prevent a de facto territorial loss to any one of them. A territorial loss to any of these groups, even symbolically, would seriously undermine Pakistan’s sovereignty and compromise its security beyond those regions. Serious action is, therefore, warranted.
The attack’s sophistication, execution, and scale combine to point to the strong presence of the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) in Pakistan. The attack targeted an Islamist party, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam – Fazlur Rehman (JUI-F), which belongs to the Deobandi sect, a subsect of Sunni Islam – and is also known for its strong ties with the Taliban, both Afghanistan and Pakistan based.
In fact, as a recent Dawn story pointed out, many Bajaur-based JUI-F leaders have deep ties with the Afghan Taliban and the party’s madrassahs are credited with having trained many of the group’s leaders. The JUI-F and the Taliban thus profess a common sect. The IS-L, which represents the Islamic State or Daesh, identifies very closely with Salafism and claims to propagate the “true Islam.” It considers the Taliban and the Deobandi sect heretics and has been competing with the group to establish exclusive control of jihad in the region for the past many years.
More recently, ever since the Taliban’s takeover of power in Kabul, the IS-K has been trying to reverse the Taliban’s gains. Bajaur’s attack, in this context, is an extension of the same war in Pakistan. The question is: how and why has Pakistan become the battlefield?
Ever since the 1980s, Pakistan has been at the center of jihad in Afghanistan. Even though the Musharraf regime declared Pakistan Washington’s ally in the global “war on terror,” leading to the emergence of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Pakistan to oppose Pakistan’s pro-US position in the war, Islamabad never meaningfully changed its policy vis-à-vis the Afghan Taliban. It continued to effectively differentiate between the “good” (Afghan) and “bad” (TTP) Taliban throughout the US campaign.
In 2021, when the “good” Taliban replaced the Ghani administration in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s then Prime Minister Imran Khan hailed them for breaking what he called “chains of slavery.” Keeping faith in the inherent “goodness” of the new Afghanistan regime, former Faiz Hameed, the director general of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence, traveled to Kabul in September 2021, downplaying the threat of terrorism to Pakistan, and stressed that “everything was going to be fine.”
Faiz’s trip was part of Pakistan’s effort to control and contain the TTP, which was, and still is, based in Afghanistan. Pakistan believed that the Taliban regime was bound, according to the terms of the Doha Pact, the Joint Declaration signed by the Trump administration for western withdrawal from Afghanistan, to take action against all terror groups and to not allow any group to use Afghan territory to attack any other country.
But the Taliban never really sought any action against the TTP, a group that Kabul considers its ally. On the contrary, the Afghan Taliban advised Pakistan to make a pact with the TTP. To facilitate the process, Pakistan released hundreds of TTP fighters and entered into a ceasefire. This was in addition to the Afghan Taliban’s earlier release of hundreds of TTP fighters jailed in Afghanistan immediately after bringing Kabul under control. The TTP, as a result, came back to life, allowing its leader Abdul Wali Masood to regroup, reorganize, and relocate to Pakistan, leading him to demand that Pakistan declare former FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) in KPK province as an exclusive TTP territory where it could establish its own mini-Islamic Emirates on the lines of the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan.
While the TTP relocated to FATA, this was not simply a choice imposed on Islamabad by Kabul. Khan alleged that the Pakistani military was on board supporting this overall policy of appeasing the Taliban, although the TTP’s demand for controlling FATA was rejected.
Pakistan’s rejection of TTP’s demand coincided with a visible deterioration in Islamabad’s ties with Kabul, as the Afghan Taliban started opposing Pakistan’s decision to fence its long border with Afghanistan. Subsequent tensions between Kabul and Islamabad – which even led to Pakistani air strikes in Afghanistan in April 2022 – led Kabul to increase its support for the TTP, leading it to not only denounce Pakistan’s demands for action against the TTP but to declare that terrorism was Pakistan’s internal problem, leading Pakistan’s Foreign Minister to threaten military action inside Afghanistan.
That led many in Pakistan’s policy circles to believe that the TTP’s alliance with the Afghan Taliban was part of their overall policy to expand the boundaries of their Islamic Emirates to Pakistan and, thus, consolidate their power at the expense of Pakistan itself.
The TTP’s relocation to FATA and its subsequent search for a mini-Islamic Emirates, however, caused the IS-K to also relocate to Pakistan and contest the Taliban’s struggle for control, consequently making Pakistan the battlefield.
There is little gainsaying that the reason why Pakistan is a battlefield of the violent struggle for power going on between various groups is an outcome of Pakistan’s own flawed approach – an approach that naively differentiates between two Taliban groups which themselves profess to be one (the TTP emerged because of Pakistan’s official position to support the US against the Afghan Taliban). That differentiated policy has kept the Taliban alive in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, keeping the region favorable for other jihadi groups (e.g., IS-K and other anti-China militant groups) to thrive and compete.
For this to change, Pakistan needs to change its policy of differentiating jihadi groups from each other. Islamabad also needs to put pressure on the Afghan Taliban to implement the Doha Pact. For that, Islamabad must actively engage with countries like China and Russia, both of which have an active interest in eliminating all forms of jihad in the region.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is an Assistant Professor of Politics at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). He holds a Ph.D. in Politics and International Studies from SOAS, University of London. He is a longtime regular contributor to Asia Sentinel