he war against terrorism is shifting in a subtle way from the south to the north of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. After Bajaur, Chitral has become the main target of the militants.
On September 6, a major effort by Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants to infiltrate into Chitral’s Bamburit area was thwarted by the security agencies. A dozen militants were killed in the ensuing clashes and four soldiers embraced martyrdom.
The security forces were already on alert. This allowed them to deal with the large number of attackers. This area of Chitral is a well-known tourist hub as the Kalash tribesmen live here. There is also a large population of the Ismaili community here.
Chitral control access to South Asia, Central Asia and China. Gilgit, adjacent to Chitral, has a history of communal riots. A movement against the government is taking place in the Pamir Mountains in the Gorno Badakhshan autonomous region of Tajikistan, within a few kilometres of Chitral. Last year, there was a lot of bloodshed in the Pamir. The situation in Gilgit-Baltistan, adjacent to Chitral, has been very tense for the past few weeks.
In a recent statement, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) has said that a large group of “terrorists equipped with the latest weapons” had attacked two military check posts in Chitral district, resulting in an “intense exchange of fire.” The statement said the attacks were coordinated from the Kunar and Nuristan provinces of neighbouring Afghanistan and a combing operation was under way. “Owing to a heightened-threat environment, Pakistan’s own posts were already on high alert,” it said, adding that the Taliban administration in Afghanistan is “expected to fulfil its obligations and deny the use of Afghan soil by terrorists for perpetuating acts of terrorism against Pakistan.”
Immediately after the September 6 attacks, a video was circulated on the social media purportedly showing TTP chief Mufti Noor Wali Mahsud, based in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province, giving instructions to his fighters who had crossed over into Chitral district. “The TTP is a branch of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and working under its umbrella,” Mahsud claims in the video.
However, Afghan government’s spokesman, Zabihaullah Mujahid, stated that Afghan territory had not been used for the attack on Chitral. In an interview, he also insisted that the TTP was not affiliated with the emirate. “They are not, as an organisation, part of the IEA. We don’t share the same objectives,” Mujahid said.
“We advise the TTP to focus on peace and stability in their country. This is very important so they can prevent any chance for enemies to interfere in the region and in Pakistan. We request Pakistan to look into their demands for the welfare of the region and Pakistan.”
Mujahid claimed that the TTP was Pakistan’s internal matter, adding: “The IEA stance is that we do not interfere in other countries’ affairs. We do not interfere in Pakistan’s affairs.”
There are two possible reasons behind why the Afghan Taliban are hesitant to accept their responsibility when it comes to the TTP. First, the Afghan Taliban have no control over these areas of Afghanistan. The other reason may be that the interim government does not have the power to stop the TTP.
There are two reasons behind why the Afghan Taliban are hesitant to accept their responsibility when it comes to the TTP. First, the Afghan Taliban have no control over some areas of Afghanistan. The other reason may be that the Afghan Taliban’s interim government lacks power to stop the TTP.
Historically, Nuristan, Badakhshan and Kunar have not been under the absolute control of a central government based in Kabul. These areas were the first to be vacated by the Russians and later the US forces. Even when there was a strong Afghan government in Kabul, anti-Kabul elements had continued to thrive in Nuristan and Kunar. During the fighting against Russia, Nuristan and Kunar were among the most dangerous areas. In the recent past, the most intense resistance to US coalition forces was witnessed in these areas. In 2009, coalition forces suffered heavy casualties during the battle of Kamdesh in the area.
Even now that the Afghan Taliban are in complete control in most areas of the country, opposing forces are quite effective in these areas. The Islamic State in the Khorasan Province (ISKP) and Northern Resistance Front (NRF) elements are present in these areas. Soon after the Chitral intrusion by TTP elements, the Afghan Taliban claimed to have arrested a group of ISKP fighters in neighboring Badakhshan province. Nuristan is sparsely populated but its strategic importance is high.
It is this structure that shows how important this area is and why it is so difficult to hold on to. The second reason is the helplessness of the Afghan Taliban when it comes to controlling the Pakistani Taliban. In the past, when the pressure on the Afghan Taliban increased for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the events of September 11, the Afghan Taliban refused to leave Osama bin Laden’s side because they saw Bin Laden as a benefactor who had supported them during their jihad against Russia.
The Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani network have a history of collaboration.
Apart from this, we should not forget that Pakistan, like other countries of the world, does not recognise the flag of the Afghan Taliban flying on the Pak-Afghan border. This means that Afghanistan is currently occupied by an armed group that has fighters but not a professional army. In such a situation, whatever relations a state has with another state comes under the purview of a temporary set-up. This is the reason why statements are issued from Kabul, denying providing sanctuary to the militants. At one point, the Afghan Taliban had even said that the territory of Afghanistan would not be used against another country. Recently, they stated that they had agreed not to let the Afghan soil be used by militants with the US, and not with the Pakistani authorities.
The Afghan Taliban had at one point denied the death of Al Qaeda chief Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri under their rule in Kabul.
The only way out of such a situation is for the international community, especially Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries China, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, to act in unison.
The intrusion in Chitral is not an isolated incident. On the same day, there was a clash between Pakistani and Afghan security personnel at Torkham. Since then, the border crossing has been closed to all traffic. Hundreds of vehicles and ordinary Afghan citizens, most of whom came to Pakistan seeking medical treatment, have been stuck at the border. Due to this situation, Afghan traders have now started moving to Iran’s Chabahar port. The trade between the two countries is facing challenges. The recently-concluded barter trade agreements are of no use if this situation persists. A large number of Afghan patients have been visiting Pakistan instead of Central Asian states and Iran for medical treatment. Due to recent tension on the Pak-Afghan border, these patients have started travelling to India. Pakistan should try to normalise the border as soon as possible.
The writer is a Peshawar-based journalist, researcher and trainer. He also works for the digital media platform The Khorasan Diary