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Monday January 30, 2023

Cross-border CT operations?

July 06, 2021

In his column for The Friday Times this week, titled ‘Pakistan needs a proactive Afghanistan policy’, Ejaz Haider has argued for Pakistan to “change the defensive mindset and go for a proactive approach” in terms of counterterrorism. In short, he wants Pakistan to strike at terrorist targets – early, often, and when needed, on Afghan soil.

There are few strategic thinkers in Pakistan whose depth and breadth of knowledge match Mr Haider’s favorably. His approach to the issue at hand, Pakistan’s counterterrorism challenge, is serious and thoughtful. But I disagree with his prescription. Let me state unequivocally: Rawalpindi’s current defensive mindset is exactly the right one, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan must not entertain the idea of cross-border raids and the minimization of the sovereignty of another country. Especially if that country is Afghanistan – Pakistan’s most important and most vulnerable neighbor.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s op-ed in the Washington Post is clear and cogent on policy. Pakistan is for peace in Afghanistan. It wants the will of the Afghan people to be sacrosanct. It wants the future to be shaped by regional trade. And it wants to create an ecosystem in which geoeconomics is the first instinct of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. This is brilliant stuff. PM Khan, the military high command, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, NSA Moeed Yusuf and Special Envoy Muhammad Sadiq all deserve a lot of credit for consistency and clarity on the big picture goals that shape Pakistan’s approach to Afghanistan.

Why then would someone as well informed and knowledgeable as Ejaz Haider suggest cross-border counterterrorism raids into Afghanistan as part of the future?

Simply put, because Pakistan’s big picture goals in Afghanistan, while laudable, are silent on the most urgent and most important issue that emerges from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan: how to engage in effective counterterrorism. This silence is exacerbated by the strange fixation of the leadership with unequivocal “absolutely not” type statements.

In the last quarter alone, no less than fifty Pakistani soldiers have been martyred by terrorist groups whose operations are rooted in Afghanistan. The timing of this wave of terrorism is not accidental. The TTP and a range of offshoot terrorist organizations are going to increasingly exhibit the messaging and operational freedoms that were compromised by the veneer of security that the US presence in Afghanistan provided. The Americans may not always have had Pakistan’s security as their top of mind (and we should never forget Salala) – but their presence in Afghanistan served as at least one layer of protection between a complete Daesh-Al Qaeda-TTP free-for-all, and the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those that never tire of the various contests and complications within the terrorist spectrum should not forget that the Pakistani state and specifically the Pakistan Army have been and will remain among the principal targets of terrorist activity in the region.

If these terrorist groups live and breathe freely in Afghanistan, and openly wage war on Pakistan from Afghan territory, then the argument put forth by Mr Haider seems quite logical and obvious. Rather than waiting for Pakistan to be turned into a war zone again, the substantial capabilities of the Pakistani intelligence and security apparatus need to be put to work – taking out terrorists before they strike Pakistani places of worship, Pakistani schools, Pakistani hotels, Pakistani restaurants, Pakistani hospitals and Pakistani markets. The problem with this kind of proactive, cross-border Pakistani counterterrorist activism is three-fold.

First, national sovereignty is a red line that has informed Pakistani domestic and foreign policy for over seventy years. It has informed Pakistan’s hard choices in various Middle Eastern conflicts (like Syria and even Yemen). It has defined Pakistan’s position at the United Nations on Chapter VII proceedings across multiple decades and multiple international security crises, as well as on dangerous ideas like Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Indeed, national sovereignty has really shaped Pakistan’s entire (and very substantial) investment in multilateralism as a pillar of its national security and foreign policy doctrines. For Pakistan to adopt a Donald Rumsfeld or Susan Rice approach to Afghanistan would stand in stark contrast to its principled stands in the international arena for seven decades. It would compromise Pakistani lawfare – not just on issues of counterterrorism, but indeed across the spectrum of issues: from migration, to climate change, to trade and intellectual property, and data sovereignty – that Pakistan will contend with in the coming years.

Second, cross-border raids into Afghanistan would serve to galvanize anti-Pakistan sentiment in Afghanistan in a way that perhaps no other single event or action (or actions) could. Indeed, if there is one thing that could forge closer anti-Pakistan narrative alignment between President Ashraf Ghani’s Arg in Kabul, and the Doha Shura’s commanders that seek to overthrow him, it is kinetic actions by Pakistan on Afghan territory. The Doha Shura is as Afghan nationalist as any Afghan group ever has been. The Taliban’s actions and deeds, going back to 1996, all signal the same. Just because ‘the Taliban are a Pakistan proxy’ is a convenient meme for Beltway wallahs to throw around with reckless abandon, doesn’t make it a responsible, or accurate way to view or understand the Taliban.

After suffering four decades of conflict in Afghanistan seeking a peaceful neighbour, it would be incredibly short-sighted for Pakistan to help convert all Afghans into Amrullah Saleh. But Pakistanis should be clear: when it comes to Afghan sovereignty, there is no spectrum. Pakistani violations of Afghan sovereignty will eliminate any and all neutral or objective Afghan voices.

Third, any operations across the Durand Line will validate and mobilize ethno-nationalist Pakhtun sentiment. This would be a major problem at the best of times, but with the constant explosive nature of the Chaman-Spin Boldak border area and the growing unrest caused by unaccountable violence in North Waziristan, the potential for a wider and more metastasizing problem is ever larger today. Terrorist groups can not only seek to exploit ethno-nationalism, they can also seek to stoke anti-state narratives by such groups by targeting them, on both sides of the Durand Line. The ability of terrorists to drive a wedge between the Pakistani state and constitution-citing Pakistani rights groups (like the PTM) is already proven. The price of having won Pakistan’s first war on terror has been constant setbacks to the country’s efforts at national integration, as crystallized in the 25th Amendment to the constitution. Cross-border raids into Afghanistan will add substantially to those complexities and challenges.

So, if Pakistan has already decided that it will “absolutely not” allow US counterterrorism operations to be anchored in Pakistan, and it cannot (as I have argued above) adopt Mr Haider’s proposed cross-border counterterrorism kinetics into Afghanistan, then what is the counterterrorism formula that Pakistan can adopt for the post US withdrawal terrorism problem that is already upon us?

This is where the stark dichotomy between Ejaz Haider’s argument for cross-border Pakistani CT activism and straight up US CT operations in the region become problematic. And it is why Pakistani leaders need to exercise much greater discretion in how they shape the public discourse around the Pakistan-US relationship.

Ultimately, it is only through more robust Pakistan-US cooperation on counterterrorism that Pakistan will be able to deal with the Daesh-Al Qaeda-TTP triple threat, without it converting into a quadruple threat. Zalmay Khalilzad has discovered that the Doha Shura cannot be beaten – neither in a negotiation nor in a fight on the ground. The lesson from this is not to fear the Taliban – as it sometimes seems that both American and Pakistani leaders do – but to engage in constructing an incentives ecosystem that makes the Taliban fear its alignment with Al-Qaeda and the TTP.

Now more than ever, it is not the starkness of a self-reliant, cross-border CT, nor the bravado and feel-good autonomy of “absolutely not” that Pakistan needs. It is a wise, multi-layered, resolute, alliance-driven and proactive counterterrorism strategy for the post US withdrawal Afghan theatre. The less visible (but more proactive) a key actor in this theatre that Pakistan is, the better it will be for the people of Pakistan.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

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