Saturday December 09, 2023

Taliban’s TTP conundrum and Pakistan’s strategic weariness Jan Achakzai

August 30, 2021

The Kabul Airport attack claiming over 100 lives, proved IS-K will continue to be a source of panic and chaos in Afghanistan. But the bad news for Pakistan is the overlap and operational alliance between the IS-K and TTP which is a fact not a conjecture.

Even as Afghan Taliban's reassurances against foreign militancy have predisposed China, Iran and Russia in its favour, some degree of weariness in Pakistan's policy-making circle runs deep that the Taliban may not necessarily demonstrate willingness and capability to take on the TTP. Despite so many commonalities on a range of issues with the Taliban, Pakistan's perceptible divergence on the TTP issue is bubbling up below the surface that may play out differently.

Islamabad is facing a resurgent TTP militancy in its border region which it had secured after huge sacrifices in blood and treasure over the last decade yet losing young soldiers and officers on recurring basis. Given its animosity with the Taliban and IS-K's attack on Kabul Airport, splintering IS-K militants may join the TTP as an alternative for survival in Taliban-led Afghanistan, offering a worse prospect.

The thinly-veiled weariness stems from many factors. One of which is – contrary to the Western perception of Pakistan's complete leverage on the Taliban – Islamabad has lost substantial influence on them after the Taliban's takeover of the Afghan state and government.

Against this backdrop, in all public pronouncements, the Taliban have stopped assuring any action against the TTP accept the platitudes of the statements i.e. "no foreigner will be allowed to use Afghan soil".

One of the spokesmen who used to sit in Doha talks, Shahabuddin Dilawar, speaking to an Afghan journalist, was blunt, "TTP is Pakistan's problem not ours (Taliban/Afghanistan's)". Another commander Khalil Haqqani was also non-committal and diplomatic as if to appease the TTP conversely advising Pakistan "We want peace between Muslims. Muslims countries should also review repressive policies".

The report of Taliban Chief Akhunzada Haibatullah constituting a three-member team to speak to the TTP was also contradicted by one of their spokesperson, Zabiullah Mujahid. Since the TTP has emerged as a capable proxy adversary, Islamabad's core national security concern in Afghanistan is the TTP's sanctuary. Presumably, Pakistan may have secured some private assurances from the Taliban leadership regarding the TTP issue. But these assurances may not mean much if not backed by kinetic action.

The Taliban's response so far is nothing but lukewarm and should be seen against some hard realities that potentially limit the Taliban's ability to muster the necessary will to come hard on the TTP. And this is bad news for Pakistan. Here is why.

First, the Taliban share a close ethnic affinity with the TTP: One brother/cousin fights in the ranks of Taliban, the other has joined the TTP. Second, they share a common narrative/ideology: "if the Afghan Taliban seek and fight for Islamic Sharia in Afghanistan, the TTP also has every right to fight for the Islamic system in Pakistan" Third, the border region's geography provides enough justification for plausible deniability of the TTP operating conceivably right under the nose of the Taliban. Lastly, Pakistan cannot dictate the Afghan Taliban now well entrenched in Kabul.

In contrast, the Taliban may ironically have no issue in closing down a largely secular Baloch sanctuary in Afghanistan and – even if needed – kinetically deter the BLA fighters operating out of Kandahar.

Thus Islamabad has to acknowledge that there may be a huge gap between the Taliban's calculus and Pakistan's aspiration insofar as action against the TTP is concerned. Moreover, as a precaution, Pakistan needs to operate on the presumption that the Taliban may deliver on their other commitments (Al-Qaeda, ISIS and Uyghur militants) due to the massive leverage of America, Iran, Russian and China to bear, but not on the TTP. (Even this delivery may not perfectly materialise as there is an almost certain probability that the lower or mid-level Taliban soldiers may tend to harbour elements of Uyghurs, Al-Qaeda and other affiliated groups).

Therefore, the lesson of evolving geopolitics warrants some hedging strategy – that should be minimally and theoretically part of Pakistan's national security thinking on Taliban-led Afghanistan.

One message of the Afghan Taliban when they say the TTP is Pakistan's headache tacitly suggests Islamabad should take action on its own. And here we need to look hard at President Erdogan's strategy of dealing with Turkey-focused militants based in Syria to learn some lessons. It was the SDF in Idlib, Syria which threatened the security of Turkey during the Trump administration.

According to Turkey, SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) had ties with PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) and was in bed with Chechens and other extremist militants, but considered an ally by the West against ISIS. Two narratives emerged in the country. First, since all Kurds were cousins, Ankara could not win the war, inflaming its Kurdish population. Second, as "the group is a Muslim entity we cannot fight them as well".

Strategically, President Erdogan had two choices: either fight the group within its borders or go after them into Syria. He chose the secondary course. Under "Operation Peace Spring'', the Turkish Army went into Syria and secured two districts as an enclave to neutralise the threat.

Taking a cue from Erdogan's operational experience, Pakistan Army has robust strategic and intelligence capabilities to go after the TTP into Kunar, Afghanistan. It can take out its two leaders namely Wali Masood and recently released Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, and install a pliant leader of the group. That leader then can take the oath of allegiance (baait) to the Taliban's Supreme Leader Akhunzada Haibatullah as their Khalifa. In such a scenario, the Taliban can deter the TTP from launching attacks against Pakistan expelling from its sanctuary.

However, for this strategy, the most important ingredient needed is a political will of Erdogan level. The challenge is that since Prime Minister Imran Khan is an ideological pacifist politician, he may never approve such a strategy and the Army will be left fighting the TTP inside towns and cities.

Another example is Russia playing smartly hedging its bets in Afghanistan: while supporting the Afghan Taliban, Moscow has dispatched support (weaponry) to Taliban opposition e.g. Ahmad Massod in Panjshir Valley copying the Libyan toolkit – just in case the Taliban do not listen to Moscow. Islamabad may not emulate Russia's strategy in letter and spirit. Yet it may think of another hedge to alter the Taliban's calculus, to be a step ahead in overcoming their potential intransigence or limitations.

Using Afghanistan as a forward base, the TTP would continue to be capable of keeping its assets and sleeper cells in the population centres in Pakistan, making it difficult for security forces to target them. Already at the cost of enormous price, the Army hardened the erstwhile FATA after evicting militant strongholds. As such the gains should not be lost in the context of the Afghan Taliban potentially failing to evict the TTP. The Taliban having replaced the hostile Ghani govt in Kabul is the best geopolitical win. Nevertheless, the security of Pakistan is non-negotiable.

So taking the Taliban's quest to present itself as a stabilising force on the face value and not strategising for a worse case, (that is planning for across-the-border kinetic action against the TTP), Pakistan is setting itself up in a false bubble of naive expectations.

In a nutshell, Islamabad should seriously consider going after the TTP in Kunar wiping the top leadership making it easy for the Afghan Taliban to contain. But to achieve this goal, we need Erdogan's will which is a rare commodity in Pakistan.

Jan Achakzai is a geopolitical analyst, a politician from Balochistan and an ex-adviser to the Balochistan Government on media and strategic communication.He remained associated with BBC World Service. He is also Chairman of the Institute of New Horizons (INH) & Balochistan. He tweets @Jan_Achakzai