A sanctuary no more

A sanctuary no more

On the second day after ordering the long-awaited military operation in North Waziristan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took the unusual step to call President Hamid Karzai with a request to the Afghan government to beef up security on its side of the long and porous Pak-Afghan to prevent militants fleeing from Pakistan to enter Afghanistan.

Pakistan has seldom made such a request to Afghanistan, though the latter and the Nato military authorities have often asked Islamabad to seal its side of the Durand Line border whenever military action was undertaken against the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan’s border provinces. This so-called hammer and anvil tactic in context of the military action along the Pak-Afghan border has been mentioned frequently in recent years, but never really implemented due to the deep mistrust between Islamabad and Kabul.

There is still no indication that Karzai responded positively to Nawaz Sharif’s request. Rather, the press release issued by the President’s office in Kabul quoted Karzai as telling the Pakistani Prime Minister that both sides would have to sincerely take action against the terrorists and militants on their side of the border to tackle militancy and terrorism.

It appeared to be a conditional response to Nawaz Sharif’s request. It was obvious that Karzai, who would have to relinquish charge after ruling Afghanistan for more than 12 years if the country’s newly elected president takes oath as planned on August 2, wanted a word from Nawaz Sharif that his government would initiate action against the Afghan Taliban movement and its affiliate, Haqqani network, before expecting the Afghan government to do the needful.

A few days later, Karzai spoke his mind when he argued in a BBC interview that the ‘war on terror’ being waged by the US-led Nato forces for more than a decade in Afghanistan should have been fought outside his country’s borders and not in Afghan villages and homes.

Though he didn’t name Pakistan in this interview, Karzai and his spokesmen have in the past openly alleged that terrorists operate from safe havens in Pakistani tribal areas and elsewhere to destabilise Afghanistan and the international forces ought to go after them while fighting terrorism. Among others, his line of argument has been criticised by the US, which felt it belittled the sacrifices of the American and other Western soldiers who have been fighting the Afghan Taliban and other militants since October 2001 in Afghanistan and facing deadly attacks on a daily basis.

Karzai has also been a bitter critic of Pakistan for being unable or unwilling to facilitate his peace talks with the Afghan Taliban, who condemned him as a puppet of the US and refused to talk to him. Expecting him to assist Pakistan in such a situation is naïve because he would demand a price before committing himself to anything. Also, he is on the way out and, therefore, unable to take any major decision. Besides, there are question marks with regard to the ability of his beleaguered government and its security forces to do much to seal the border when this uphill task couldn’t be done by the resourceful 150,000 Nato forces over the past decade.

However, Pakistan did its bit by seeking cooperation from the Afghan government. To reinforce the point, Pakistan Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif, arranged to meet Janan Musazai, Afghanistan’s ambassador in Islamabad. Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry, too, highlighted the issue at the diplomatic level. It was clear that Pakistan meant business and this was the reason it agitated the issue at every available forum.

Along with its request to the Afghan government to take steps to seal its side of the border in Khost and Paktika provinces adjoining North Waziristan, Pakistan also used the occasion to reiterate its demand for action by Kabul against the Afghanistan-based Pakistani Taliban. Similar demands by Islamabad in the past have been generally ignored by Kabul.

In fact, the Afghan authorities have at times denied the existence of any sanctuaries for the Pakistani Taliban in Kunar, Nuristan, and Nangarhar provinces despite repeated claims by Pakistan. On other occasions, the Afghan officials have downplayed the issue and instead highlighted the existence of sanctuaries of the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani network, and others in Pakistan.

On this count too, any Pakistani hopes that the Afghan government would initiate action against the several hundred Pakistani Taliban based in Afghanistan since the summer of 2009 were misplaced. Apart from the capability problems faced by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), there was also the question of intent as the authorities felt the Pakistani Taliban could not have established bases in Afghanistan without a nod from Kabul. Rather, there has been concern in Pakistan that the Afghan intelligence agency, NDS, has recruited a number of Pakistani militants for using them to destabilise Pakistan.

Led by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan head, Maulana Fazlullah, along with Commander Omar Khalid Khorasani of Mohmand Agency and Commander Maulvi Abu Bakr of Bajaur, these militants escaped to Afghanistan after the military operations against them in early 2009 and have since then used the Afghan territory to launch cross-border attacks in Pakistan’s Chitral, Upper Dir, and Lower Dir districts and Mohmand and Bajaur tribal regions.

There is no evidence yet that Pakistani or foreign militants have escaped to Afghanistan from North Waziristan since the start of the "Zarb-e-Azb" operation on June 15. There are reports though that the militants have mostly slipped away to other tribal regions, including the remote and forested Shawal Valley that stretches from South Waziristan to North Waziristan and even to Afghanistan.

Unlike the non-committal Karzai government, the US and Nato military commander in Afghanistan, Marine General Joseph Dunford, was quoted as saying that they had increased its surveillance over the Pak-Afghan border but had not yet seen militants fleeing North Waziristan.

However, Pakistani families displaced by the military offensives have been streaming across the border from North Waziristan to seek refuge in Khost and Paktika province. Khost Governor Abdul Jabbar Naeemi said 1,079 families had been registered and were being accommodated in a newly established camp in Gurbaz district. Paktika province Governor, Mohibullah Samim, said "thousands" of families had entered Afghanistan from North Waziristan and taken up residence in Sarobi, Barmal, and Argun districts. Who knows militants have crossed over to Afghanistan in the guise of refugees, but this won’t become known until cross-border attacks are launched from Afghanistan into North Waziristan.

A sanctuary no more