Differences must be set aside to defeat extremism

Tom Hussain takes the temperature of extremist movements in Pakistan

Pakistani security officials examine the site after a bomb attack in Lahore. Arif Ali / AFP
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Pakistan has suffered 10 lethal terrorist attacks and the deaths of 138 people in the space of just a few days. The nationwide spate of bombings and shootings, the worst in three years, is a statement by Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan insurgents.

They have consolidated their beachheads in eastern Afghanistan and re-established control of underground networks across Pakistan. The TTP has also formed a nexus with the ISIL franchise for the region and, according to the US military commander for Afghanistan, Gen John Nicholson, provides most of the manpower for its operations.

The wars on either side of the Durand Line, the disputed border dividing the two countries, have thus entered a new phase. Pakistani militants, breakaway factions of the Afghan Taliban and ISIL, are a potent common threat to the Afghan government, as well as to the Afghan Taliban and its safe-haven providers in Pakistan and Iran.

This has happened precisely because these established contestants for power in Afghanistan have too many conflicting interests to possess the will to coordinate their counterterrorism campaigns. The relationship between Islamabad and Kabul is hopelessly mired in hateful rhetoric and proxy warfare.

On occasion, when there has been cross-border cooperation, it has involved Pakistan and Nato forces – notably the military actions in Pakistan’s Bajaur tribal area and the Afghan province of Kunar in 2009.

It certainly was not in evidence when the Pakistani military launched its operations against the TTP and its cohorts in their North Waziristan and Khyber tribal area strongholds in 2014.

Had Afghan and Nato forces launched parallel operations on their side of the border, the TTP and ISIL would not have been able to regroup and become the serious threat it is now .

They did not cooperate because Pakistan, despite all its statements to the contrary, remains heavily invested in the Afghan Taliban, particularly in the Haqqani Network faction.

As ever, the terrorists have occupied the political space created by selfish competition between the mainstream players. The price for short-sightedness will be exorbitant for all, as the ISIL-TTP umbrella expands to encompass more disgruntled factions of the Afghan Taliban, and Pakistani and Central Asian militants orphaned by the 2014-15 campaign. In due course, they will be joined by ISIL operatives from Iraq and Syria.

If the current trends persist, Afghanistan would gradually slide back into the quagmire of the 1990s, from where the monster of global jihadist terrorism emerged to change our world.

Pakistan, too, would be ravaged by another decade of the targeted shootings and suicide bombings of the last two weeks, threatening the decade of prosperity being brought about by Chinese-funded investment in infrastructure.

The emergence of the TTP-ISIL nexus was the motivation for the formation last year of an unlikely alliance between Iran and the Afghan Taliban, aimed at preventing ISIL from launching cross border attacks. Similarly, Tajikistan has an open channel with the Afghan Taliban, through which contacts with Russia were also facilitated last year.

The common threat has prompted the creation of a Russia-led conference on Afghanistan that is focused on coordinating efforts to curtail the growth of ISIL in Afghanistan. Initially comprising Russia, China and Pakistan, the conference was expanded earlier this month to include Afghanistan, Iran and India.

Moscow is now working towards the induction of the Central Asian states, home to several thousand ISIL fighters currently at war in Iraq and Syria. Uzbek militants who have switched allegiance to ISIL from Al Qaeda are already gathering strength in northern Afghan provinces bordering Uzbekistan, awaiting the return of their compatriots from the Middle East.

The exclusion of the United States from the grouping speaks volumes about Russia’s initiative. While the ISIL-TTP nexus merits focused multilateral attention and action, Russia is obviously seeking to widen its influence at the expense of the US, knowing that it is looking for an honourable exit from Afghanistan; it may extend its 16-year occupation up to 2020, but not beyond that.

Then, there are the domestic dynamics of the civil war in Afghanistan.

It cannot be resolved unless the Afghan Taliban are treated as equal partners in any multilaterally-backed peace talks with the Afghan government. Without a level playing field, they have no incentive to stop fighting.

Equally, to make that concession would be unacceptable to the many powerful figures within the Afghan government who have been at war with the Taliban for more than 20 years. Any attempt to impose a level playing field on them would tear apart the National Unity Government.

Likewise the Taliban leadership would lose support of many factions to ISIL if it were to call a ceasefire with Nato boots still on Afghan soil.

It’s a stalemate that works only in favour of the TTP-ISIL nexus, which has brought together the most ruthless and ambitious characters of the Af-Pak jihadist world. Fear, not territory, is their currency, and their strength lies in the ability to exploit the mistakes of others. Decision makers in Afghanistan and Pakistan must ask themselves whether they can set aside their deep differences long enough to eradicate the TTP-ISIL nexus while it is still young and relatively weak.

Tom Hussain is an Islamabad-based journalist and political analyst