US backs Pakistan in confronting cross-border attacks from Afghanistan

The Afghan Taliban claimed that "there is no evidence that Afghan soil has been used against any neighboring country."

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi on the sidelines of the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York, US September 23, 2021 (photo credit: Kena Betancur/Pool via REUTERS)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi on the sidelines of the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York, US September 23, 2021
(photo credit: Kena Betancur/Pool via REUTERS)

[Islamabad] “Pakistan has the right to defend itself from terrorism,” the US State Department declared Wednesday, in an effort to back the country’s counterterrorism efforts against infiltrators from neighboring Afghanistan.State Department spokesman Ned Price told the press weekly press briefing that “Pakistan, of course, has suffered tremendous violence owing to the threats that are – that have in many cases emanated from Afghanistan.

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“In the US-Taliban agreement, the Taliban committed to seeing to it that international terrorists would not operate freely within Afghanistan. The United States has – in the operation that we undertook a few months ago that eliminated the leader of al-Qaida, who was living inside, in Kabul – made very clear that the Taliban had not lived up to that commitment,” Price said.

In Kabul, meanwhile, the Afghan Taliban rejected Price's allegations: “The Islamic Emirate stands by its promise. We have control over the entire country and there is no evidence that Afghan soil has been used against any neighboring country,” said Bilal Karimi, the Taliban’s deputy spokesman in a statement.

Price warned of the increasing dangers of terrorism: “Terrorism remains a scourge that has taken so many Pakistani, Afghan, and other innocent lives. The United States and Pakistan do indeed have a shared interest in ensuring that the Taliban live up to the commitments and those terrorist groups like IS-K [Islamic State – Khorasan Province, an affiliate of the Islamic State group], like the TTP [Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan], like al-Qaida, are no longer able to threaten regional security.”

 Pakistani soldiers stand guard in front of a member of the Taliban force, in the background, during an organised media tour to the Pakistan-Afghanistan crossing border, in Torkham, Pakistan September 2, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/Gibran Peshimam) Pakistani soldiers stand guard in front of a member of the Taliban force, in the background, during an organised media tour to the Pakistan-Afghanistan crossing border, in Torkham, Pakistan September 2, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/Gibran Peshimam)

Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan tense

Relations between Islamabad and Kabul have been tense, due to increased border tensions between the two neighboring countries and particularly the cross-border attacks against Pakistan by Afghan-based terrorist organizations.

According to the data released by the Islamabad-based think tank Center for Security Studies and Research, 601 people, including 290 security personnel and 311 civilians, were killed and 741 injured in 506 attacks in Pakistan in 2022. The number of terrorists and guerilla fighters killed in the attacks was 372.

Most of the attacks were carried out in the border regions. Organizations such as the banned TTP, Baluchistan Liberation Army, and IS-K claimed responsibility for most of the attacks in 2022, which represented a 15% increase compared to 2021.

Pakistani officials claim that “they have solid evidence that the outlawed TTP is operating from Afghanistan and have asked its militants to carry out attacks in every part of Pakistan.” Afghanistan, on the other hand, always denies that it provides a safe haven for any terrorist organization.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Zardari has not visited Afghanistan since taking office in April 2022; similarly, there has been no high-level visit from Afghanistan to Pakistan. Zardari warned on a recent visit to the United States that Pakistan reserves the right to take direct action against terrorists if attacks are not thwarted.

After the TTP broke the ceasefire with Pakistan in November 2022, there was a noticeable increase in attacks.

Meanwhile, on Monday, Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif chaired a meeting of the National Security Committee (NSC), which was attended by the chiefs of the armed forces and heads of the country’s intelligence agencies as well. According to sources, “during the meeting, it was indicated that if the Afghan regime does not take any proper action, Pakistan may target the terrorist dens across the border.”

“The National Security Committee was determined to take strict action against terrorists and recommended taking crucial steps to curb rising unrest in the country,” according to a statement by the Prime Minister’s Office. It said the NSC session “concluded that no country will be allowed to provide sanctuaries and facilitation to terrorists and Pakistan reserves all rights in that respect to safeguarding her people.”

In a prompt illustration of Pakistan’s determination, a notorious terrorist commander and 11 followers were killed yesterday by the security forces during an operation in South Waziristan, bordering Afghanistan. In a statement Thursday night, the Armed Forces Media Wing stated that “Hafiz Ullah, a terrorist commander, and two suicide bombers were among the gunned-down militants. The terrorists were actively involved in targeting security forces.”

The Media Line spoke with several leading experts, who evaluated the rise in terrorist incidents in the country and other relevant issues. Faran Jeffery, COO of the UK-based Midstone Centre for International Affairs, is an expert on counterterrorism, geopolitics, and foreign policy. He related that “the banned TTP asked Pakistan to fix the status of the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) and to remove the fence on the Pak- Afghan border (so they could freely move across the border).”

However, Jeffery noted: “The TTP used the period of peace talks and ceasefire to regroup and rearm, as well as to spread its networks well beyond KP province. If Pakistan continues to pursue peace talks, it will only help TTP to further strengthen itself,” he added.

What action can Islamabad take against the TTP and other terrorist organizations? Jeffery told The Media Line: “This is probably going to be discussed in the coming days. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Asim Munir was one of the biggest opponents of peace talks with the TTP in the previous meetings of military leadership before he became the chief. He views them as ‘khawarij’," Jeffery claimed, referring to a member of an ultraconservative, sometimes fanatical, Islamic sect emphasizing the strict adherence to Muslim principles of conduct – and advocating the killing of anyone violating those principles.

Jeffery pointed out that “there is no such thing as ‘good or bad’ Taliban. Taliban is an ideological group and there’s simply no difference between the ideology of Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban.” He claimed the “Pakistani government is reluctant to act militarily against Afghan Taliban. Meanwhile, intelligence-based targeted operations against TTP are still ongoing in Pakistan. The problem of terrorism in Pakistan cannot be resolved without a limited military operation in Afghanistan as well,” he added.

Jeffrey recommends that Pakistan should have a clear and consistent stance on terrorism everywhere, including in India and Kashmir. “It doesn’t help Pakistan’s position when its officials and media try to justify militancy in other parts of the world. Pakistan needs to break free from the ‘good terrorist, bad terrorist’ approach,” he concluded.

Andrew Korybko, a Moscow-based American defense and political analyst, told The Media Line: “The question of differentiating between the so-called ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban is once again at the fore of regional attention, following the TTP’s recent spree of terrorist attacks in Pakistan.

“Islamabad is in a bind. Failing to act in the face of this rising terrorist threat would signal weakness and could therefore embolden the TTP to carry out more acts of terror. On the other hand, proactively targeting them across the border could awaken sleeper cells inside the country, not to mention possibly bringing Pakistan and the Taliban to the brink of a conventional war.

“To explain, the Taliban is no military match for Pakistan and/or the US in the conventional sense, yet the group believes that they can deter both of them by hanging the Damocles’ sword of the TTP over their heads, especially Islamabad’s,” Korybko said.

“The US has every reason to support Pakistan in this respect, especially since the cause of jointly fighting against the TTP could serve as the pretext for re-establishing bases in this major non-NATO ally,” he argued.

Korybko declared: “As it stands, a self-sustaining cycle of destabilization has taken hold of the Pak-Afghan relationship, due to the security dilemma brought about by the former’s de facto Taliban leaders allying with the TTP and the latter’s post-Khan government informally restoring its military alliance with the US. He claimed that “the only actor to benefit from this is America, which aspires to maximally divide and rule those two countries in order restore its declining unipolar hegemony over South Asia.”

Adeeb Ul Zaman Safvi, a Karachi-based retired Pakistan Navy captain, is a leading defense analyst and a hard critic of US policies. He told The Media Line, “During the Imran Khan-led government, Kabul made a positive gesture by not allowing the establishment of US bases inside Pakistan, for conducting anti-terrorist operations inside Afghanistan. In response, the Taliban leadership committed to acting against the anti-Pakistan militants.”

Safvi referred to the TTP as “a group of hired mercenaries who are funded by CIA, Mossad, and RAW [American, Israeli, and Indian Intelligence agencies]. The sole aims of these hostile agencies are to destabilize Pakistan. Hence, good and bad Taliban is used by the US administration and operators to suit their narratives.

“The resurgence of cross-border militancy is attributable to the incompetence of the current coalition regime in Pakistan, which allowed the use of Pakistan air space and some ground facilities to the US for its operations against the Afghan Taliban, especially the killing of leader [Ayman] al-Zawahiri.”

Kamal Alam, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, told The Media Line, “Pakistan almost finds itself in a ‘déjà vu situation’ to the bad old days of 2007-2015, when daily violence was ripping apart the country. Pakistan’s claim that it defeated terrorism seems to have rung hollow.

“The problem essentially remains political. After the army’s hard-fought military gains in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, there has been no follow-up politically, either at the federal or provincial level. It doesn’t help when the state is financially ruined and pleading with its allies for monthly bailouts. The TTP has surged since the Taliban entered Kabul. Clearly, there’s a disconnection between what Islamabad wants and what Kabul is delivering.”

Salman Javed, an Islamabad-based political analyst and the director-general of the Pak-Afghan Youth forum, told The Media Line: “Kabul fears that if they push TTP leadership and militants to surrender, then their fighters may join another emerging threat to the region and that is the IS-K.

“The term good and bad Taliban has ideological as well as policy roots. Pakistan, like all other states, maintained that [good] Afghan Taliban has a political background inside Afghanistan, which emerged from the ashes of the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal.”

Javed pointed out that “the US negotiated a peace deal with the same entity that they had rejected as a sworn enemy. So, it is not Pakistan that has to define the concept of good or bad Taliban, but the United States, its allies, and the previous Afghan regimes, that were trying to broker a deal with the Afghan Taliban as the reality of the Afghanistan political landscape.”