Pakistan’s defense minister vows to strike terror dens on Afghan soil

Strike has been ruled out by experts, who say it would destabilize regional peace

 People stand in queue to receive charity food handout, during the fasting month of Ramadan, along a road in Karachi, Pakistan March 30, 2023.  (photo credit: REUTERS/AKHTAR SOOMRO)
People stand in queue to receive charity food handout, during the fasting month of Ramadan, along a road in Karachi, Pakistan March 30, 2023.

[Islamabad] Pakistan has once again warned the Afghan Taliban that it will strike terrorist hideouts in Afghanistan if Kabul’s de facto rulers cannot rein in anti-Pakistan militias.

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In his latest interview with Voice of America, Pakistan Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif said Pakistan would respond to the terrorists.

According to Asif, during his last visit to Kabul in February, he had convinced the Taliban leaders that they must prevent Afghan soil from being used by terrorists for planning and executing attacks on Pakistan, or Pakistan would take action. “If this is not done, at some point we will have to take some steps,” he said. “Terrorists in Afghanistan will have to be targeted because we [Pakistan] cannot tolerate this situation for long.”

A Taliban fighter stands on guard as displaced Afghan women walk into an UNHCR distribution center to receive aid supply on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, October 28, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/ZOHRA BENSEMRA)A Taliban fighter stands on guard as displaced Afghan women walk into an UNHCR distribution center to receive aid supply on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, October 28, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/ZOHRA BENSEMRA)
In response to the Pakistan defense minister's remarks, Mohammed Suhail Shaheen, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s permanent representative-designate to the United Nations and head of the emirate’s Doha-based Political Office, told The Media Line: “The use of force will be a violation of our territorial sovereignty and will aggravate the prevailing situation.”

“From the first day, we were strongly convinced of mutual negotiations, Pakistan and Afghanistan are neighboring Islamic countries and both have open diplomatic channels that they can use to resolve issues and discuss the allegations or claims made by either side,” Shaheen added.

Taliban brings resurgence of terror attacks in Pakistan

There has been a resurgence of terror attacks in Pakistan since the Afghan Taliban took over Kabul in August 2021, most claimed by the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is believed to be the Afghan Taliban's ideological offshoot and ally. The TTP and its associated terror groups have carried out suicide attacks in Pakistanover the past 14 years and killed more than 70,000 Pakistanis. Islamabad strongly believes that outlawed TTP leadership is taking refuge in Afghanistan and enjoying the Afghan Taliban’s hospitality.

The statement of the Pakistani defense minister came days after the country’s National Security Committee approved comprehensive action against the terrorists. Meanwhile, an Islamabad-based senior intelligence official told The Media Line: “We have irrefutable evidence that TTP has created a nexus with ISKP and engaged theBaloch terrorist organizations to make a bigger terror syndicate in the region.” ISKP refers to the Islamic State—Khorasan Province, an affiliate of the Islamic State group active in South Asia and Central Asia. Balochistan is a province of Pakistan; there are about 5 million Balochs living in Pakistan and in neighboring areas of Iran andAfghanistan. The Balochistan Liberation Army and other Baloch ethnonationalist groups have been fighting since at least 2004 to establish a homeland for the Baloch people in a territory currently located across Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. The senior intelligence official who requested anonymity also noted, “Intelligenceassessments also predict that the regional countries such as Iran and China will not bespared from the threat of a newly emerging nexus between TTP and ISKP.”

The official told The Media Line that Pakistan had been insisting that Kabul assert its authority over all of Afghan soil, which would include stopping the TTP from using areas in Afghanistan as a launching pad for attacks on Pakistan and carrying out operations against the group.

“Moreover, evidence and designs of the TTP-ISKP have been shared with Afghan leadership, so the Afghan forces have carried out some successful intelligence-based operations,” he added.

Meanwhile, state broadcaster Radio Pakistan reported that an in-camera session on the national security situation was held in the National Assembly Hall on Friday. Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, federal ministers, advisers, and members of the National Assembly attended the meeting.

Chief of Army Staff Gen. Asim Munir, Director-General Inter-Services ISI Intelligence Lt. Gen. Nadeem Anjum, and Director-General Military Operations Gen. Sahir Shamshad Mirza comprehensively briefed the lawmakers about the recent resurgence of TTP terror activity and the latest security challenges across the country.Following the in-camera session, Munir presided over the Corps Commanders’ Conference in the General Headquarters at Rawalpindi on Friday. The army’s field and administrative leadership reviewed in detail the current threats to national security interests at all levels.

The Armed Forces Media Wing said in a statement that “the meeting reviewed the domestic and regional environment, including external and internal security challenges Pakistan confronts.”

The statement said that the forum’s focused counterterrorism campaign against terrorists as approved by the government will get rid of “permissive factors of terrorism, extremism and instability in the country.”

The Media Line spoke to several experts about the Pakistani defense minister's statement and the launch of a comprehensive operation to eliminate terrorism. Retired Brig.-Gen. Muhammad Zeeshan, who serves as the director-general of the Center for Peace, Security and Development Studies in Islamabad, told The Media Linethat the “Pakistani defense minister's statement may not be well calibrated, because a few weeks ago a high-level Pakistani delegation led by the same defense minister visited Kabul, and they were assured that the TTP would not be allowed to use Afghan soil against Pakistan.”

Zeeshan said that this is “a complex issue that needs to be understood, that there are long-standing relations between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban; both are ideological brothers, and both fought side by side the US-led invasion in Afghanistan, so these historical relations cannot be terminated at once.”

“Diplomatic brinkmanship by giving a harsh statement was not the best option at this time. Islamabad must understand that such statements may harm the ongoing peace efforts across the border,” Zeeshan noted. “Afghan authorities must stop TTP from fundraising in the name of so-called jihad and restrict their activities on Afghan soil. Pakistan should continue operations against TTP along the border on its side and intelligence-based operations are vital in this regard, this time TTP does not have public support,” he added.

Adrian Calamel, a New York-based Middle East and global security expert, and a former professor of global and Middle Eastern history at the State University of New York’s Finger Lakes Community College, does not believe that “any kinetic action taken by Pakistan inside Afghanistan can hurt as long as they are hitting the right targets.”

Calamel further told The Media Line, “For over 20 years the Afghan Taliban were getting safe haven and support from the state of Pakistan and the TTP. Now they control Afghanistan and are naturally aligned with the TTP.” He added that “Taliban ideology is expansionist and always will be, so the question is where they try to expand. Looking at the fitness of the landscape, Pakistan seems like a natural choice.”

The United States recently said it would back Pakistan for any counterterrorism operation carried out on Afghan soil. “The US State Department is completely risk averse and would rather have Pakistan doing the work with possible help from US intelligence, but after the American withdrawal, I question the accuracy of our intelligence inside the country,” according to Calamel. Additionally, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken probably has “hostage diplomacy” on his mind, according to Calamel, since there are at least 175 Americans still being detained by the Taliban, something Blinken said during a congressional hearing on March 30.

Ali Maisam Nazary, head of foreign relations for the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, told The Media Line that “the security and stability concerns we are facing today in Afghanistan and the region had been communicated to Pakistan from time to time. It was clearly specified that the Taliban's return would be a source of instability for everyone, including Pakistan.”

“Despite its support and assistance to the Afghan Taliban for more than 20 years, at the moment Pakistan is facing a serious menace from terrorists supported by the Taliban,” Nazary also told The Media Line.

He emphasized that “to counter the growing influence of terrorist organizations in Afghanistan, Pakistan must change its overall policy toward the Taliban and start a serious dialogue with the Afghan Democratic Forces including national resistance forces.”

Andy Vermaut, a Brussels-based counter-extremism expert and president of the World Council for Public Diplomacy and Community Dialogue, told The Media Line that “any strike on Afghan soil will worsen ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Kabul will definitely retaliate, which could lead to escalation instead of dialogue.”“Furthermore, such a strike would cause a surge in terror incidents across the country; ultimately, there is a fear of the loss of countless human lives. As a human rights defender I am worried about that,” he added.Vermaut said that “Pakistan should basically drill to ensure that it acts fairly and does everything possible to prevent people from getting hurt, but we all know the reality of war.”

“To prevent collateral damage and human rights violation, Pakistan and Afghanistan must be engaged in dialogues, they will find a better way to eliminate cross-border terrorism. Armed intervention should always be the last option,” Vermaut concluded. Naseeb Ullah Shah, an analyst based in Landi Kotal, a town near the key Pakistan-Afghan border crossing of Torkham, told The Media Line that “Pakistan’s possible strikes on Afghan soil will adversely affect the peace and stability in the already war-torn region.”

“Pakistan’s possible strikes on Afghan soil will adversely affect the peace and stability in the already war-torn region.”

Naseeb Ullah Shah

“When a terror attack occurs or measures are taken against terrorists, the local population is affected the most. Instead of opting for across-the-border military operations, the conflict should be resolved through nonstop talks between Kabul and Islamabad,” he said.

Meanwhile, on Saturday evening, eight TTP militants were killed by a Pakistan Army Special Services Group at the Pak-Afghan International border in South Waziristan. “During the exchange of fire, two members of the elite forces lost their lives,” according to the Armed Forces Media Wing.