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Convergence on Afghanistan

Two days after CoAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa returned from a daylong visit to Kabul on June 11, 2018, during which he met the Afghan and US military leadership, Mullah Fazlullah, chief of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and four of his top commanders were killed by a drone strike in Kunar province in northeastern Afghanistan.

Fazlullah, who earned the epithet Mulla Radio for his hate-filled, vitriolic broadcasts on FM radio while he terrorised Swat, had a long and interesting trajectory as a religious extremist and jihadi. Of humble origins, he rose through the ranks of the Tehreek-e-Nifaz-i-Shariat Mohammadi (TNSM) led by his father-in-law Sufi Mohammad, eventually replacing the latter after he was imprisoned. Both son-in-law and Sufi Mohammad fought in Afghanistan after the US invasion and occupation of that country in 2001. Fazlullah was arrested on his return to Pakistan. After being released and taking over the TNSM, he unleashed a reign of terror in his home area Swat in the name of a strict implementation of so-called sharia.

Those on whom the wrath of Fazlullah was visited were strung up and killed in public squares. Anti-polio campaigners, educationists, schools, nothing modern escaped the medieval mindset of Fazlullah. After the Lal Masjid operation and the emergence of the TTP in 2007, Fazlullah merged the TNSM into the TTP and was declared the TTP Swat chief. By 2009, Fazlullah’s bloody ‘reign’ in Swat was no longer tolerable and a military operation during the PPP-led coalition government in power then was successfully mounted in 2009. The operation forced Fazlullah and his comrades to flee across the border and take refuge on Afghan soil. It was rumoured since then that his reported hideouts in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces were in the control of the Haqqani Network, without whose blessings and support he could not have found safe havens there. This was, to put it mildly, ironic, since the Haqqani Network was believed to be the most deadly proxy in the war in Afghanistan. If such a proxy was sheltering Fazlullah and company, this shed an unsavoury glaring light on the claim that the Haqqanis were ‘our boys’.

Even in his exile in Afghanistan, Fazlullah’s malign shadow dogged events inside Pakistan. The October 2012 near-fatal attack on Malala Yousafzai was traced to him. In November 2013, the TTP chief Hakeemullah Mehsud suffered the same fate as his predecessor Baitullah Mehsud, both being killed in drone strikes. Mulla Fazlullah was then made TTP chief, though not without controversy and misgivings within the TTP ranks. The basic reason for these was the passing of the TTP leadership torch from the Mehsuds to Mulla Fazlullah. As TTP chief, Fazlullah masterminded the massacre of school children in the Army Public School (APS), Peshawar in December 2014.

This horrendous massacre led to the National Action Plan and Operation Zarb-e-Azb in FATA. The APS massacre and the civil-military consensus on action against the TTP silenced the critics of drone strikes against terrorists within Pakistan (tacitly, it was alleged, carried out with the support of our authorities) and advocates of negotiations with the terrorists such as Imran Khan. The all-out military campaign in FATA succeeded in clearing the tribal areas of the terrorist presence (including foreign jihadists in the area since the Afghan wars started) but ‘exported’ the problem across the Afghan border rather than completely eliminated it. The presence of the TTP across the border and its sleeper cells inside Pakistan still provide the means to continue terrorist attacks inside the country.

As though to illustrate the truth of this statement, attacks from Afghanistan were mounted on military outposts on the North Waziristan border that resulted in five attackers and three of our soldiers being killed two days after Fazlullah’s death. These attacks appeared to be revenge for Fazlullah’s fate. However, such pinpricks, even if they continue, should not be given more weight than is their due. In fact the remarkable turnaround and drop in terrorist incidents inside Pakistan since Operation Zarb-e-Azb and its follow up Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad has now been crowned with the taking out of Fazlullah.

While Fazlullah’s elimination is cause for satisfaction, it should not be allowed to become grounds for complacency. Battered and knocked back on its heels, the TTP cannot just be written off as a threat yet. It retains fighters on Afghan soil, underground cells inside Pakistan, and the will, determination and wherewithal to continue a low intensity campaign for the foreseeable future. Letting one’s guard down therefore is not an option.

The more significant aspect of the Fazlullah elimination is that the TTP has blamed the Afghan National Security Directorate (NDS), the premier Afghan intelligence agency, with tipping off the US as to Fazlullah’s whereabouts. If so, this indicates the slowly but surely emerging convergence between Pakistan on the one hand, and the US and Kabul on the other, towards a common strategy for eliminating/accommodating the Taliban phenomenon. While the TTP is unlikely to be spared, the Afghan Taliban could well be nudged by Pakistan towards the negotiating table.

This long awaited but still remarkable convergence has emerged because of a number of factors. First and foremost, with the advent of US President Donald Trump, the heat has been turned on Pakistan to cooperate in the endgame in Afghanistan. The pain inflicted on Pakistan or waiting in the wings revolves around security and military aid being suspended by the US, hidden pressures being applied by the latter on international financial institutions vis-à-vis Pakistan’s anticipated asking for an economic bailout after the elections, and the prospect of alienation of Pakistan from the US-led western alliance.

No one knows better than the Pakistani military that China or Russia are no substitute for the US where access to state of the art military weapons and equipment and the level of finance required next financial year (estimated to be in the region of $ 25 billion) and thereafter are concerned. Trump is poised to hit Pakistan in its weak underbelly, the economy, a prospect as worrying for GHQ as the civil side because the military budget too could be affected.

Pressure, subsequent engagement with the US and Kabul, and Washington’s conceding the need to accommodate Pakistan’s demand for action against the TTP in Afghanistan, all seem to have produced the convergence emerging lately. The wisdom finally seems to be sinking in that an unstable Afghanistan means an unstable Pakistan. Here, neither the civil nor military sides of our power structures seem to have any appetite left for perpetuation of the endless Afghan war. This is a very good development for all parties concerned.

Rashed Rahman, "Convergence on Afghanistan," Business Recorder. 2018-06-19.
Keywords: Military leadership , Religious extremist , Strict implementation , Coalition government , Taliban phenomenon , Western alliance , Qamar Javed Bajwa , Pakistan , Afghanistan , TNSM , TTP , FATA