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More rivers to cross

On July 29, 2007, a group of terrorists under the command of Omar Khalid Khorasani captured the mosque and shrine complex of Haji Sahab of Turangzai in the Mohmand Agency of Fata and renamed it Lal Masjid. The shine is the last resting place of a Deobandi scholar, freedom fighter and social reformer who worked closely with Bacha Khan and set up 120 schools.

On February 10, 2017, Khorasani, now head of Jamaatul Ahrar, an Afghanistan-based faction of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), announced a new season of terrorist activities that he code-named Ghazi Abdur Rasheed Operation. In his video message, he identified the targets of his operation. These include the judiciary, the military, law-enforcement personnel, financial institutions, political parties, welfare institution (NGOs), religious minorities and religious sects, peace committees, media persons and educational institutions.

Within a week, Khorasani’s group had killed almost 150 people in a number of suicide attacks, more than 80 at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan alone. Khorasani’s Jamaatul Ahrar has forged close links with Daesh. While Jamaatul Ahrar claimed responsibility for the suicide blast in Lahore, Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack in Sehwan and gave sectarian reasons for it.

Some early conclusions can be drawn from this deadly spate of violence: our victory celebrations related to the successes of Operation Zarb-e-Azb were premature; terrorist organisations have found sanctuaries in Afghanistan from where they are planning and executing attacks on Pakistan; and at least a section of the TTP has joined hands with Daesh, which has found a foothold in Afghanistan.

Omar Khalid and his close associates escaped to Afghanistan after the Pakistani armed forces launched an operation – codenamed Operation Brekhna (Thunder) – against the Mohmand chapter of the TTP in late 2009. Omar was reportedly welcomed by the Afghan intelligence and provide sanctuary in the Kunar province, just as the Taliban retreating from American attacks had found refuge in Pakistan.

Just as the Afghan Taliban gave birth to the TTP in Pakistan, the TTP in Afghanistan has given birth to the Afghan chapter of Daesh. And just as Fata had slipped out of Pakistan’s control, the Afghan government had lost control of the areas where the Pakistani Taliban were provided sanctuaries. A new situation is emerging in the region, and it demands statesmanship from the leadership.

In June 2015, a Daesh website claimed Afghanistan as part of what they referred to as        the Khorasan province. Khorasan refers to a pre-modern empire that included parts of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Central Asia. When used by Daesh and the Taliban, it hints at the territorial ambitions of these terrorist groups that surpass national boundaries.

General Nicholson, the top US commander in Afghanistan, said in August last year that almost 70 percent of the fighters of the militant Islamic State (IS) group in Afghanistan are Pakistani Taliban who had joined the Islamic State wholesale alongside their leadership and pledged bayt (allegiance) to the Islamic State.

In the absence of a strong state in Afghanistan, regional powers are establishing links with the Afghan Taliban to deal with the rising threat of Daesh emanating from the country. In December, Fazal Hadi Muslimyar, chairman of the Afghan Senate, said that: “Evidence of Russian and Iranian cooperation with the Taliban has been found”. Moscow, according to some media reports, is allegedly helping and arming the Taliban in a bid to contain the influence of Islamic State affiliates in Afghanistan and prevent it from threatening neighbouring Central Asian states.

Asif Nang, the governor of the western Farah province in Afghanistan said in a media interview recently that: “Families of a number of high-ranking Taliban leaders reside in Iran. They live in cities such as Yazd, Kerman, and Mashhad, and come back to Afghanistan for subversive activities.”

India’s Hindu nationalist government appears to be relishing this situation – in which it enjoys a huge influence in Afghanistan and has the means at its command to inflict a lot of pain on archrival Pakistan. However, India should have many reasons to worry about due to the rise of Daesh in the region. With extremist Hindu organisations let loose on Muslims in the form of Gao Rakshaks and other vigilante groups under the protection of an extremist government, Daesh may not find it hard to recruit disgruntled Muslim youth in India when it chooses to do so.

This situation requires close regional cooperation, particularly amongst Afghanistan and its neighbours. Their security and economic interests are tied to each other like never before. Afghanistan, unfortunately, enjoys very limited sovereignty due to the presence of foreign forces and its complete dependence on external resources. It is ruled by a rent-seeking criminal elite that is always keen to serve foreign interests for the sake of monetary gains at the expense of the national interest.

However, even when we are angry at Afghanistan, we should not forget in a hurry that before TTP terrorists found a sanctuary in Afghanistan, they were allowed to operate an emirate on Pakistani soil for years on end. Before a Lal Masjid was set up in Fata, a Lal Masjid was already there in the heart of the capital, run on taxpayers’ money with the support of the state.

It is hard to remove from our collective memory the image of our interior minister almost crying over the death of the head of the TTP in a drone strike. And who can forget Taliban cheerleaders demanding offices for them.

With a hostile government in Kabul that enjoys limited writ on its own soil, it is naive to expect Pakistan to let go of its links with the Afghan Taliban who are its only lever of influence in the neighbouring state and the only means to do something about the TTP terrorists based in that country.

Though the Afghan Taliban are reportedly fighting Daesh for control of territory, they have never relented on Pakistani demands to cut their umbilical cord with the Pakistani Taliban. This problem goes back to the late 1990s when terrorists of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi led by Riaz Basra were provided safe havens in Kabul by the Taliban government. Mullah Omar, the Taliban caliph, had allowed the group to slaughter Shias in Pakistan.

Operation Zarb-e-Azb was not a failure. It was a resounding success that ended the Taliban state on Pakistani soil and improved the overall security situation in the country. We are faced with the enigma, so beautifully captured by Munir Niazi in his famous couplet, of crossing a river only to find that there are more rivers to cross. This is a river that Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan must cross together.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

Email: zaighamkhan@yahoo.com

Twitter: @zaighamkhan

Zaigham Khan, "More rivers to cross," The News. 2017-02-20.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Operation Zarb-e-Azb , Islamic state , Jamaatul Ahrar , Taliban , Daesh , Militants , Extremists , Ghazi Abdur Rasheed , Mullah Omar , Afghanistan , Pakistan , TTP , IS