There has been a series of cross-border attacks since April 2011 by Taliban militants operating out of Kunar province of Afghanistan, and attacking security installations and civilian settlements in Upper and Lower Dir districts of Malakand Division, Bajaur and Mohmand agencies of FATA. The attacks seem to multiply Pakistan’s woes regarding stabilising these conflict-hit areas. While the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the cross-border raids, local tribesmen also claimed the participation of foreign militants as well as Afghan Taliban in these brazen attacks. Reports indicate that the TTP and allied militant outfits have successfully established semi-sanctuaries in the neighbouring Kunar and Nuristan provinces of Afghanistan, after they were driven out from the above-mentioned areas during multiple and simultaneously military operations which were initiated since August 2008. There are number of issues which need attention.
Firstly, terrorist sanctuaries, which until 2008 mainly existed on the Pakistani side of the border could now be found on the Afghan side of the border as well. This is mainly due to the current US’ counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy that was put in place during late 2009-early 2010 by the incumbent US Administration. The existing strategy is based on protecting the urban population centres in Afghanistan, under which the US and ISAF-NATO withdrew from most of the forward operating bases (FoB) located on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and the rural area. This provided an opportunity for the Taliban and associated militant groups to exploit the security void created as a result of withdrawal of troops from Kunar and Nuristan, and establish terrorist bases paraphernalia on the Afghan side of the border. Particularly important are the Pech and Korengal Valleys in Kunar, from wich NATO withdrew its presence completely. It is precisely from these two valleys in Kunar province, that the TTP along with Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda are launching attacks into Pakistan. The growing strength of insurgents in Kunar and Nuristan could be gauged from the fact that since April 2011, the Kunar-Nuristan Highway connecting the two provinces has been closed by them in order to apply economic pressure on local residents of Nuristan to submit to the Taliban rule.
Secondly, Kunar and Nusristan provinces are host to many militant groups, foremost being Jamaat al-Dawa al-Sunnat (JDS), a militant outfit comprising of Salafi-Wahabi Afghan fighters. This militant outfit does not belong to the mainstream Afghan Taliban school of thought, but owed allegiance to Mullah Omar, supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban, somewhere in early 2010, in order to put joint resistance to foreign coalition troops. While the JDS seems to be spiritually tied to Mullah Omar, they retain their operational independence. The most important commander of the JDS is Qari Ziaur Rehman, who belongs to Kunar province. Ziaur Rehman maintains close links with the TTP-Bajaur, especially Maulana Faqir Muhammad, and is known to be active in Bajaur Agency. The mainstream Afghan Taliban also denied involvement in cross-border attacks into Pakistan. This could explain the operational independence which the JDS exercises from mainstream Mullah-Omar led Taliban, when it comes to militant activity in the region.
The JDS also maintains very close ties with al-Qaeda, which has been able to recently establish a strong presence in Kunar and Nuristan provinces. In fact, Qari Ziaur Rehman is sometimes referred to as the joint leader of Taliban and al-Qaeda in Kunar and Nuristan. In recent months, many senior leaders of al-Qaeda were killed or captured in NATO raids in Kunar province. They include Abu Hafs al-Najdi alias Abdul Ghani, who was reported to the highest ranking Qaeda leader in Afghanistan, and who was killed in April 2011. Najdi’s predecessor, Abu Ikhlas al-Masri, was earlier arrested in a NATO raid in December 2010. Similarly, Qari Masiullah, Qaeda’s former chief of security for Kunar province was also killed in a NATO raid somewhere in December 2009.
Thirdly, intensification in cross-border attacks by Taliban from Kunar province into the Dir districts, Bajaur and Mohmand agencies came in the wake of killing of Osama bin Laden (OBL) on 2 May 2011 in a US raid in Abbottabad. A large number of people in Pakistan refuse to accept that the US conducted the entire operation on its own, and believe that there could be a covert Pakistani support behind the raid. It is because of this perception that soon after the death of OBL the TTP’s spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, vowed to take revenge from the Pakistani government, stating, “Now Pakistani rulers, President Zardari and the [Pakistan] Army will be our first targets. America will be our second target.” Similarly, Qaeda also suspects Pakistan’s involvement in the US raid, and fears that Pakistan may assist future operations against Qaeda as well. In the words of US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, “There is some indication that al-Qaeda is worried that - because of the way we went after Bin Laden, their suspicion is that the Pakistanis may have been involved in it.” The Al Qaeda militants were “worried that the Pakistanis may betray them as well,” he added.
- Kunar and Nusristan provinces are host to many militant groups, foremost being Jammat al Dawa al-Sunnat (JDS), a militant outfit comprising of Salafi-Wahabi Afghan fighter. This militant outfit does not belong to the mainstream Afghan Taliban school of though, but owed allegiance to Mullah Omar, supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban.
Post-OBL killing, there is an increasing pressure on Pakistan, especially from the US, to launch a massive military operation in North Waziristan Agency (NWA) to disrupt and dismantle semi-sanctuaries of local Taliban and foreign militants. Particularly worried are al-Qaeda and the TTP, which took refuge in Mirali area of NWA, after fleeing the South Waziristan Agency (SWA) during military operation “Rah-e-Nijat” (Urdu for The Path to Salvation) in October 2009, who believe that any such future operation would directly affect them.
Therefore, in order to forestall any future military operation by the Pakistan Army, the TTP and al-Qaeda in cohorts with JDS are intensifying cross-border raids from Kunar into Malakand, Bajaur and Mohmand, so that Pakistan may remain bogged down in the abovementioned areas, and may not be able to redeploy its troops in NWA. One of the objectives of the TTP is to establish a foothold in the area by staging a comeback into Swat and other districts of Malakand Division by targeting security forces and weakening the writ of the government. Since Malakand Division, Bajaur and Mohmand agencies share border with Kunar province, re-establishment of Taliban rule in the above-mentioned Pakistani territory may provide strategic depth to the Taliban on both sides of the border, and could act as vibrant sanctuaries through which Taliban could ferry logistics and recruits while targeting Kabul and Islamabad simultaneously.
Fourthly, cross-border raids by the TTP highlights the long-term threat this group poses to Pakistan. The TTP was established in December 2007 on the principle of primarily fighting against the US and NATO troops “occupying” Afghanistan, while simultaneously waging a “defensive” jihad against Pakistan, if they are obstructed by the latter from conducting cross-border raids into Afghanistan. However, it seems that this “defensive” strategy has now been changed into “offensive” strategy by the TTP, particularly at a time when they are already based in Afghanistan and does not face obstruction by Pakistani security forces. The TTP’s elevation of Pakistan as the “first target” and the US as the “second target” in the post-OBL killing, explains the transformation of this group and the threat it poses to Pakistan.
Pakistan’s predicament has multiplied since the establishment of cross-border terrorist sanctuaries and subsequent border raids by the Taliban could reverse the fragile security gains Pakistan has made against the militants in Malakand Division, Bajaur and Mohmand agencies. Inaction by NATO and Afghan government to wipe out the terrorist sanctuaries has made Pakistan question the sincerity of the international coalition, particularly when they are insisting on Pakistan to open new military front against the Taliban insurgents in North Waziristan. Such cross-border incidents could complicate improvement of relations between Pakistan, Afghanistan and US-NATO countries, while also worsening the cross-border relations between the Pushtun tribes. The situation could take a dangerous turn if cross-border attacks are not stopped, since it may engage the Afghan and Pakistani security forces, as well as tribes on both the sides into hostile action against each other.
There is a need for both Afghanistan and Pakistan to enhance bilateral cooperation on security matters, which affect both of them. Both the countries need to take steps to deny safe havens, recruitment and training of militants, and curb cross-border infiltration of militants on both sides. Similarly, intelligence sharing needs to be enhanced. There is a need to institutionalise flag meetings between border forces on both sides to coordinate their actions and avoid misunderstanding that could cause human and material damage. Since the border is very porous and rough, there could be selective fencing or mining of the border area, from where infiltration could not be stopped easily. However, the fencing could be undertaken in a way that Pushtun tribesmen living on both sides still can easily cross the border after clearing a few security checks. Similarly, joint patrolling by security forces of both countries could also be considered for eliminating cross-border infiltration.
Syed Adnan Ali Shah Bukhari is Associate Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore.