Pakistan in dilemma; Terror group or Taliban

Pakistan has become sandwich between Afghanistan ruling Taliban and ISIS-Khorasan as it is losing trust from both the sides. Pakistan helped Taliban gain power but the relations have under gown few ups and downs after that.  Whereas on the other side ISIS-Khorasan group which supports orthodox Islam practices is waiting for a chance to spread its wings in the country.

For one, The Taliban feedback is that most Afghans feel Pakistan interferes more than required in Afghan affairs. Pakistan has tried in all of 2021 to rectify this image primarily by extending crucial aid to the Afghans.

That has not cut much ice because, simultaneously, Pakistan closed down all trade routes along its border with Afghanistan. That inconveniences many Afghans for whom Pakistan is the biggest market for agricultural products. Tons of Afghan vegetables and fruits perished because of the border closure. Even the officialdom in the country is now irritated with Pakistan’s intransigence on the border issue.

After complaints grew that Afghan traders were being mistreated by Pakistani border guards, the Taliban decided to close down one of the border crossings adding to the people’s woes.

What has also bothered both Afghan citizens and the Taliban is the alleged unfair advantage the Pakistan International Airlines took during the Afghan crisis in the second half of 2021 by vastly increasing the prices of air tickets to Afghan passengers after the fall of the Ashraf Ghani government.

A Kabul to Islamabad ticket that cost $150 in the beginning of 2021 shot up to $1500 in mid-August and thereafter. The decision to hike the prices was taken unilaterally by the PIA in light of heavy demand for tickets.

The issue led to a row last October when the PIA canceled flights to Afghanistan after the Taliban demanded that it lower ticket prices. The airline refuted the charges, saying instead that it was operating flights only on “humanitarian grounds.”

However, both sides have not yet reached a point of no return in their relationship. That may change in 2022 because Pakistan is expected to face greater pressure from domestic right-wing Islamist groups to recognise the Taliban government.

Despite its friendly ties with the Taliban, Pakistan has not recognised the interim government. Whenever the issue is raised, Pakistan issues statements asking the world community to recognise the Taliban government.

This is because it is trying to neutralise pressure from within the country which could otherwise derail the Pakistan government. Islamic political party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam is raising the recognition demand. Its leader, Fazlur Rehman is one of Pakistan’s most powerful clerics. He also heads Pakistan Democratic Movement, the country’s largest opposition alliance, and has a massive following.

Rehman and the Afghan Taliban follow the Deobandi Islamic ideology which is another reason why Rehman is increasing pressure on the Pakistan government.

This is not all. The Islamic State (IS) is carrying on a turf war with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The IS has no love lost with Pakistan either and threatens to use its growing influence among extreme-right Islamist groups to force the government to turn Pakistan into a hardline Islamist state.

For the time being, the IS is directing all attacks against the Taliban. The latter does not want to formally take on the IS because it is worried the IS may become an alternative option for Taliban dissidents.

The role of the IS also worries Pakistan. The ISIS-K branch of the IS was originally made up of militants of Taliban-e-Tehrik Pakistan (TTP), known as the Pakistani Taliban (though they do not see eye to eye with the Afghan Taliban). The TTP have been leading a crusade against the Pakistan government for long and have only recently agreed to a ceasefire agreement with it.

If Pakistan tries to cut down the influence of TTP within the country, there is a possibility that the TTP reacts angrily by openly supporting the anti-Pakistan actions of the IS. As a western media reports on the quandary for Pakistan: “The current TTP understanding with the Pakistani state depends upon this factor: a lenient approach by the Pakistan Taliban leadership might swell Islamic State ranks.”

Thus, Pakistan is caught between the Taliban and the IS as they fight it out in Afghanistan. At the same time, Pakistan has to deal with its simultaneously growing differences with the Afghan Taliban, the TTP and the IS.

This entrepreneurial approach to militancy – ignoring the global nature of local violence – not only normalises these mounting abuses, but also presents violence as a fait accompli and, therefore, skips the focus on integrated forces of violence benefiting from the recycling local conditions of extremism.

We should not underestimate the consequences of the machine war that indicates the increased use of drones. Giving a briefing to the US Senate, Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defence for policy, said that the ISIS-K does not have the capacity to carry out attacks inside the US right now, but “we could see ISIS-K generate that capability in somewhere between six or 12 months”.

This time the US seems to fight terrorists from “over the horizon” (to use Joe Biden’s phrase as a reference to the drone war). It is a contradiction for an absolute power to see an enemy over the horizon while ignoring the fact we all live side by side in this small world.

Pakistan has developed a new strategy for the new year to deal with the situation. On the one hand, it was to divide the Afghan Taliban into moderate and hardliner groups and try to maintain its influence on both factions. If the nagging issue of delayed recognition forces the Taliban to take a moderate line, it will automatically bring the moderates and the hardliners on a collision course. Any weakening of the moderate faction can potentially irritate the world community to deny recognition to the hardline faction. Otherwise, Pakistan can always dangle the recognition carrot to keep the hardliners in check.

As to the threat from the IS and ISIS-K, Pakistan thinks if in the near future the growing economic crisis in Afghanistan makes the Afghans and the moderate Taliban rise against the hardliners, the IS would want to woo them to their side. In that event, Pakistan would escape blame of the international community because the IS is not its creation but an Arab phenomenon.

Also, a situation in the future where the United States may seek to have a small role in Afghan affairs is not altogether ruled out. As the ISIS-K threat grows, the Taliban may be forced to look for international help, mostly in the form of exchange of intelligence – a kind of indirect cooperation with the US and Nato. If that by chance leads to the presence of a small western force inside Afghanistan, Pakistan would get a reprieve because it can once again play the role of the go-between the West and the forces in Afghanistan.

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