To stop cross-border violence, Pakistan and Afghanistan must put an end to militant sanctuaries
The latest spate of terrorist attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas has once again brought into the focus the issue of cross-border militant sanctuaries becoming a major source of violence in the region. The attacks on the security forces in North Waziristan and Bajaur border districts are traced to Pakistani militants who have found safe havens in Afghanistan.
According to a UN monitoring committee report from last month, some 6,000 militants, mostly members of various factions of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), are operating from their bases in Afghanistan. Safe havens across the border give them greater freedom of movement. The long, porous border makes it much easier for militants to escape any crackdown. These groups are not only involved in terrorist activities in Pakistan but also in Afghanistan.
These cross border sanctuaries have been a major reason for the latest escalation of terrorist attacks both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. While many recent incident of violence in Pakistan’s border regions have been traced to TTP splinter factions, some of the fugitive militants have joined the Daesh, a group that has its origins in the Middle East.
Daesh are not only fighting the Afghan and American forces but are also in conflict with the Afghan Taliban. The original leadership of the Khorasan chapter of the outfit emerged from the ranks of the TTP fugitives in Afghanistan.
The Daesh have been able to launch some spectacular raids in capital Kabul and parts of eastern Afghanistan, where they have the strongest presence. The UN report estimates their membership in Afghanistan to be 2,200.
There has been a marked escalation in Daesh activity in Afghanistan since the signing of a peace deal between the United States and the Taliban in February. The main objective of these attacks seems to be disrupting the fragile Afghan peace process for which the peace agreement raised hopes. To create fear, Daesh have been mainly targeting civilians, not even sparing hospitals.
The increased activity of TTP splinters on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghan border raises some serious questions. It’s not only the TTP but also groups like the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), whichhave been involved in some recent terrorist attacks in Pakistan, that are using Afghanistan as its base for cross-border actions. Pakistani security officials alleged that BLA has been receiving financial and material support from Indian intelligence services.
There is a long history of Pakistan and Afghanistan offering sanctuary to each other’s opponents — a major source of bitterness and mistrust between the two neighbors.
The ongoing war in Afghanistan and regional conflicts make it easier for foreign agencies to operate and use militants as proxies. The dangerous approach of "my enemy’s enemy is my friend" has provided terrorists greater space to operate, thereby threatening the entire region. The Afghan government says it does not have the kind of control needed to take action against militant sanctuaries because of the ongoing conflict in the country. But the danger is that outside interests could exploit this situation. Many of the militants of all hues, who have reportedly turned into mercenaries, are being used as proxies in the regional conflict. It is indeed a very dangerous situation.
It’s not just about Afghanistan but also militant sanctuaries inside Pakistan allegedly engaging in cross-border terrorist activities. The presence of militant sanctuaries and involvement of foreign interests could weaken the country’s sovereignty. Indeed, there is a long history of Pakistan and Afghanistan offering sanctuary to each other’s opponents — a major source of bitterness and mistrust between the two neighbors.
Undeniably, cross-border sanctuaries are major obstacles in the fight against insurgencies and terrorism. It is not only true for Pakistan, but also for Afghanistan confronting the rising violence. Hostile relations between the two neighboring nations have certainly made it much more difficult for them to deal with the scourge of terrorism.
Pakistan’s move to secure the borders and restrict illegal cross-border movement is understandable, given the serious security situation. But its efforts cannot succeed with the current state of tension with Afghanistan.
Both countries must end this destructive war of sanctuaries in order to formulate a joint strategy to confront the challenges of terrorism and violent insurgency. A joint anti-terrorism policy is vital to the interests of not only Pakistan and Afghanistan, but also the regional and global fight against the terrorist menace.
– Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholar, USA, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam (Columbia university press) and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan (Simon and Schuster, NY). Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ.