What can Pakistan and Afghanistan realistically expect from each other right now?
The frequency of attacks on Pakistani check-posts and security forces from the border areas of Afghanistan has caused understandable anxiety and concern. The attacks have caused a large number of casualties among Pakistan’s security forces. On one such occasion on April 14, an attack was launched from Khost province that borders North Waziristan district on the Pakistan side, and militants killed as many as seven Pakistani soldiers, wounding a few more. In retaliation, Pakistani air strikes resulted in 47 civilian casualties including the deaths of five children and a woman. Tensions mounted on both sides, each accusing the other of ‘failure’ to stop the attacks.
The border situation is becoming unbearable with each passing week, casting a deep shadow over relations between the two neighbours. Pakistan demands Afghan authorities vigorously intervene to stop the cross-border raids by terrorists using Afghan soil. On the face of it, that is a legitimate demand. Every government is required to defend its borders and prevent the use of its territory to target installations in a neighboring country. But then there are grave limitations which must not be lost sight of in formulating a response to such attacks.
First, the reasons for such raids must be understood. The TTP or Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan is weakened but not finished. The volunteers of TTP are hiding across the border in Afghanistan, taking advantage of the lack of administrative capacity and resources, launching such raids in order to take revenge for the damage and destruction they suffered during the military operations of Pakistan in their tribal areas. They are enabled in this mischief by the tribes on the Afghan side of the border. The reason: Deep anger and acrimony over the border fencing erected by Pakistani authorities.
The fencing has caused a near rupture of relations between families on both sides of the border. They cannot visit relatives, attend weddings or funerals. Border trade has been disrupted which was a principal source of income for people of the same tribe on both sides of the border. This has caused hostility in the tribes along the border. TTP is exploiting this feeling of anger in the tribes by co-opting local volunteers who are familiar with the area and launching devastating raids causing fatalities of Pakistani soldiers.
Afghanistan will try to manage a difficult relationship with Pakistan because it has no other option—for now.
Rustam Shah Mohmand
Coming to Pakistan’s demands of the Afghan government, the perspective must be clearly understood. After the Taliban assumed control of the country in August last year, the new administration is handicapped for a number of reasons. The police force and the army have disintegrated. Local Taliban volunteers have been given responsibility for law and order along with the remnants of former police personnel who have been retained by the Taliban. These volunteers largely look after the towns and cities. The border area is not being administered by any trained cadres of police or military. To ask Kabul to control border raids in such circumstances is unrealistic.
What needs to be done in such a situation?
Afghan authorities should proceed to seek support of the tribes in not allowing gangsters to launch raids on Pakistani soldiers or installations. With the tribes on the government side there will be no hiding place for militants to operate. That is central to the strategy aimed at stopping border raids.
Pakistan can help by opening more extensive border posts permitting people to cross the border after identification, to meet relatives, attend weddings, engage in trade of commodities, seek medical help in Pakistani hospitals etc. That will stabilize the border and restore peace.
On its side, Pakistan should stop hitting villages and causing civilian deaths. Only those who launch raids should be hit. Collateral damage must be avoided at all cost.
Kabul has warned Pakistan of dire consequences if air strikes continue causing civilian casualties. But the objective reality is that Afghanistan can do little to respond to any Pakistani air strikes. The problem facing the Pakistani government is how to formulate a short term and long term strategy in dealing with the Taliban government and Afghanistan generally. Afghanistan will try to manage a difficult relationship with Pakistan because it has no other option—for now. But when the new government begins to interact with regional countries after gaining recognition, its attitude will no longer be that of a ‘dependent’ nation. At the moment, Taliban are dependent on Pakistan for transit facilities, food items, skilled labour etc. When political, economic ties with other countries are established, this dependence will considerably diminish.
Then, Taliban will not acquiesce in any situation that is incompatible with Afghanistan’s sovereignty. They will then assert their sovereign authority to protect their territory. With that in view, there is a need for Pakistan to craft a more pragmatic, more far-sighted policy towards its neighbor.
Afghanistan’s strategic location and its vast untapped mineral wealth will soon attract the attention of many big and small regional and other countries as soon as it sheds its isolation. Then it will try to work out a more purpose oriented relationship with its Eastern neighbor. Islamabad should keep that in consideration.
- Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.