Kabul visit, and after

Kabul visit, and after

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The visit of a high-level Pakistani delegation to Kabul last week raised official hopes that the Taliban would respond to Islamabad’s security concerns about cross-border terror attacks from Afghanistan. The delegation led by defence minister Khawaja Asif, which included Lt. General Nadeem Anjum, head of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), met with senior Taliban leaders, deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar Akhund, defence minister Mohammad Yaqoob Mujahid and interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani for talks on “the growing threat of terrorism in the region.”

The visit came against the backdrop of a wave of terrorist attacks in Peshawar, Karachi and elsewhere in Pakistan. Responsibility for these was claimed by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the outlawed militant group based in Afghanistan that still operates from there. The attack on a mosque in Peshawar’s police lines last month claimed over a hundred lives and shook the country. Even before this, the surge in TTP violence across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province was a source of growing official and public concern. Incidents of extortion were widely reported in KP as were threats from TTP militants. In Swat, thousands of residents took to the streets to voice their rejection of TTP and called on the authorities to prevent its return to the region. All this as well as a spike in border clashes in recent months injected growing strains in relations between Islamabad and Kabul.

The Pakistani delegation’s visit was therefore deemed to be both urgent and important. It went with a one-point agenda – to ensure the Taliban understood Pakistan’s red line on terror attacks from Afghan soil and secure a commitment by Kabul to rein in TTP and deny it the sanctuary its fighters enjoy there. It was also the first ministerial-level engagement exclusively focused on counter-terrorism. A statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said “The two sides agreed to collaborate to effectively address the threat of terrorism posed by various entities and organizations.” Other official accounts suggested the delegation received assurances from Taliban leaders on the TTP. Members of the delegation described the outcome as “positive” and indicated that the Taliban authorities had given a “fresh commitment” to take action. But the gap in the public account of the talks by the two sides could not have been starker. The statement issued by the Taliban interim government after the meetings barely mentioned security issues and instead focused on trade, economic cooperation and regional connectivity.

A serious move should involve holding a conference after and not before evolving a coherent counter militancy strategy, which is still lacking. Conferences are forums to ratify or tweak strategies, not frame them. 

Maleeha Lodhi

Regardless of this public posturing, the key question is whether the Taliban will act against the TTP given its previous record of unkept commitments and inaction. After all, past entreaties by Pakistan met with similar assurances. But they amounted to little. Only time will tell whether it will be any different this time. For now, Taliban leaders have sought financial assistance from Islamabad ostensibly to disarm and resettle TTP fighters and their families, estimated to be around 5,000, away from the border with Pakistan.  

But beyond relying on the Taliban authorities’ cooperation there is the pressing question of what Pakistan’s own strategy is to deal with the rising militant threat. The ruling coalition has yet to unveil any coherent plan. After the Peshawar bombing it announced it would convene an all-parties round table conference on the issue. But it has failed to hold one. Instead, there has been one postponement after another. There has also been no pressure from Parliament to convene the conference. Moreover, a serious move should involve holding a conference after and not before evolving a coherent counter militancy strategy, which is still lacking. Conferences are forums to ratify or tweak strategies, not frame them. 

A meeting did take place last week of the central apex committee which comprises the top civilian and military leadership to take stock of the security situation. It called for building national consensus on critical issues including terrorism. But it was silent on how it proposed to do this. It also gave no indication of when it would unveil a counter-militancy plan.

Other than fashioning a credible strategy and mobilising political and public support for it, the government also needs a well-thought policy to deal with Afghanistan’s Taliban authorities. Pakistan’s policy makers need to adopt a consistent ‘tough love’ approach rather than delivering a ‘strong message’ every now and then. That means using Pakistan’s considerable, unused leverage in a carefully calibrated way from a policy toolkit of incentives and disincentives to secure the necessary cooperation from Kabul. 

Along with this Islamabad needs to promote and evolve a coordinated regional strategy so that collective leverage is used to bring pressure to bear on Kabul. Security after all is a concern for all of Afghanistan’s neighbors even if their other interests vary. Between appeasement and confrontation there is plenty of room to devise a realistic Afghan policy which raises the costs of non-cooperation for Taliban leaders and effectively protects Pakistan’s security interests.

— Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

Twitter @LodhiMaleeha

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