January 10, 2023
ISLAMABAD — Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan advocated Tuesday for a cooperative bilateral relationship with Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers, warning mutual tensions could turn his country’s counterterrorism efforts into a “disastrous forever war.”
Khan spoke at a seminar in the capital, Islamabad, as a new wave of terrorism grips Pakistan, particularly its northwestern districts near the Afghan border, killing hundreds of security personnel and civilians.
Much of the violence is blamed on or claimed by militants linked to the outlawed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) insurgent group, known as the Pakistani Taliban. The militants, including TTP leadership, have taken shelter in Afghanistan after fleeing Pakistani counterterrorism operations and conduct terrorist attacks from there.
The violence has strained Islamabad’s otherwise good ties with Kabul and prompted Pakistani authorities to repeatedly urge the Taliban administration to stop TTP militants from using Afghan soil to plot cross-border terrorist raids.
Khan blamed the government of his successor, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, for issuing “dangerously irresponsible” statements against the de facto Afghan Taliban authorities and causing strains in bilateral ties rather than seeking cooperation in combating the TTP-led terror threat.
“If the government of Afghanistan stops cooperating with us or if you spoil the relations with them, then this war against terrorism in Pakistan will become endless and turn into a major disaster for us,” the former prime minister said.
The TTP is known to be an offshoot of the Afghan Taliban, providing shelter and recruits to the latter for their two decades of successful insurgency against the U.S.-led international forces in Afghanistan. The Islamist insurgents seized power in August 2021 as all U.S.-led foreign troops withdrew from the country.
Pakistani Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah suggested last week in a television interview that the Pakistani military might launch cross-border strikes against TTP targets. His statement triggered a strong backlash from Afghan authorities and a resolve to defend against any such action.
Sanaullah later retracted his remarks and the foreign ministry subsequently ruled out any cross-border military action, saying that as a responsible member of the United Nations, Pakistan will always respect the “territorial integrity and political independence” of Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s sustained operations against TTP bases in border areas over the past decade or so forced the militants to flee into their Afghan hideouts.
Officials in Islamabad maintain that TTP leaders and commanders have been roaming and operating with greater freedom since the Taliban took over Afghanistan.
The Afghan Taliban reject allegations they are allowing any groups, including the TTP, to threaten Pakistan or other foreign countries in line with their counterterrorism pledges to the world. Critics question those claims, citing the killing of Egyptian-born al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in a residential compound in Kabul last year.
Khan, who was ousted in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence last year, said Tuesday that around 30,000 Pakistanis, including TTP fighters and their families, have taken shelter on Afghan soil.
The former prime minister urged the Sharif government to engage with Kabul authorities to encourage repatriation of the refugees and resolve the problem through peaceful means rather than military power.
Sharif and his aides alleged that Khan’s decision to open talks with the TTP encouraged the group to unleash its recent wave of terrorism in Pakistan.
Khan’s ousted administration opened peace talks with the TTP, brokered and hosted by the Afghan Taliban. But the process fell apart last November when the group ended a cease-fire, accusing the government of violating terms of the deal.
Khan also advised Islamabad in his speech Tuesday against seeking Washington’s security assistance in counterterrorism efforts, saying it would intensify terrorism in Pakistan. He warned, citing intelligence information from his time in office, that battle-hardened TTP militants are now equipped with weapons that U.S. and NATO forces left behind in Afghanistan.
The former prime minister noted Pakistani police are comparatively ill-equipped and lack training to deal with the threat.
The TTP, listed as a global terrorist organization by the United States, emerged in Pakistan’s border areas in 2007. All its chiefs and key commanders were killed in U.S. drone strikes against their hideouts on both sides of the border when American forces were stationed in Afghanistan.
Analysts say TTP fighters are openly issuing threats and statements against Pakistan and mainstream politicians because they appear confident they will receive some kind of support from the ruling Taliban in return for services they rendered to the Afghan insurgency against U.S.-led forces.
Ejaz Haider, a Pakistani defense and foreign policy expert, wrote in an article this week in the local online BOL NEWS outlet that even a new round of military operations against the TTP could pose serious challenges for the troops.
He noted that when Pakistan previously launched operations against TTP bases in border areas, the Afghan Taliban were busy battling foreign troops on the other side and hiding from U.S. drone strikes at the same time.
“Now, the situation is different. The foreign troops have left, and Afghanistan is controlled by the TTA [the Afghan Taliban],” Haider said. “The TTP is being — and will be — supported by the TTA,” he added.