IANS Analysis: Pak's perilous path - Counter-terror strategy and strain on Afghan relations

IANS Analysis: Paks perilous path - Counter-terror strategy and strain on Afghan relations

The persistent threats by high-ranking Pakistani officials and ministers to target terrorist groups inside Afghanistan have raised the spectre of further destabilisation in the region.

New Delhi: The persistent threats by high-ranking Pakistani officials and ministers to target terrorist groups inside Afghanistan have raised the spectre of further destabilisation in the region.

For a country that has struggled to contain the menace of terrorism within its borders, Pakistan's military-dominated establishment often obfuscates its shortcomings by blaming the Afghan Taliban and accusing it of providing sanctuary to terrorist groups targeting Pakistan.

With this convenient scapegoating failing to address the root causes of Pakistan's internal security woes, these threats mark a significant escalation in Islamabad's approach to dealing with terrorism, actions that will most likely further strain the already fragile relations between Islamabad and Kabul.

With an exponential surge in terrorist violence in the country, Pakistan's federal government, under pressure from China, whose five nationals were killed in one such incident on March 26, announced its latest counterterrorism operation, Azm-i-Istehkam, or Strong Resolve for Stability, on June 22.

A press release from the Pakistan's Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), affirmed that this "reinvigorated and re-energised" military campaign "will integrate and synergise multiple lines of effort to combat the menaces of extremism and terrorism in a comprehensive and decisive manner".

This was followed by Defence Minister Khwaja Asif's declaration of June 27 emphasising in no uncertain terms that Islamabad would not hesitate targeting terrorist groups inside Afghanistan as part of this counterterrorism push.

Operation Azm-i-Istehkam is the latest in a series of military campaigns by the Pakistani state to root out terrorism from the country.

In 2014, Pakistan launched its first large-scale counterterrorism operation, Zarb-e-Azb, or Sword of Prophet Muhammad, against various extremist groups such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in its North Waziristan region. While it displaced nearly a million people and led to hundreds of civilian deaths, Pakistan claimed to have succeeded in dismantling the terror ecosystem and eliminating over 3,500 terrorists.

Despite these claims, the operation failed to address the root causes of extremism in the country, allowing the TTP and other groups to regain strength swiftly and engage in anti-state violence.

Following Zarb-e-Azb, the Pakistan Army initiated Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad, or Rejection of Strife, to consolidate its gains. However, the recurrent terrorist attacks indicated that the campaign did little to dismantle the terror ecosystem in the country, allowing the terrorists to operate with relative impunity.

The problem with these operations has been their unilateral militaristic approaches to the issues that demand multipronged engagement, something Pakistani authorities seem unwilling to adopt.

The Pakistani government's strategy took a more complex turn in August 2021, when it supported the Afghan Taliban in ousting the Republican Government of Afghanistan to establish an Islamic Emirate.

The belief was that a friendly regime in Kabul would help contain terrorism away from Pakistan's borders while providing it a strategic depth to counter regional powers like India and Iran. This expectation, however, proved to be very short-lived and highly delusional as it did not bring any security dividend to Pakistan. Instead, it appears to have further contributed to Pakistan’s internal security vows.

The Afghan Taliban, sharing ideological ties with the TTP, have little incentive to act against their ideological brothers and credible allies who had fought alongside them against American forces. As such, it has disregarded Islamabad's calls for undertaking military action against TTP, especially after the breakdown of a ceasefire between the Pakistan Army and TTP in November 2022.

Ever since, Pakistan has witnessed an exponential surge in terrorist attacks resulting in over 2,300 deaths of Pakistani security forces, as claimed by the country’s federal government.

Ever since, Pakistan has repeatedly blamed the Afghan Taliban for providing safe sanctuary to TTP militants, asserting that these groups "have consistently used Afghan territory to launch terror attacks inside Pakistani territory", accusations that Kabul has repeatedly denied.

Interestingly, the Afghan Taliban has accused Pakistan's spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), of patronising Islamic State Khorasan (ISK), a group which has emerged as the biggest security challenge for the Afghan government and conducted dozens of terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan.

With an unprecedented surge in terrorist attacks in March 2024 wherein seven Pakistani soldiers were killed, including a Lieutenant Colonel and a Captain rank officer, Islamabad went on to conduct cross-border air strikes inside Afghanistan on March 18, 2024, demonstrating the level of distrust between Kabul and Islamabad. The Pakistan authorities claimed to have killed eight terrorists in the Paktika and Khost provinces along the Pakistan border in its air strikes.

Afghan Taliban in response condemned the air strikes as an outright "violation of Afghani territory", warning Islamabad that such transgressions could "lead to dire consequences which will not be in control of Pakistan", even as it mobilised its forces along the Durand Line.

Nevertheless, Kabul has consistently denied its support for the Pakistan Taliban. It has reasoned that instead of blaming Afghanistan for its "failure to control violent incidents", it would better serve Islamabad to look inwards and address its internal fissures than pointing fingers at others.

As such, Pakistan's threats to repeat such actions not only risk violating international norms but could also ignite a broader conflict in an already volatile region.

The potential for cross-border counterterrorism operations raises several critical questions. First and foremost, can Pakistan achieve its security objectives without further destabilizing the region? The answer is uncertain. While targeting militant groups in Afghanistan may yield short-term gains, it will likely provoke retaliatory attacks and deepen the cycle of violence as has been demonstrated by its earlier military campaigns.

It seems that Pakistani authorities in its bid to appease China, on whose behest Operation Azm-i-Istehkam is being conducted, are unwilling to address the root cause of instability in the country.

Moreover, the projection of the ghost of external threat is an obfuscation of the failure of Pakistani security forces which have for years engaged in counter-terrorism measures and yet not succeeded in ending this menace from the country. It is highly unlikely that the Afghan government will view any such incursions and Islamabad's constant badgering with kindness amidst its own security predicaments.

Therefore, as Pakistan initiates yet another military campaign, it should remember that any cross-border misadventure in Afghanistan is fraught with risks that could further destabilise an already fragile region.

Shehbaz Sharif's government would do Pakistan a favour by refraining from such hawkish measures and understanding that the path to the country’s lasting security and stability lies not in military transgressions but holistically addressing the root cause of terrorism in the country which has socio-economic grievances at the core. It must tread carefully, lest it finds itself embroiled in a conflict that it cannot control.

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