For years Pakistan was accused of differentiating between good and bad militants, particularly the Taliban — and this perception still exists.
The general view was that Pakistan spared the so-called ‘good’ militants who were not attacking it and punished the ‘bad’ ones bent upon harming it. The Afghan Taliban and one of their factions, Haqqani network, along with the Pakistani Taliban groups with which the government signed peace treaties were considered ‘good’ militants. And the Pakistani Taliban fighting the state and other militants, ranging from al Qaeda to the Islamic State (IS) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) to the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) were lumped together as ‘bad’ militants.
Afghanistan, too, has followed suit, and it is now treating different categories of militants differently. The Pakistani Taliban groups, such as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Jamaatul Ahrar (JA), along with Mangal Bagh’s Lashkar-i-Islam (LI) that have found refuge in Afghanistan after facing defeat at the hands of Pakistan’s security forces are all seen in Kabul as ‘good’ militants — because they have never fought the Afghan state and its allies, such as the Nato forces, and are relentless in their attacks against Pakistan.
There is no record of any attack by the Pakistani Taliban groups against Afghanistan even though they set up their sanctuaries in the Afghan territory across the Pak-Afghan border in 2009. Also, there has been no recorded attack by the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan or against Pakistan’s interest to-date.
Pakistan’s attitude towards the good and bad terrorists was considered as part of a common sense strategy because the priority was to go after those who were wreaking havoc in Pakistan, and refraining from taking action against those who weren’t a threat to it, as the purpose was not to turn friendly militants into enemies. However, critics warned that the good militants could at some stage turn bad and start attacking Pakistan. In their view, terrorists cannot be good and tolerable as they use force indiscriminately, kill civilians and aim to destabilise states.
The policy of Afghanistan and Pakistan may be similar, but the former has largely escaped the blame while the latter is routinely criticised at international forums. The reason could be that Afghanistan has perfected the policy of good and bad militants in recent years while Pakistan was allegedly practising it for long. Also, the presence of US-led Nato forces in Afghanistan made the Western powers an ally of the Afghan government and, therefore, generally supportive of Kabul’s stance with regard to Pakistan.
Until now, Pakistan hadn’t made an issue of the safe havens of Pakistani militants, including the TTP and its splinter groups and the Baloch separatists. Instead, it used to squarely put the blame on the Pakistani militants based in Afghanistan for undertaking attacks in Pakistan, and avoided directly blaming the Afghan government for harbouring and patronising these groups.
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Gradually, Pakistan started providing evidence to the Afghan government, which was in a state of denial, about the presence of the Pakistani militants in Afghanistan. In particular, a day after the December 16, 2014 terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar the Pakistan Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif, and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Director, General Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar, hurriedly flew to Kabul to provide evidence to President Ashraf Ghani about the presence of the mastermind, Khalifa Umar Mansoor, and also the TTP head Maulana Fazlullah in Afghanistan. They wanted the Afghan government to take action against the mastermind and his aides who had sponsored the brutal attack in which 147 persons, including 132 schoolchildren, were killed.
As it has been doing all along, the Afghan government responded by highlighting its own long held grievances against Pakistan instead of initiating any action against the mastermind of the Peshawar school attack in particular and the rest of the Afghanistan-based Pakistani militants in general. This tactic was again in evidence recently when Kabul presented its own list of 85 wanted men among the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network, allegedly present in Pakistan, in response to Islamabad’s demand that 76 Pakistani militants enjoying safe havens in Afghanistan should be expelled or captured and handed over to it.
To make its case against Islamabad stronger, Kabul also gave a list of what it claimed were 32 terrorists’ training centres operating in Pakistan, and being used to launch attacks in Afghanistan.
There is a basic difference between the two sets of militants operating from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Pakistani militants based in Afghanistan have lost all territory under their control in Pakistan, and have escaped across the border, to survive and regroup. In contrast, the Afghan Taliban control a significant share of territory in Afghanistan and their fighters are staying put, and running a parallel administration, courts and other paraphernalia of a ‘shadow’ government in parts of the country.
It is true that many Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network leaders are staying in Pakistan, but their foot soldiers are mostly based in Afghanistan, and are sacrificing and dying on a daily basis.
The Afghan government was clearly trying to dilute the impact of Islamabad’s protests in the wake of the recent almost 11 terrorist attacks carried out in Pakistan by militants operating from Afghanistan’s soil. This was an obvious signal that the Afghan government had no intention of taking action against the Pakistani militants based in Afghanistan unless Pakistan agreed to go after the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network.
On its part, Islamabad has made it clear it won’t initiate action against the Afghan Taliban as this would bring the Afghan conflict into Pakistan. Besides, Pakistan has been arguing that there is no military solution to end the Afghan conflict because it was a political issue, and needed to be settled peacefully through dialogue.
The blame-game between Afghanistan and Pakistan isn’t new, but it has intensified in recent months. One of the destabilising factors in the already strained Pak-Afghan relations is India, which has invested heavily in Afghanistan in terms of providing $2 billion for reconstruction and development projects. It has also built a strong security relationship with Afghanistan that Pakistan finds threatening.
Due to its anger against Pakistan on account of a host of reasons, Afghanistan hasn’t taken notice of Islamabad’s sensitivities while strengthening its defence cooperation with India. Rather, it has ended any pretense of neutrality in context of its political and security ties with India and Pakistan by moving close to New Delhi and away from Islamabad.
Pakistan had always been worried about the prospects of having to face a two-front security threat on both its eastern border with India and Western border with Afghanistan, and this is precisely the situation right now on its two long borders.
To tackle the threat, Pakistan closed its border with Afghanistan at Torkham, Chaman, Ghulam Khan and other places, and attacked Pakistani militants’ hideouts across the border in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces. However, these were temporary measures as the long and porous, 2,500 kilometres Pak-Afghan cannot be effectively sealed and the artillery strikes carried out by Pakistan’s security forces won’t be able to take out every Pakistani militant based in Afghanistan and destroy all their camps.
The Afghan government hinted at a military response to Islamabad, but this looks unlikely, and instead the Pakistani militants linked to its intelligence agency, NDS, and by extension to the Indian RAW could receive greater support to carry out attacks to destabilise Pakistan. This would mean continuation of the blame-game and widening of the trust-deficit between the two Muslim neighbouring countries.