When the United States withdrew its forces from Afghanistan after 20 years in the country, it did so on the promise that the Taliban, once back in power, would not provide sanctuary to terrorist groups.
The Taliban pledge covered not only Al Qaeda, the terrorist group whose presence in the country prompted the 2001 invasion of the United States, but also the Taliban’s ideological twin next door, the Pakistani Taliban, or TTP (Tehrik-i- Taliban Pakistan).
But the recent breakdown of an already shaky year-long ceasefire in neighboring Pakistan between the TTP and Islamabad raises some troubling questions about whether that promise will stick.
The end of the ceasefire in Pakistan threatens not only the escalation of violence in the country, but also a potential increase in cross-border tensions between the Afghan and Pakistani governments.
And it is already putting the spotlight on the links between the Afghan Taliban and their Pakistani counterpart.
In the spring of last year, Pakistani Taliban leader Noor Wali Mehsud told CNN that in exchange for helping drive the US out of Kabul, his group would expect support from the Afghan Taliban in its own fight.
Like their former brothers-in-arms in Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban want to overthrow their country’s government and impose their own strict Islamic code.
In an exclusive interview with CNN this week, Mehsud blamed Islamabad for the ceasefire violation, saying it “violated the ceasefire and martyred dozens of our comrades and arrested dozens of them.”
But he was more cautious when asked directly if the Afghan Taliban were now helping his group as he had hoped.
His reply: “We are fighting Pakistan’s war from Pakistan’s territory; using Pakistani soil. We have the capacity to fight for many more decades with the weapons and spirit of liberation that existed on the soil of Pakistan.”
These words should worry not only Islamabad, but also Washington.
The FBI has been tracking the TTP for at least a decade and a half, long before it radicalized and trained Faisal Shazad for his brazen car-arson attack in New York’s Times Square in 2010.
After the Times Square attack, the TTP was designated a terrorist organization and is still considered a threat to US interests.
And while Islamabad is keen to downplay the group’s threat, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah says Pakistan can “fully” control the conflict with the TTP and describes talks with the TTP during the ceasefire as talks “that remain in a state of war”. – their control of the situation revolves around the fact that the TTP remains within Pakistan’s borders.
There are growing questions about the scope of the TTP and Islamabad’s perception of the situation does not match Mehsud’s.
In April this year, the Pakistani military hit targets in Afghanistan warning that “terrorists are using Afghan soil with impunity to carry out activities inside Pakistan.”
And in late November, the day after the ceasefire broke down, Islamabad again asserted that the TTP was using Afghan territory as a safe haven, sending Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar for him to express his concerns in Kabul.
The following day, the TTP claimed responsibility for an attack in the border province of Quetta, where a suicide bomber had attacked a police van assisting a polio vaccination team, killing three and injuring 23.
When CNN pressed Meshud about Islamabad’s claims that it is receiving Afghan aid, asking if the support is being kept secret, he dismissed that, saying, “When we don’t need any help from the Afghan Taliban; What’s the point of hiding it?”
However, cross-border tensions between the Afghan and Pakistani governments are rising and returned to a stalemate last week in an exchange between the two countries’ militaries near the Chaman/Spin Boldak border post, a vital trade link between the two countries.
Six people died and 17 were injured. Although there are no signs of direct involvement of the TTP – or at least, not yet – the end of the ceasefire has clearly raised the temperature.
The situation is only becoming more inflammable, with the TTP this week announcing that three more jihadist groups had joined its ranks, all hailing from the troubled Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
The United States has also accused the Pakistani Taliban of using Afghan territory, doing so in a statement three days after the ceasefire ended in which the State Department named TTP defense chief Qari Amjad as to “Specially Designated Global Terrorist”.
This raises the possibility that the United States could target TTP commanders found operating in Afghanistan, just as it killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a drone strike in Kabul in September.
“The United States is committed to using its full suite of counterterrorism tools to counter the threat posed by terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan, including Al-Qaida in the Indian subcontinent and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan ( TTP), as part of our relentless efforts to ensure that terrorists do not use Afghanistan as a platform for international terrorism,” the State Department said in its statement.
Interestingly, the Pakistani Taliban is the only terrorist group in the region that has acknowledged the killing of al-Zawahiri.
However, in his CNN interview, Mehsud was defiant, saying he “didn’t expect the United States to take this action” against his group.
“America should stop mocking us by interfering in our affairs unnecessarily at the instigation of Pakistan; this cruel decision shows the failure of American policy,” he said.
But he also responded with a threat, that “if America takes this step, America will be responsible for its loss. The United States has not yet understood Pakistan’s duplicitous policy; Pakistan’s history is a testimony that it keeps changing direction by their own interests.”
Washington, meanwhile, faces a dilemma. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto is visiting the US and the TTP was likely on the agenda when he met UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for a Council debate of Security on the “maintenance of international peace and security” on 14 December. appears in his talks with officials of the US administration in Washington, DC, which are scheduled for December 19.
But as the United States has already discovered to its cost, there are no easy solutions in Afghanistan.
More than a year since its withdrawal and the humanitarian situation in the country continues to worsen, and despite the fact that the United States recently eased controls that limit the Afghan Taliban’s access to international funds, the former terrorist group turned government continues to fail even international moderates. expectations of good governance.
The UN human rights chief recently accused the Afghan Taliban of “the continuing systemic exclusion of women and girls from virtually every aspect of life,” and last week they held their first public execution since coming to power
However, if the Afghan Taliban are shown to be aiding the TTP, there is another troubling prospect for the United States: it may face increased pressure to get involved again.