Attacks in Pakistan cannot end till sanctuaries in Afghanistan are destroyed

COMMENT– Peshawar bled yet again on Friday as a TTP-claimed attack on the Agricultural Training Institute left nine dead and many more injured, highlighting a reality that the banned TTP was able to organize and execute a sophisticated terror strike.

The militants are surely plotting further strikes and the announcement that a number of arrests were made in and around Peshawar city yesterday suggests the existence of a disturbingly active terrorist network inside the country.

The greater threat, however, emanates from the TTP sanctuaries in Afghanistan. It is in Afghanistan that the TTP leadership is believed to be based and without some steps taken to reduce the space the TTP has across the border, it may well be impossible to put an end to attacks inside Pakistan.

Thus far, the Peshawar attack has not stirred up a fresh round of cross-border accusations and recriminations — suggesting that the two states are continuing with efforts to improve bilateral ties that had threatened to fall apart. If that is true, it is welcome news and efforts must be redoubled to improve intelligence-sharing and address threats that jointly and separately affect the two countries.

The pattern has been that intelligence gathered and shared immediately in the wake of an attack can lead to important gains in the fight against militancy and deplete the upper ranks of militant groups. That in turn has the effect of reducing the effectiveness and organizational capacity of militant groups, at least temporarily.

Yet, there remains an inescapable reality: for Pakistan to obtain Afghan cooperation, Pakistan will have to cooperate with Afghanistan to address that country’s security concerns. The common fight against the militant Islamic State group can engender goodwill and reduce tensions in other areas of the bilateral relationship, but at some point the strategic questions will have to be addressed.

Given that the Afghan government recognizes that a political settlement with the Afghan Taliban is the only logical end to the war in that country, Pakistan has an opportunity to prepare the ground for an intra-Afghan peace deal by nudging the Afghan Taliban towards the negotiating table and giving Kabul access to potential negotiators the government may want to hold preliminary talks with.

Clearly, that will not be easy — 16 years of war alone tell their own story. But the strategic imperatives are just as clear: peace will not be achieved in the region until the question of sanctuaries is addressed. Courage and enlightened self-interest will be needed on both sides.

Analysis

US Defense Secretary James Mattis on Saturday said the Trump administration wanted to broaden the common ground between Pakistan and the United States to ensure that no terrorist group has a safe haven inside the country. That’s a welcome sign on its own merit but on what terms?

Trump’s South Asia strategy announced on Aug 21, seeks to defeat the Taliban in the battlefield to force it to work with the US-backed government in Kabul and supported by India– Pakistan’s not so friendly eastern neighbor.

“The US remains committed to a pragmatic relationship” with Pakistan that “expands cooperation on shared interests while reinforcing President Trump’s call for action against terrorist safe havens,” said Mattis.

“The bottom line is that Pakistan has to act in its own best interest, and in support of peace and regional stability. They know this.”

Regionalizing the Afghan peace process by addressing “shared interests” would mean resolving Kashmir issue.

The argument put forward by several Pakistan observers seek some answers– how alignment of Pak-US national interests and resolving shared interests can and will occur. With India’s finger officially in the pie, the matter is complex unless there is a magic wand out there which would take care of all these.

In his statement to the US Senate Armed Services Committee last month, Secretary Mattis described the Trump strategy for Afghanistan as “R4+S,” which stands for “regionalize, realign, reinforce, reconcile and sustain”.

And his latest statement makes it clear that Washington wants Pakistan to play a key role in promoting reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban. With India (considered a spoiler by Islamabad) on board from the US and Afghan side, the matter is unusual and creative at best.

The two countries, however, define this reconciliation differently notwithstanding Indian involvement.

The United States wants to defeat the Taliban in the battlefield to force it to join the reconciliation process. To achieve this objective, it wants to pressure the Taliban from both sides of the Pak-Afghan border, with Pakistani forces attacking them from their side and US and Afghan forces from the Afghan side.

Pakistan, however, suggests engaging those Taliban forces who are willing to talk and attacking only those who refuse to talk.

So the million dollar question is how courage and enlightened self-interest will be enabled by all sides by regionalizing peace on US terms and Indian involvement. Pakistan stance is India has been and continues to play a divisive albeit destabilizing role in the region on its west.

It could be perceived as dividing the cake while negotiating over it.

(Analysis based on Dawn editorial)

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