Editorial: Pak-Afghan tensions

Since the recent rash of terrorist attacks all over Pakistan, a worrying escalation of tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been in evidence.

Since Pakistan found the trail of the terrorism perpetrators led to the eastern provinces of Afghanistan near the common border, the government and security establishment ordered a countrywide crackdown at home and shelled training camps and bases of the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and its affiliated Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan inside Afghanistan. Pakistan also dispatched a list of 76 terrorists belonging to these and other terrorist groups, asking Kabul to take action against them or hand them over to us.

Not unexpectedly, this evoked a reaction (albeit relatively mild) from Kabul, which came back with a ‘tit-for-tat’ list of its own of 32 terror camps and 85 leaders of the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network on Pakistani soil, while threatening under its breath that the shelling on its territory from Pakistan must stop or it would be pushed to retaliate in kind. The threat may have been just counter-pressure, but it did reflect the state of relations since the terrorist outbreak inside Pakistan.

However, COAS General Qamar Bajwa reiterated his desire for the two neighbouring countries to work together and fight terrorism jointly, as they had done many times in the past. On the other side, despite Kabul’s reaction and President Ashraf Ghani’s characterisation of the situation in his country as less a civil war and more a war between states (thereby pointing the finger at Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban without naming anyone), diplomatic moves and consultations seem to have brought the situation back from the brink of potential hostilities. The fact of the terrorist sanctuaries across the border is not new.

It has been known, if not acknowledged, since the terrorists fled across the border in the wake of military operations in the tribal areas. Islamabad’s contention is, that since Kabul is known not to be in control of its eastern provinces near the border, there was little choice but to hit the terrorist camps itself. Be that as it may, after wielding the big stick, Pakistan now needs to get Kabul on board, as well as the US forces in Afghanistan (since the latter cannot just shrug off responsibility for the Afghan mess), to restart engagement, discussions on how to manage the border jointly to prevent terrorist infiltration, and even reinvigorate the Quadrilateral Co-ordination Group process to seek ways and means to bring the Afghan Taliban to Kabul’s negotiating table.

It is obvious that tensions and misunderstandings between Pakistan and Afghanistan please no one more than the terrorists. Cross-border infiltration and attacks, as well as the mindset behind them, afflict both countries. If Pakistan cannot take the risk of confronting the Afghan Taliban on its soil because of the potential widespread conflict that may ensue, at least it must follow up on its commitment to nudge them towards peace talks. On the other side, the Afghan Ambassador Dr Omar Zakhiwal has indicated Kabul’s desire to de-escalate tensions after he visited Kabul over the weekend.

This should be treated as an opening, an opportunity to energise once again the quest for peace in Afghanistan, which has long been recognised as a sine qua non for peace in Pakistan and the wider region. Pakistan’s crackdown in the wake of the terrorist wave seems especially to be targeting Afghan refugees all over the country. Of course the old mistake of not confining the refugees to their camps and giving them a free run throughout the country over the years may have compounded the terrorist problem, if the claims that some terrorist facilitators can be found in their ranks is believed. While catching Afghans all over the country who are accused of being where they are ‘illegally’, extra zeal for the current anti-terrorist drive must not blind us to the fact that not all refugees can be tarred with the same brush.

The least offensive and most humane approach would be to charge terrorists and their facilitators wherever they are found, including amongst any such Afghan refugees, but to treat the other ‘erring’ refugees (living in various parts of the country without permission) more gently and arrange for their transfer to the refugee camps pending their return to their homeland.