Rapid changes could be observed in the security situation of the Pakistan-Afghanistan region, as well as wider South Asia, with some positive and other negative developments. All these changes together would have a strong impact on the stability and security of the region in the coming months and years.
Firstly, in a US drone attack right on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, at least 20 hardcore militants of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA) and other militant groups have been killed. There have been drone attacks in past years inside Pakistan, and in the border region and they have also been quite effective. But the drone attack which was carried out a couple of weeks ago in the Afghan area adjacent to the Kurram Agency of Pakistan, was extremely significant from our point of view because reportedly the mastermind of the Army Public School (APS) attack of December 16, 2014, and Baacha Khan University in January 2015, Khaleefa Omar Mansour was killed in the attack. Mansour was a ferocious figure within the terrorists’ hierarchy.
There have also been reports of the killing of Omar Khalid Khurasani, another extremely important member of Pakistani Taliban groups. Although Khurasani’s killing reports have remained unconfirmed, the elimination of both Mansour and Khurasani would have wholesome effects on the security situation in the region. Both have been constant threats to the key national educational and military installations of the country particularly in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. It must be mentioned here that Khurasani, who belonged to Mohmand Agency of FATA splintered from the umbrella organization of Pakistani Taliban, the TTP, and had formed the JuA. The JuA has also been coordinating with the Daesh-e-Khurasan, or the Islamic State in the Af-Pak and Persian region. Although the JuA has so far desisted from merging itself into Daesh-e-Khurasan however, it could always have been expected that the JuA would join forces with the latter. Some accounts suggest that it was the person of Khalid Khurasani which stopped JuA from joining the Daesh. So it has to be seen whether, after Khurasani, the JuA merges into Daesh. If this happens, it would be an extremely dangerous situation for Pakistan. On the other hand the TTP under Fazlullah, who is hiding in Afghanistan, has been decrying the loathingly violent and gory tactics of IS and, despite many enticements to join forces with IS, has not done this so far. The killing of Mansour would further weaken the TTP and ultimately lead to the vanishing of the group in terms of its operational prowess. The residual members of the group may have no other choice but to join Daesh in Khurasan, as it is the only viable choice left to them. The less hardened militants of the TTP may try to re-integrate themselves in society. For this the government must have a very effective de-radicalization strategy in place.
The second important development with regard to security in the region was the successful freeing of a Canadian woman Caitlan Coleman and her American husband Joshua Boyle and their children, by Pakistani security forces in Kurram Agency. The couple was kidnapped five years back in Afghanistan by the Afghan Taliban or Haqqani Network and was recently moved into Pakistan. After a US intelligence tip-off Pakistani special forces personnel effectively operated and were able to free the hostages and to also arrest one of the militants holding them at gunpoint. This effective operation by Pakistan compelled even the US President Donald Trump to praise Pakistan. Trump otherwise has been vehemently deprecating Pakistan and blaming it for not doing enough to root out terrorism from Afghanistan and Pakistan itself. In fact, Trump, his Defence Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have been charging Islamabad of patronizing militants. Against this backdrop, the freeing of the Western hostages in such an effective manner is a befitting reply to charges of not doing enough or promoting terrorist groups. In the last issue, in these lines we had mentioned that the interdependency of Pakistan and the US has been so intense that they could not disengage and if this would happen it would be to the utter disadvantage of both the countries. The freeing of Canadian and US hostages by Pakistani forces once again proves this argument.
The scope of bilateral relations between US and Pakistan is quite extensive and could not be confined merely to the issues of terrorism and Afghanistan. Islamabad has been a key ally of the US during the Cold War between Washington and the new defunct USSR, was instrumental in the thaw in ties between Beijing and Washington in the 1970s, was the rallying ground for US-sponsored anti-Soviet Afghan resistance in the 1980s and has been the frontline state in the US-led global war on terror. On the other hand, the US role in the development of Pakistan has been substantial. It has been the biggest aid-giver to Pakistan; even China could not surpass Washington in this regard. But the countries need to remember that historical context and must demonstrate flexibility to accommodate each other’s objectives and concerns. After the hostage-freeing episode, the American leadership is pointing at a new era of relationship between the two countries, which is quite a healthy development regarding security and stability in our region.
Another very important development regarding security in the region was the martyrdom of four Pakistani soldiers in Kurram Agency only a couple of days after the freeing of Western hostages. This means that FATA is far from secure because sometime back an army lieutenant was killed in the Rajgal area of Khyber Agency. Recently, DG ISPR Major General Ghafoor had claimed that the entire FATA had been cleansed of militants. The shifting of Western hostages from Afghanistan on the one hand highlights the importance of border management with Afghanistan, while on the other hand also raises questions regarding the claims of securing the border by Pakistani authorities.
Although the operation to free the Western hostages is commendable but the movement of the hostages across the international border on which Pakistan has deployed almost more than 150,000 troops, would invite international criticism. At the moment the US, Canada and other Western countries are praising Pakistan for the operation, but after some time the same countries would criticize Pakistan on the same point. Already reports in certain international media outlets have started pointing out that the hostages had been taken by the Afghan Haqqani Network. Western countries and Afghanistan have been accusing since long, that the Haqqani Network has been operating with the support of Islamabad. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo said that the US-Canadian couple kidnapped by the militants in Afghanistan was held inside Pakistan for five years. Such statements would decimate the goodwill which Pakistan earned earlier.
In another incident, at least 50 Afghan army personnel were killed in a Taliban attack in Kandahar at an army camp. Such a happening just before the visit of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to Pakistan is unfortunate.
Thus, in a nutshell there have been some positive and certain negative developments insofar as security in the region is concerned which would have lasting impact on overall security in the months ahead.