Amidst the continuing din of the Dharnas in clinical Islamabad, an important announcement in the badlands of Waziristan has largely escaped strategic scrutiny. This is a statement by the so-called leader of the Punjabi Taliban, Azmatullah Muaviya, renouncing armed struggle against the Pakistani state and determining to focus instead on the fight against the government in Kabul in alliance with the Haqqani Network under the leadership of Mulla Omar.
The Punjabi Taliban are an assortment of former Punjab and AJK based jihadi groups who splintered and migrated to Waziristan and took up arms against the Pakistani military after General Pervez Musharraf closed the jihad tap against India in Kashmir in 2003-04. If Muaviya is genuinely their leader and if he truly means what he says and can effectively make this switch stick with the other Punjabi Taliban groups, then this is clearly a major strategic move by the Pakistani military establishment. Unlike the Pashtun Pakistani Taliban who have concentrated their attacks against the Pakistani state in Swat, FATA and KPK, the Punjabi Taliban are the ones who have infiltrated the three Pakistani military services (especially the army and navy); they are the ones who have organized audacious attacks on Pakistani military installations and assets; and it is their deadly alliance with militant Punjabi sectarian organisations that has raised the spectre of an Islamic State (IS) movement as in Syria and Iraq. If their guns have been turned eastwards to Kabul, the Pakistani military can concentrate on degrading and eliminating other non-conformist elements of the Pakistani Taliban in the Zarb-i-Azb operations in the tribal areas.
This development – persuading the Pakistani Taliban to fight alongside the Afghan Taliban against the US-sponsored state in Kabul instead of Pakistan — has been on the Pakistani military’s drawing boards for several years now. Indeed, it was a major reason why the US drones didn’t initially target the Punjabi Taliban for such a long time because they didn’t want them to train their guns in retaliation on the Americans in Afghanistan. But when the Pakistani military designated all Taliban as enemies of Pakistan with a view to launching a full-fledged operation against them, the US agreed to lend a helping hand in degrading their leadership via the drones. The irony is that the very success of this joint Pak-US operation may, after Muaviya’s statement, renew the elements of distrust and hostility between Pakistan and the Afghanistan.
Under the circumstances, it comes as no surprise that Kabul has renewed allegations that Pakistan’s intelligence services are involved in nurturing the Taliban against Kabul and Muaviya’s statement was a “clear and dangerous interference by Pakistani intelligence agencies in the domestic affairs of Afghanistan”.
The swift response from Pakistan’s foreign ministry foretells the significance of this development by showing the quid-pro-quo way forward: “The threat of terrorism can best be addressed through mutual cooperation”, in particular though “complimentary operations” by the Afghan government in Zarb-i-Azb. The Pakistani reference is to the new Pakistan Taliban sanctuaries in Afghanistan following Zarb-i-Azb operations in Waziristan that are potentially troublesome for Pakistan in the same manner that Afghan Taliban sanctuaries of the Haqqani Network in Waziristan have proven for Kabul in the last decade. Not only is the TTP leader Maulana Fazlullah headquartered in and operating from Afghanistan, to all intents and purposes he is being nurtured by Kabul. Last week TTP fighters based in Afghanistan attacked the Pakistani army border post on Dandi Kuch in North Waziristan and killed three FC soldiers.
Thus the new dialectic is clear. For years the Pakistani military has provided sanctuaries to Afghan Taliban and nurtured them as “assets” that were shifted to Kurram Agency instead of being degraded along with the TTP in the wake of Zarb-i-Azb. Kabul responded by providing sanctuaries in Afghanistan for elements of the TTP on the run from Zarb-i-Azb. The significance of Muaviya’s statement, which is doubtless at the behest of the Pakistani military, is two-fold: it warns Kabul to stop hosting TTP fugitives if it doesn’t want Pakistan to up the ante across the Durand line; and it holds out the prospect of mutual cooperation against each other’s Taliban liabilities in safe havens across the Durand Line.
But several questions remain. Will Kabul be chastened to cooperate with Islamabad or will it react adversely? How does the Pakistan military intend to use and influence its more substantial Afghan assets in Kurram in settling long-term issues with Kabul? What role has the Pakistan military earmarked for the Punjabi Taliban once a Pak-Afghan settlement is reached? How will this development affect Pak-US relations? What will be the impact of this development on sectarian strife in Pakistan, given Muaviya’s affiliation with Lashkar-i-Jhangvi in the past?
Therefore the fear remains: if the notion of “Taliban assets”— an alliance between the new Punjabi Taliban and the old Haqqani network – is the hallmark of the Pakistani military’s grand geo-strategic strategy, how then will terrorism be uprooted from both sides of the Durand Line?