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Cross-Border Sanctuaries Are Major Obstacles in the Fight against Insurgencies and Terrorism

By Zahid Hussain

22 February 2017

THE latest spate of deadly violence and the military’s punitive strikes on terrorist camps across the Durand Line has caused tensions between Kabul and Islamabad to escalate. This time, matters have gone beyond the usual blame game that is witnessed after each terrorist strike on either side of the border. In an unprecedented move, Pakistan has closed its border with Afghanistan and has issued shoot-on-sight orders to be carried out against trespassers.

What triggered this fury is the trail of the latest surge in violence leading to militant groups operating from Afghanistan. After being driven out of the tribal areas, several factions of the Pakistani Taliban have found a safe haven across the border. The latest bloodbath indicates how quickly the militants have regrouped to launch barbaric acts of terror across Pakistan.

While such spectacular and synchronised terror attacks require support and facilitation of the militant networks inside the country, safe havens across the border allow greater freedom of movement for militants. The long, porous border has made it much easier for militants to escape any crackdown.

The Jamaat ul Ahrar, which is responsible for the recent attacks claiming over 100 innocent lives, is the largest and most lethal of Pakistani militant outfits currently operating from the Afghan border region. The network has pledged allegiance to the militant Islamic State group (IS) making the situation much more dangerous.

The Pakistani military claims to have targeted some of the group’s hideouts along the border and killed some of its senior commanders. But one is not sure if such retaliatory actions could have destroyed the cross-border terror infrastructure that is believed to have the support of elements within the Afghan intelligence agencies. There is also some evidence of the group having links with factions of the Afghan Taliban.

There is always a danger of escalation in such cases of cross-border actions. One cannot agree more with the Pakistani army chief seeking joint anti-terror efforts. But there is also the question of our cooperation with Kabul that has long blamed ‘state-sanctioned’ sanctuaries of the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan’s frontier regions for the terrorist attacks in Afghanistan.

While one may not agree with the allegations that our intelligence agencies are involved in terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan, there is some element of truth to the contention that the Afghan insurgency could not have been sustained for so long without the Taliban finding safe havens in Pakistan. It is no more a secret that most Afghan Taliban leaders had been operating out of Pakistan.

So one is not surprised that the Afghan government has handed over its own list of 85 insurgents that it says are taking sanctuary in Pakistan, in response to our demand for the extradition of 76 militants hiding in Afghanistan. Those wanted by the Afghan government include leaders of the Haqqani network and other Taliban commanders. The alleged Afghan patronage of Pakistani militants is seen as a tit-for-tat action to increase pressure on Pakistan, as the Kabul administration is confronted with a rising Taliban insurgency.

This war of sanctuaries has been a major reason for the latest escalation of terrorist attacks both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This dangerous approach of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ has provided terrorists greater space to operate, thereby threatening the entire region. Cross-border attacks only fuel hostilities between the two countries, making it more difficult for them to join hands in fighting the common enemy. Moreover, there is also a need for a clearer understanding of who is the enemy.

Undeniably, cross-border sanctuaries are major obstacles in the fight against insurgencies and terrorism. It is not only true for Pakistan, but also for Afghanistan fighting its Taliban insurgency. Hostile relations between the two neighbouring nations have certainly made it much more difficult for them to deal with the scourge of terrorism.

Afghanistan, too, has suffered massive civilian casualties in militant violence in the past few years. According to a recent UN report, 2016 was the bloodiest year in Afghanistan since the US invasion in 2001, with thousands of civilians killed in terrorist attacks, many of them women and children. A number of those attacks were claimed by insurgent groups linked with IS that have also been involved in attacks in Pakistan.

Indeed, there is a long history of Pakistan and Afghanistan offering sanctuary to each other’s opponents — a major source of bitterness and mistrust between the two neighbours. While in the past, Afghanistan sheltered Baloch and Pakhtun separatists, Pakistan extended refuge to the Mujahideen following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and once more to the Taliban after the US invasion.

The support for the Afghan ‘jihad’ militarised and radicalised the border region and this continues to haunt both sides. Islamabad’s concern over the support for the Baloch nationalist insurgency by Indian intelligence in Afghanistan has also aggravated relations between the two countries.

Both countries must remove the main sources of tension between them in order to formulate a joint strategy to confront the challenges of terrorism and violent insurgency. The insurgencies, helped by cross-border sanctuaries and support networks, also weaken the host country’s sovereignty. The Afghan government’s contention that it does not have control over the region from where Pakistani militants operate is not very convincing. A similar argument was advanced by Pakistani authorities for not taking action against the Afghan Taliban leaders and fighters compromising the country’s authority.

The formation of a joint anti-terrorism policy is vital to the interests of not only the two countries but also the regional and global fight against the terrorist menace. Pakistan’s move to secure the borders and restrict illegal cross-border movement is understandable, given the serious security situation. But its efforts cannot succeed with the current state of tension with Afghanistan. It is also important to build trust between the people of the two countries because their destinies are intertwined and they must end this destructive war of sanctuaries.

Zahid Hussain is an author and journalist.