Tackling terror : Kabul has tough, long road ahead

The gruesome massacre of more than a hundred schoolchildren in Peshawar was not a mere act of revenge or retaliation. There is no point debating the various hue and shades of terrorism.

It is clear that none was taken as hostage and no demands were made. It was just not part of the script. It was a plain cold ‘to kill’ suicide mission, meant to send a strong and an unmistakable message to the Pakistan State and the region.

It was rather a part of the intensified war between the Pakistan Army and the various heavily armed tribal-Islamist factions vying for control over strategic spaces across the vast tribal frontier as the Western combat mission ends in Afghanistan.

The mayhem in Peshawar was certainly the most blatant manifestation of the several complex wars going on within Pakistan. Though the setting might appear local, its potential implications for the wider south-central Asia region and even beyond are not all together unknown.

Will Rawalpindi and Islamabad finally go after the ‘good terrorists’ too or continue with their selective approach and eliminate only the ‘bad terrorists’ - ones that have turned against the Pakistan State - is of both immediate and long-term concern to Kabul and the region.     

Kabul waits for strategic shift: The external challenges before the ‘national unity’ government in Kabul, also the first post-ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) government, are not any different from what successive Afghan regimes have faced since decades. Pakistan has been a constant factor, an old and familiar challenge, difficult to reconcile and manage.

The challenge before Kabul is not as much about coping with the spill over effect of the many wars within Pakistan as it is about making Pakistan’s military-intelligence apparatus to fundamentally reorient its policies and approach towards Afghanistan. The Peshawar massacre would probably be seen in Afghanistan as validation of its long held position on Pakistan’s regressive role and policies.

Post-Peshawar, Kabul would keenly look for signs of change in Rawalpindi and Islamabad’s policies. President Ghani’s regional diplomacy is largely premised on finding a negotiated settlement of the conflict with armed insurgent groups operating from Pakistan, which too regards itself as a “victim of terrorism”.

Ghani’s visits to Saudi Arabia, China and Pakistan were seen as strategic moves to deal with post-2014 challenges as the West was determined to finally call off its combat mission by the end of this year. Having signed the security agreement both with the US and NATO, he turned towards defining his government’s engagement with the region.

Fully aware of the narrow scope for change from his predecessor’s policy, he first sought to engage Beijing before turning to Rawalpindi. Unlike former President Hamid Karzai, Ghani’s road map to reconciliation with the Taliban went via Beijing to begin with. Beijing did offer to play a larger diplomatic role in facilitating reconciliation with the Pakistan-based leadership of the Afghan Taliban, but its effort to establish a regional platform in this regard proved to be a non-starter.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry later stated that Kabul’s strategy to use another country to build pressure on Pakistan has failed. However, Ghani did somewhat succeed in convincing Pakistan of the need to redefine their relationship in view of the West drawing down from the region. For now, Ghani has set his foreign policy on a path where it has to run its full course, at least until 2016. 

Pakistan still buying time: The Pakistan Army has long been struggling to strengthen its hold over the tribal areas by reining in several factions of the TTP, particularly ones which have turned inward. Several of such armed Islamist factions have long been carrying out deadly attacks against the Pakistani military, which in their worldview, poses the most immediate and potent threat to their ideological and socio-political agenda, that is, transforming Pakistan into a genuine Islamic state by imposing sharia and establishing a caliphate. The emergence of Islamic State (IS) in Iraq could have further reinforced their ideological convictions.

What next?

Pakistan in the coming days no doubt is more likely to be absorbed in dealing with several internal threats. This may not necessarily require or lead to any strategic shift in its approach towards militant groups specifically oriented against Afghanistan and other countries in the region.

A large section of Pakistan’s all powerful military-intelligence apparatus still looks at the assortment of committed non-state actors it has nurtured over the decades as assets to fulfilling Pakistan’s wider geo-political ambitions. The realpolitik will take over once the emotional outburst and rhetoric over the Peshawar massacre is over. 
While Kabul has genuine reasons to push for a negotiated political settlement of the conflict within, it also has far more serious reasons to be cautious of the complex politics that has evolved around the idea of reconciliation with the Taliban.

 A top-down approach towards integrating the Taliban elements has serious domestic as well as external dimensions to it. It is not merely about directly talking to the Taliban leadership anymore. It is about Kabul factoring in the core issues of concern as it pushes for direct negotiations with the Taliban leadership.

The first core issue is whether Kabul has the required political capacity and the institutional strength to cope with the challenges of reconciling with an armed opponent as unrelenting as the Taliban. The second  is whether the Taliban leadership is willing to acknowledge and accept the social and political diversity of the country.

And, finally, what exactly does Pakistan stand to or would at least seek to gain by bringing about political reconciliation in Afghanistan. Kabul clearly has a tough long road ahead as it is likely to remain in an extended state of transition, and Pakistan is yet to find the right starting point for the much needed structural transformation within.

(The writer is Associate Fellow at Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi)

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