Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Raheel Sharif, recently completed a tour of Washington, DC. Meetings with the vice president, Joe Biden, and deputy national security advisor of a lame duck administration were then dubbed as the high-water mark of the visit. Despite the ritual welcome that the Pakistani entourage received, one area they still may have managed to promise the US some pie in the sky is the Afghanistan issue and talks with the Afghan Taliban. The director of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said on social media that the COAS had emphasised to US officials the “requirement of a conducive environment for re-initiating the Afghan peace process”. The ISPR director also brushed aside concerns about Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria aka Daesh (Arabic acronym) getting a toehold in Pakistan, saying, “There is zero tolerance for Daesh in Pakistan. Even Daesh’s shadow will not be allowed in Pakistan.” Both comments are, prima facie, heartening, unless one looks closely at what is happening on the ground.
Just as the Pakistani delegation was leaving Washington DC, dozens of corpses were being brought into the Lower Dir region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa from Afghanistan. At least 22 bodies were buried in Timargarah in a funeral attended by hundreds if not thousands, including some elected officials from Dir. A nazim (mayor), Sahibzada Fasihullah, from Upper Dir confirmed his participation in the funeral to Voice of America’s (VOA’s) Pashto service, Deewa radio. Video clips from the funeral available on social media show that the coffins were wrapped in the flags of a jihadist outfit called al Badr and bore its name. The assembled crowd chanted “sabeelona, sabeelona al-jihad, al-jihad” (our path is jihad). Several Pakistani and local media outlets confirmed that the militants had been killed in a US and/or Afghan security forces strike inside Afghanistan and were then brought to their home area for burial. Al Badr is said to be associated with both the Kashmir-oriented jihadist outfit Hizbul Mujahideen as well as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami Afghanistan. Afghan officials have put the number of Pakistani jihadists killed at upwards of 50.
The Pakistani government and military officials have remained mum over the incident so far but this certainly cannot be the ‘conducive environment’ that is supposed to expedite talks, let alone peace in Afghanistan. Whether or not there is official patronage for such large infiltration of Pakistani jihadists into Afghanistan, it is worrisome for both the countries on multiple counts. Pakistan has generally been patted on the back for the Zarb-e-Azb Operation but that does not mean it should get a free pass for dispersing the hornets into the neighbour’s yard after eliminating their nest at home. A more stringent view is that such dispersal has been taking place by design. In either case, the involvement of Pakistani jihadists first in Kunduz and now in Khost will further sour an already tenuous relationship between the two countries. An even more alarming issue is that many of the Pakistani jihadists are filling the ranks of IS, which is making its presence increasingly felt in eastern Afghanistan. After all, the notoriously brutal thugs from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Abu Omar Maqbool Khurasani aka Shahidullah Shahid, Hafiz Saeed Orakzai, Hafiz Daulat Khan, Maulana Gul Zaman, Mufti Hassan and Khalid Mansoor Khurasani pledged allegiance to IS a little over a year ago. Shahidullah Shahid and Gul Zaman were killed in US drone strikes but others like Commander Gul Bali, Abu Bakr and Huzaifa have joined more recently.
It is irresponsible in the extreme to look the other way when these assorted terrorists who had previously operated in Kurram, Orakzai, Bajaur and Khyber tribal agencies, and settled areas like Dir and Peshawar, cross over into Afghanistan and when their corpses are brought back and buried amidst jihadist fanfare. Pakistan should be worried for its own sake if not for Afghanistan’s. The TTP after all was executing people in IS style six years before there was an IS. The fact is that there is enough ideological substrate and abundant manpower for IS to recruit from. IS might not be able to launch a full fledged insurgency in Pakistan or Afghanistan yet but it could certainly unleash havoc if both countries let their guard down. And if not checked in time, IS could replicate the deadly success of its predecessor and now competitor, al Qaeda. The blowback from letting al Qaeda figures like Osama bin Laden and Abu Masab al-Zarqawi have a thoroughfare via Pakistan a couple of decades ago was horrible but letting IS types through would be much worse. Doctrinal differences between the Salafist al Qaeda and predominantly Deobandi local Taliban did not keep them from making a deadly common cause and they sure will not prevent IS Salafists from doing so too. And that is not counting the mega Salafi project of Jamatud Dawa (JuD) and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), who actually share antecedents with IS and have been making their own incursions into Afghanistan.
A political solution in Afghanistan would help Pakistan as much as it would help Kabul. With the decades of radicalisation manifesting itself such as in the mob burning down Ahmedi property and a place of worship in Jhelum last week, Pakistan can ill afford transnational jihadists jumping into the fray again. Also evident in Jhelum was the Pakistani state’s abject lack of will and capacity to stop the brutal battering of a minority community. The failure of the Pakistani state to enforce its writ against just a horde was as unmistakable as the misery of the Ahmedis. Pakistan’s National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism lay in tatters in Jhelum and Timargarah. The ideological tinderbox of jihadism clearly remains as brimming as ever and it would be suicidal to allow various militants to consort together and regroup along the Durand Line. It is fine to talk about helping Afghanistan negotiate with the Taliban but unless there is a crackdown on the influx of the slew of jihadists making their way into that hapless country, it is all just pie in the sky.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he tweets @mazdaki