After a series of recent blasts which left over 100 people dead, the debate around Pakistan’s internal stability has been revived. The attack on Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s shrine at Sehwan on 17 February, has brought the attention back on the Islamic State.
Last year too, the IS had carried out an attack of similar magnitude in Lahore on the occasion of Easter, killing more than 70 people, mostly those belonging to the minority Christian community.
Pakistan’s Aggressive Attitude Towards Aghanistan
However, it is Afghanistan which is at the receiving end once again. After accusing Afghanistan of unleashing the IS Khorasan (the segment of the terror organisation active in the region) against Pakistan, the Pakistani army claimed carrying out strikes inside the Afghan territory, making it the army’s first such mission on Afghan soil. The army claimed to have eliminated over 100 terrorists in the operations that followed.
Additionally, the key border points on Durand Line have been closed and heavy artillery have been deployed near the Afghan border. This too, has not deterred the attackers, who struck once again, by carrying out multiple blasts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on 21 February.
The increasing number of attacks in Pakistan claimed by the Islamic State can no longer be ignored and indeed pose serious security risks to the nation.
Rather than targeting the ideological roots of extremism, Islamabad has been desperately lobbying with the world powers to recognise Taliban as a legitimate stakeholder in running Kabul’s affairs, projecting it as a key to counter the IS.
Reaching Out to the Taliban
There is a need to revisit Islamabad’s recent negotiations regarding Afghanistan with the US, and later with Russia. At first, the Quadrilateral Coordination Group held meetings which failed to make any progress. Following this, another round of negotiations began, this time comprising of Russia, China and Pakistan, with discussions being held last December (Afghanistan was not invited for these talks).
Nothing new came out of the talks and once again, the participants discussed Taliban’s induction. Surprisingly, these negotiations took place without even taking Kabul on board, given the latter’s opposition to provide even the slightest political space to the Taliban.
The recently held new round of talks, which also included Iran, Afghanistan and India this time, drew criticism from Afghan and Indian representatives when the issue of accommodating the Taliban came up. Contrary to Kabul’s stand, which has consistently viewed Taliban as a part of the problem, Islamabad views the group as a part of the solution to the Afghan problem.
Russia’s Apprehensions About Islamic State
Afghanistan is one of the key anchors in the recently growing ties between Russia and Pakistan.
Moscow’s fears stem from IS’ presence in Afghanistan which also threatens the stability of Central Asia. Some strategists have even described Russia’s openness to deal with Taliban as a move to undermine the American presence in the country.
At this critical juncture, Pakistan has come forward to offer support to Russia in its fight against the IS. Given the reported rivalry between Taliban and the IS Khorasan, the Russians seem convinced that only a stronger Taliban would be able to stop IS’ spillover effects, and therefore have been in constant touch with the Talibani leadership.
The fact that more than 5,000 people from Russia and former Soviet territories have reportedly joined the Islamic State has made Moscow nervous about the ramifications of IS’ presence in Russia’s neighborhood.
IS Khorasan May Find Fertile Ground in Pakistan
Tehran has reportedly been in close contact with the Taliban for purely strategic reasons with the IS threat being the latest addition. For Tehran, dealing with a group which prefers operating in the confines of Afghan territory (Taliban), is any day better than the one with extra-territorial ambitions along with a strong anti-Shi’te ideology (Islamic State). The Chinese too have kept the option of negotiation open with Taliban. In 2015, a Taliban delegation secretly visited Urumqi for talks organised by Pakistani officials.
However, there still remains a good deal of mystery regarding the exact influence IS Khorasan wields in Afghanistan and the consistent insistence by Islamabad to recognise Taliban to counter IS. In his recent analysis in the Foreign Policy Journal, former Afghan representative to US CENTCOM and a leading strategist Murid Partaw has warned against Islamabad overplaying the role of IS, especially when its existence is being strongly debated.
Partaw pointed out some key operational anomalies which remain unaddressed about IS Khorasan, such as the lack of its support base in Afghanistan due its use of the Takfiri ideology, which doesn’t find many takers in Af-Pak belt where Deobandism holds sway. Further, the group’s remaining subdued presence has come under attack by joint operations by American and Afghan forces.
Hence, one possibility which seems quite likely is that the core support base of IS Khorasan may not lie within Afghanistan, but rather in Pakistan where the ability to carry out back-to-back attacks also points out to the logistical strength of the organisers. Therefore, making the Islamic State a focal point of the ongoing international discussions and turning a blind eye to how the Taliban has been bleeding Afghanistan for more than two decades sets a dangerous precedent for the already fractured peace process.
Source: Foreign Policy Journal
(The author is a researcher, who specialises on South Asia’s strategic affairs. His writings have been featured in The Diplomat, The National Interest and South Asian Voices (a Stimson Centre Project). This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. IndianSpice neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)