A renewed row over terrorist sanctuaries between Afghanistan and Pakistan is likely to boost the prospects of terrorists thriving amid seemingly endless blame games and finger-pointing between the two countries.
Groups such as the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban factions, Islamic State (IS), Al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e Jhangvi, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have survived robust counterterrorism operations in the two countries largely because of the historically fraught relations between Kabul and Islamabad.
Their bickering has prevented some of the world’s best armies from defeating militant groups because of the militants’ ability to carve sanctuaries in a neighboring country or morph into a new entity by rebranding or joining another group.
Covert state support of some of the groups is at the heart of the disagreement. In an often repeated cycle since 2001, major attacks in either country are followed by inflammatory statements and border tensions, which inevitably hurt civilians, who are often the worst victims of terrorist violence.
The latest spat between the two countries follows a wave of terrorist attacks that killed more than 120 civilians, police, and soldiers across Pakistan last week. IS claimed responsibility for the most horrific attack, which killed at least 88 worshipers at a Sufi shrine in the southern province of Sindh on February 16.
Islamabad swiftly blamed Pakistani militants hiding in Afghanistan for the attacks. In an unprecedented move, the Pakistani military handed over a list of 76 “most wanted” terrorists to Afghan diplomats. It also closed all crossings along the more than 2,500-kilometer border between the two countries.
Pakistani army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa vowed to avenge “each drop of the nation’s blood” and called General John Nicholson, commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, to “expressed his concerns over continued acts of terrorism in Pakistan with impunity from Afghanistan.”
Sartaj Aziz, foreign affairs adviser to the Pakistani prime minister, called Afghan National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar to express displeasure over Pakistani Taliban faction Jamat-ul-Ahrar’s continued operations “from its sanctuaries and safe haven in Afghanistan for undertaking terrorism in Pakistan.”
Islamabad soon began shelling remote border villages inside the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar. On February 19, Nangarhar officials said the shelling forced hundreds of civilian families to flee their homes in the Lal Pur and Ghosta districts along Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan.
Afghanistan, however, is unimpressed. Kabul used the opportunity to reiterate its long-standing demands that Islamabad should shut down Taliban hideouts. A recent UN report held the Taliban and IS responsible for two-thirds of more than 11,000 civilian casualties reported in Afghanistan last year.
Ahmad Shakib Mustaghni, a spokesman for the Afghan foreign minister, said Kabul had given Islamabad a list of 85 individuals, most of whom are senior members of the Afghan Taliban and its deadly military wing, the Haqqani network.
“Our ambassador in Islamabad handed over the list, which also includes the addresses of 32 training camps,” Mustaghni told Radio Free Afghanistan on February 20. “All are involved in launching terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan from Pakistani soil.”
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference on February 18, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reiterated his country’s stance that Kabul believes Islamabad is using Taliban militants as an instrument to influence Afghan affairs and shape its future.
Ghani pointedly chided Islamabad for making a distinction between “good” and “bad” terrorists. Critics have accused Islamabad of only targeting “bad” terrorists -- those responsible for attacking Pakistani forces and civilians -- while turning a blind eye or even supporting “good” militants, or those responsible for attacks in Afghanistan and India.
“Recent attacks on Helmand, Kabul and Kandahar -- especially in Kandahar, where our honored guests the diplomats of UAE (United Arab Emirates) were butchered in cold blood -- as well as attacks in Lahore and the shrine of Sindh are proof positive that there cannot be a distinction between good and bad terrorists,” he told the conference participants. “As long as the distinction between good and bad terrorists is maintained, we are all losers. But when we do not make this distinction and we rise and mobilize our forces together, it can be contained.”
Indeed, the rise of Khorasan Province, the Afghanistan-Pakistan branch of IS, best illustrates how terrorists have benefited from the lack of antiterrorism cooperation between Kabul and Islamabad.
Most of the group’s fighters, including its first leader, Hafiz Saeed Khan, hail from Pakistan. But the group established a safe haven in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar. Unlike in the case of Afghan Taliban, Kabul is not keen on blaming Islamabad for supporting the group. But a lack of meaningful counterterrorism operations between the two countries has enabled the group to survive nearly two years of Afghan and NATO military operations and local tribal uprisings.
Any dip in relations between the two neighbors directly affects Pashtun communities along their shared border. The Durand Line, a 19th-century boundary, divides more than a dozen major Pashtun tribes into the two countries. The current border closure has stranded hundreds of Afghans visiting Pakistan, where most access health care.
Shutting down trade across the major border crossings affects hundreds of businesses and is likely to push prices higher in Afghanistan. The landlocked country depends on Pakistan for essential supplies.
Leaders in the two countries appear to appreciate the threats posed by the lack of antiterrorism cooperation. Without naming Pakistan, Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah sought Islamabad’s help in going after Pakistani extremists hiding in eastern Afghan provinces.
“Terrorist groups in Afghanistan are hiding in the areas with the presence of the Taliban. We need to destroy the Taliban to destroy other groups,” he wrote on Twitter on February 20. “The only solution in the fight against terror is to cooperate and stop supporting terrorism.”
Omar Zakhilwal, the Afghan ambassador in Islamabad, said he had very positive meetings with Pakistani civilian and military leaders on February 20 in which the two sides tentatively agreed on a path forward.
“As a result, I expect quick de-escalation of the current tension and the creation of a more positive environment for responding to each other's concerns and grievances in a cooperative manner,” he wrote on Facebook.
Pakistan’s powerful military seemed to reciprocate the sentiment. A February 20 statement by the military said Bajwa hoped for future antiterrorism cooperation with Afghanistan.
“[Bajwa] also welcomed recent proposals from Afghan authorities to take forward the mutual coordination for results-oriented efforts against terrorism,” the statement said.
During the past 15 years, leaders from Pakistan and Afghanistan have repeatedly attempted cooperation. But defining the scope of such collaboration and then implementing it on the ground remains a gargantuan task.