Torkham: Now What?

This article was originally published by The Nation on June 21, 2016

More than twenty people were killed in separate bomb attacks in Afghanistan on Monday, including at least 14 when a suicide bomber struck a minibus carrying Nepalese security contractors in Kabul and Hours later when a bomb planted in a motorbike killed at least eight civilians and wounded another 18 in a crowded market in the northern province of Badakhshan. According to Afghan media, Taliban, residing comfortably in Pakistan with their foot soldiers bringing havoc to Afghanistan every other day, claimed the responsibility.

Back in March this year, Afghanistan based Jamaat-u-Ahrar, a Taliban splinter group claimed the responsibility of a suicide attack on a park in Lahore that killed more than 70 people predominantly women and children.

This tit-for-tat support of militants and the competition of providing sanctuaries to each other’s enemies have been going on for quite some time between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Afghanistan started doing it after Afghan Taliban’s homes in Pakistan’s mainland became open secret and no efforts to convince Pakistani authorities to take action against these Taliban leaders could work.

Meanwhile, the Quadrilateral Coordination Group was established during the Heart of Asia process bringing together Afghanistan, Pakistan, the USA and China. The peace talks were going almost smoothly with one meeting in Murree between QCG representatives and different ‘stakeholders’. The process was successfully disrupted when the news about Mulla Omar’s death was broken by one of the parties having stakes in the peace talks or the absence thereof. The new leader Mullah Akhter Mansour assumed the leadership but not without internal power struggle and eventual breaking out of factions within the ‘Movement’.

The break-out factions were loud on accusing Mansour of being Pakistan’s pawn. The argument that started reverberating within the Mansour-led faction – the ranks as well as the commanders swearing allegiance to Mansour. He had to allay that impression in order to claim greater legitimacy. In doing so, he kept refusing to come to the negotiating table. This was coupled with unprecedented escalation in violence in the length and breadth of Afghanistan. In 2015-16, Taliban were having more territory under their control than any time since 2001.

That changed the dynamics of the process with Pakistan-supported faction challenged from within, thus loosening Pakistan’s grip on the militant group. That’s when Sartaj Aziz, Pakistani PM’s Advisor on Foreign Affairs publicly admitted having Taliban presence in Pakistan after a decade and a half of categorically denying the same. Which could have been an attempt probably to pressurize Taliban to give in their stubborn position on peace talks.

Didn’t work. Until Mullah Mansour was eliminated by, O yes, USA drone strike. The new leader, equally under control at one level and equally independent or defiant at another as of Mulla Mansour, doesn’t seem to drift from Mansour doctrine. That’s when Sartaj Aziz has moved from “we can exercise some influence on Taliban” in March to a meek “we have no control on Taliban” in June.

Taliban’s presence in Pakistan is being termed Pakistan’s support to militancy. An assertion, corroborated by the ground realities, and which is putting Pakistan in worst light internationally alongside nearly isolating it in the region. Not only that, it has resulted in the USA going back on her commitment to subsidise the sale of F-16s to Pakistan, which were considered crucial to step up country’s defence capabilities. Moreover, the presence of Taliban on Pakistan’s soil provides a pro-militancy, favorable and public discourse to the home grown militant movements against which country’s Army has been fighting under the elastic rubric of Zarb-e-Azb.

These are not the only implications of our confused and confusing policy on Afghanistan. As a knee-jerk reaction to the hostility from Afghanistan and sticks from USA, Pakistan chose to take this all out on thousands of Afghans and Pakistanis crossing the roughly 2600 km Pak-Afghan border every day. The conflict took away precious lives including Pakistan’s valiant Major Ali Jawwaad Changezi Shaheed among others.

The abrupt closing and opening of Torkham border twice in two months culminating in deadly clashes are being interpreted as back stabbing among the security elite of both the countries. After ‘handing over’ Angoor Adda crossing point to the Afghan side, Pakistani establishment probably perceived that all conflict might well have been evaporated with this ‘grand gesture’ and largesse shown by Pakistan.

This happens when complex geo-political issues having roots in history are left to the militaries, which are not and don’t have to be equipped with requisite knowledge and experience of diplomacy to handle such situations. Whether it was erecting fences along the Torkham border (Afghans call it Durand Line) or expansive concept of border management, this called for Foreign Office to jump in with its expertise of handling such issues.

While the legal experts would tell us how the fence building was completely legal and how Pakistan had all the right to decide building it unilaterally, only a diplomat would tell us how to initiate the process keeping in view the peculiar history of border conflict between the two countries. Foreign Office might have reminded those who needed to be reminded that under the SoPs worked our back in 2013 (which should be considered in force until both sides agree on newly drafted SoPs), Pakistan should bring it to the table between Afghan and Pakistani authorities if and when it decided to build any structure along what we consider a border but our neighbor is adamant to take it as an arbitrary line drawn with the collusion between their ruler and imperialist forces.

It didn’t happen and our soldiers ended up fighting a useless and completely avoidable battle at Torkham. Is the Durand Line issue is too complex to completely get resolved with a wink of eye, which it truly is, this could have made an agenda item in the QCG process. The two foreign powers in QCG have similar position on Duran Line as of Pakistan looking at a number of international and bilateral documents. They can surely help Afghanistan and Pakistan ‘manage’ the issue if not resolve it.

This takes us to an allied issue of managing millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan. And Pakistan’s sudden passion to send them back to their homeland because it has dawned on our security establishment that militancy in Pakistan is being abetted by the presence of Afghan Refugees. Someone might remind our own selves to look at the statistics of terrorist attacks and their perpetrators. An insight into the number of perpetrators or abettors of Afghan origin might help us understand the dynamics with more clarity.

After more than thirty years of hosting refugees, Pakistan still has to make a policy on managing them in a way that doesn’t affect Pakistan’s own security and socio-economic well being. Let alone the classification of Afghan refugees into various categories, we are yet to identify the people who should enjoy Easement Rights under the Durand Line Agreement’s arrangements. Abruptly pushing the refugees out but not even talking about ousting the Quetta Shura and scores of Haqqani network militants from our settled urban areas, points more to the continuation of old policy rather than a much trumpeted ‘change’.

Looking at all of this, one might bang head on wall repeatedly while asking what exactly do we want in Afghanistan? If not suicide, what else?