Another terror attack in Pakistan has placed further strains on the already fragile Af-Pak relationship, and raised questions about both countries’ ability to tackle militancy within their borders. Rahimullah Yusufzai reports.
Just when it looked as if Pakistan had managed to check the activities of militants to a significant extent by crippling their command and control infrastructure and evicting them from North Waziristan and the Khyber tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, the terrorists struck back by storming the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) camp in Badaber in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, killing 29 air force and army personnel and causing injuries to another 27.
The September 18 attack by the Afghanistan-based Pakistani Taliban in Badaber, situated seven kilometres south of Peshawar, shocked the nation and also led to further bitterness in relations between Islamabad and Kabul. Pakistan alleged that the attack was planned in Afghanistan and carried out by Pakistani militants who came from across the Durand Line border between the two countries. Afghanistan rejected the charge and President Dr Ashraf Ghani said his unity government would not allow the use of Afghan soil to launch attacks in Pakistan or other countries.
The 14 attackers stormed the camp and managed to infiltrate it from two sides. They destroyed the main gates of the camp, lobbed hand-grenades to clear the way and killed anyone in sight. They forced their way into the mosque, killing 16 PAF personnel preparing to offer the early morning Fajr prayers. Another seven airmen were shot dead in the barracks, along with three Pakistan Army soldiers who were part of the Quick Reaction Force that was rushed to the site from Peshawar city to confront the attackers. Three civilian employees of the air force were also killed.
The inability of the Pakistan Air Force to defend its camp and the failure of the military and intelligence agencies to pre-empt and foil the attack have raised questions about their frequent claims that the back of the militants has been broken and they are now on the run. Ten months ago, TTP militants attacked an army-run school in Peshawar, killing 147 people, including 122 schoolchildren. Then they assassinated the home minister of Punjab province, Colonel (Ret’d) Shuja Khanzada, and carried out a number of bomb explosions in Punjab and elsewhere. Militants have also been active in South Waziristan and North Waziristan, ambushing the soldiers deployed there, firing rockets and planting deadly improvised explosives devices (IEDs).
The attack negatively impacted the dwindling hopes of improving Pak-Afghan relations that took a nosedive when Taliban attacks increased and, on August 7, Kabul was hit by three acts of violence in one day, including two against military targets and the other in the Shah Shaheed locality, in which 15 civilians were killed and 400 sustained injuries.
The violence prompted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to take Pakistan to task for failing to take action against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, which were using its soil to undertake attacks in Afghanistan. He complained that his friendly overtures to Islamabad were rebuffed and instead the Taliban leadership based in Pakistan had sent him messages of war. Ashraf Ghani was referring to the first statement by the new Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor—who succeeded the Taliban movement’s late founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar—in which he opposed peace talks with the Afghan government and called on his fighters to continue waging ‘jihad’ against the US-led foreign forces and Afghan National Security Forces.
With Mansoor becoming stronger after overcoming opposition to his leadership and reaching reconciliation with Mullah Omar’s only surviving brother, Mullah Abdul Mannanh and eldest son, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the chances of resumption of the stalled Pakistan-sponsored peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government are receding. Instead, the fighting is intensifying and causing record casualties, huge displacement of people from conflict areas and exodus outside the country.
As Pak-Afghan relations went from bad to worse, Pakistan alleged that the plan for the Pakistan Air Force Camp attack near Peshawar was made in Afghanistan and the attackers came from there. It demanded action against the Maulana Fazlullah-led Pakistani Taliban fighters who had set up bases in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces of Kunar, Nuristan and Nangarhar after fleeing the Pakistani military operations against them in Swat and the rest of the Malakand division, and also in Mohmand, Bajaur, Khyber and other tribal areas.
Afghanistan summarily rejected the charges made by Islamabad with regard to the use of Afghan territory to destabilise Pakistan. Similar charges made occasionally by the Afghan government against Pakistan have also been rejected by Islamabad. Pakistan is now sending a delegation to Kabul to provide evidence to the Afghan authorities about the presence of the mastermind of the PAF camp attack in Afghanistan.
Pakistan undertook a similar and rather fruitless exercise on December 17, 2014 when the Army chief General Raheel Sharif and the ISI director general Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar flew to Kabul a day after the barbaric militants’ assault on the Army Public School in Peshawar. Kabul was in a state of denial about the sanctuaries for the Pakistani Taliban in Afghanistan, just as Islamabad has been denying the existence of safe havens for the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network in Pakistan. The baggage of history and their uneasy relationship in the past has contributed to a mutual lack of trust and made it difficult for the two neighbouring Islamic countries to improve their relationship.
Such deterioration has begun to take its toll. Staff at the Pakistan embassy in Kabul have complained of harassment at the hands of the Afghan intelligence agency, the NDS. Those living elsewhere in the city have been relocated to the embassy compound for a few weeks until the situation normalises. The planned visit by the Afghan Finance Minister Aqleel Hakimi was cancelled. Islamabad has kept pending the request by Kabul to extend the stay of the almost three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan due to Afghanistan’s inability to resettle them because of paucity of resources. Pakistan has been pressing the Afghan government and the UNHCR to make arrangements for the repatriation of Afghan refugees.
The deterioration in relations has also led to a significant drop in the volume of Afghan transit trade carried out via Pakistan. Most of this trade has been diverted to Iran. A campaign has also been launched by Afghan civil society to boycott Pakistani products, though this has yet to make any real impact. The fatwa, or decree, given by some Afghan clerics in Kabul that jihad (holy war) is legitimate against Pakistan has also fuelled bitterness and resulted in verbal sparring by clerics on both sides. One thing has led to another and now the general relationship has become increasingly unfriendly. However, the good thing is that Islamabad and Kabul have continued to engage in talks in a bid to improve relations.