Navigating Resurgent Terror Threat in Afghanistan

Renewed terror threat in Afghanistan prompts US counterterrorism re-evaluation, recognizing Pakistan's pivotal role.
Renewed terror threat in Afghanistan prompts US counterterrorism re-evaluation, recognizing Pakistan's pivotal role [Image via Al Jazeera].

The 2021 United States withdrawal from Afghanistan marked USA’s point in the global fight against terrorism. While the strategic landscape shifts towards competition with China and Russia, a new report, “Senior Study Group on Counterterrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan: Final Report,” warns of a resurgent threat from terrorist groups in the region. This renewed terror threat in Afghanistan necessitates a re-evaluation of the US counterterrorism strategy, one that acknowledges Pakistan’s critical role as a partner and victim of terrorism, amidst a complex security situation.

A Legacy of Cooperation Under Shifting Focus

Following the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan emerged as a vital US ally in the War on Terror. It assisted in intelligence sharing, as well as logistical support for US operations inside Afghanistan. The cost of human lives lost in this war by Pakistanis is staggering, with estimates suggesting over 80,000 security personnel and civilians killed in terrorist attacks since 2001. This violence had a devastating ripple effect on Pakistan’s economy as well. The Pakistan Economic Survey in 2021 estimated that terrorism inflicted a colossal $126 billion in damages to the nation’s infrastructure, development, and overall economic potential.

However, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent return of the Taliban regime has complicated counterterrorism mosaic. The Taliban’s commitment to preventing Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terrorism remains unclear. The presence of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, before his reported elimination in a drone strike raised serious concerns, and the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISIS-K) has shown increased activity since then, threatening not only Afghanistan but also the wider region.

Pakistan: A Partner Under Fire

Pakistan faces a resurgent TTP threat stemming from its sanctuaries in Afghanistan. Pakistan witnessed another year of an unprecedented surge in militant attacks as the country saw a staggering 70 percent rise in attacks, an 81 percent increase in resultant deaths, and a 62 percent surge in the number of wounded individually. According to the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS) database, the year 2023 witnessed at least 645 militant attacks across the country in which 976 people were killed and 1354 injured. The year 2022 had witnessed 380 militant attacks resulting in 539 deaths and 836 injuries. The situation could have been even worse if Pakistani security forces had not foiled hundreds of attacks and attempts during the year. The threat isn’t just about numbers. The nature of attacks has also become more brazen, with suicide bombings targeting civilians and security installations becoming increasingly common. A particularly disturbing trend involves the involvement of Afghan refugees in these attacks.

A 2023 report by the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) of Pakistan revealed that 17% of suicide bombers involved in attacks within the country were Afghan nationals. Pakistan’s military spokesperson, DG ISPR, Lt General Ahmed Sharif, addressed the nation on pressing issues of terrorism and Afghan refugees. He presented evidence that proved that revived Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was launching attacks from Afghan soil, contributing to recent incidents within Pakistan. Despite this threat, Pakistan remains committed to counterterrorism efforts and the elimination of TTP network.

Also Read: Pakistan’s airstrikes in Afghanistan — the aftermath

While fighting terrorism remains a priority, maintaining internal law and order takes precedence, as emphasized by the Army Chief’s stance of zero tolerance for terrorists. The press conference also acknowledged the presence of millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, a country with a history of offering them refuge. However, concerns were raised about the deteriorating law and order situation potentially linked to some Afghan citizens. DG ISPR highlighted repatriation efforts with over 563,000 undocumented Afghans returned, and specifically mentioned the security challenges posed by militants in the border province of Balochistan. He assured the public Army was actively working to counter terror threats. This press conference underscores Pakistan’s struggle with the resurgent TTP threat originating from Afghanistan, while also highlighting the complexities of managing the Afghan refugee population and maintaining internal security.

Resurgent Terror Threat in Afghanistan: The Cost of Neglecting Counterterrorism

The Senior Study Group report warns that neglecting counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan could have devastating consequences. Terrorist groups could exploit the weakened security environment to regroup, recruit, and plot attacks against the US, its allies, and regional partners. A major attack could not only cause tragic loss of life but also undermine US credibility and potentially trigger a regional crisis, especially considering the nuclear arsenals possessed by both Pakistan and India.

A Renewed Strategy

The report argues that the US can effectively address the resurgent terrorist threat without diverting significant resources away from strategic competition with China and Russia. This can be achieved by adopting a multi-pronged approach:

  1. Public pressure should be exerted on the Taliban to uphold their commitments to counterterrorism. However, communication channels must be maintained to facilitate counterterrorism information exchange. The US can develop a public reporting mechanism to document and disseminate the Taliban’s compliance with counterterrorism terms outlined in the 2020 Doha agreement.
  2. While Pakistan acknowledges the need to combat terrorism, a large-scale US military presence could be counterproductive. A more comprehensive strategy would involve collaborating with Pakistan to develop a joint counterterrorism plan that respects Pakistan’s sovereignty and avoids actions perceived as intrusive.
  3. Instead of unilateral drone strikes, the US could offer intelligence and technological assistance to enhance Pakistan’s own counterterrorism operations. This collaborative approach would strengthen Pakistan’s ownership of the fight against terrorism and foster trust between the two nations.
  4. The report also emphasizes the importance of addressing the root causes of terrorism in the region. This includes promoting social and economic development, particularly in areas most susceptible to radicalization. The US can offer assistance to Pakistan in promoting peaceful coexistence among at-risk youth, improving social cohesion, and de-radicalizing underage children.

Navigating the India-Pakistan Dynamic Amidst Resurging Terror Threat in Afghanistan

A crucial aspect of the US strategy involves managing the complex relationship between India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed nations. While the US may view India as a strategic partner in countering China, it cannot ignore Pakistan’s significant role in counterterrorism efforts. Open communication with both countries is vital to prevent a potential escalation triggered by a terrorist attack originating in Afghanistan.

The US can communicate to Pakistan that attacks carried out by groups based in or backed by Pakistan against India will have severe consequences for bilateral ties. However, this should not come at the expense of alienating Pakistan from the counterterrorism fight. The US can offer calibrated counterterrorism assistance to Pakistan, focused solely on combating the TTP threat and not India.

A Sustainable Approach

The US faces a renewed challenge in countering terrorism emanating from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Recognizing Pakistan’s critical role as a counterterrorism partner and victim of terrorism is essential. A well-calibrated strategy that balances counterterrorism efforts with broader geopolitical objectives is necessary to prevent the region from once again becoming a breeding ground for global terrorism. This approach requires a delicate balance. The US must maintain pressure on the Taliban to deliver on their counterterrorism promises while keeping open communication channels. This can be done by holding regional meetings with countries directly affected by terrorism from Afghanistan, such as Pakistan, to solidify shared expectations from the Taliban. However, long-term success hinges on addressing the root causes of terrorism in the region. Investing in social and economic development projects, promoting tolerance and religious diversity, and addressing grievances that fuel radicalization are crucial aspects of a sustainable counterterrorism strategy. The fight against terrorism is far from over. The US, in collaboration with regional partners like Pakistan, must adopt a nuanced and adaptable strategy to ensure a safer and more stable future for the region and the world.

The opinions shared in this article reflect the author’s personal views and do not necessarily align with the institution’s official stance.

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