The AfPak Terror Time Bomb
How the West's ignorance of regional geopolitics doomed its campaign in Afghanistan and invited the resurgence of terrorism.
The withdrawal of the United States and its coalition from Iraq in 2011 failed to bring stability to Iraq and the region. The momentum of insurgents, including terrorist attacks in 2012, has not abated. Unless there is steadfast and continuing international support for the Iraqi military, law enforcement and intelligence, the threat is likely to increase, grow and spill over to other parts of the Arab neighborhood in the coming months.
Will the United States, NATO and other partners withdraw from Afghanistan, leaving behind an al-Qaeda–Taliban enclave on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border? U.S. operations targeting al-Qaeda leadership in tribal and mainland Pakistan have degraded the organization’s operational capabilities, but the principal threat today is emanating from two dozen Afghan Taliban-led groups and a few hundred foreign fighters.
Without clearing the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the U.S. withdrawal will have serious consequences: the return of the Afghan Taliban to Afghanistan, reconstitution of al-Qaeda and creation of a safe haven for two dozen insurgent and terrorist groups. The return of Mullah Muhammed Omar’s Islamic Movement of Afghanistan, which hosted al-Qaeda and provided training to tens of thousands of guerrillas and terrorists, will destabilize both Afghanistan’s immediate and distant neighborhood.
History is cruel and will repeat itself. After the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1989, the high-spirited Afghan veterans returned home to ignite revolutions throughout the 1990s. Similarly, a few hundred foreign fighters currently supporting the Afghan and Pakistani fighters will return, destabilizing their homelands. These fighters are from Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the West.
If the U.S.-led coalition withdraws from Afghanistan without dismantling the insurgent-terrorist infrastructure on the Afghan-Pakistan border, it is very likely that Afghanistan will be used again as a staging pad for international terrorist operations. If so, Western forces will have to return to Afghanistan to stabilize Afghanistan. Based on several visits I made to Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is evident that the Taliban will return. And a study of the insurgent-terrorist capabilities demonstrates that the current regime in Kabul will collapse if Western forces withdraw from Afghanistan in the next year or two.
A Proxy for Indian Relations
After a decade of colossal investment by the international community in Afghanistan, the security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan has not improved. There has been a grave lack of understanding on the part of the intervening powers of the complex geopolitics of South Asia. The key to stability and peace in Afghanistan is resolving Pakistan’s geopolitical quagmire with India, its archenemy. Without a regime friendly to Pakistan in power in Afghanistan, the thinking among the strategic community in Pakistan is that its security cannot be ensured.
Today, Pakistan perceives Afghanistan as a pro-India and anti-Pakistan regime. The United States, NATO and other nations militarily fighting the Afghan Taliban and its associated groups on Afghan soil, including through drone attacks against al-Qaeda in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), will not end the insurgency. It is a well-established fact that Afghan Taliban, al-Qaeda, Pakistan Taliban and another dozen groups are operating on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Without Pakistan’s full cooperation, the Afghan Taliban and its associated groups will continue to survive, and the threat to Afghanistan will persist.
Global terrorism will be driven and sustained largely by the geopolitical disputes and developments in the Middle East and Asia. In the foreseeable future, the principal threats to the world will stem from four regions of concern—in order of threat: Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Levant-Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa and the Maghreb-Sahel. The Afghanistan-Pakistan border is the international epicenter of terrorism, where attacks are planned and prepared for global reach.
Recent communications show evidence of the larger ambitions of terrorists in the region. In a message posted on the al-Fida' and Shumukh al-Islam forums, a jihadist incited strikes against Western embassies in Muslim countries. He claimied that the consulates are de facto governments and have the "biggest role" in ruining Muslims. Embassies act as government proxies to influence the political and socioeconomic life in the state they are situated, he argued, and the ambassador in turn acts as the leader. He also suggested that embassies are used as centers from which to plot and attack militant leaders, and they employ spies who work under the cover of diplomatic immunity and try to foil resistance groups. "Our talk about blowing up embassies and cutting their relations doesn’t mean at all that we lose sight of the Crusader military bases that are planted carefully and steadily on the lands of our Islamic world,” he insisted, claiming that “these bases . . . are the fruits of the plotting and cunning of these embassies."
Today, a few hundred foreign fighters support the Afghan and Pakistani fighters. They are from from Xinjiang (China), Philippines, Indonesia, Maldives, Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Turkey, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the United States and Europe. And as some of them travel to and from their countries of origin, they will threaten global security.
A video released by the media arm of the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), “The Path to Paradise," shows new fighters receiving training in firearms, explosives, and heavy weapons at an IJU camp in Pakistan in 2009-2010. A second video shows the fighters applying this training to clashes and strikes against NATO-led ISAF forces and Afghan soldiers in Khost, Kunduz and Paktia provinces. The narrator notes that "Their training and their experience during the jihadi activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan will someday certainly help a lot when it is time to help their brothers and sisters in Central Asia."
Winning Pakistan’s Cooperation
Over the past year, U.S.-Pakistani relations have deteriorated. Although the Western press alleged that Pakistan was harboring Osama bin Laden, there is no solid evidence. In fact, Pakistan has arrested or killed more al-Qaeda leaders and members than any other country. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, was apprehended by Pakistani security forces in Westridge, Rawalpindi in 2003. Pakistan continues to wage a relentless campaign against the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda and its associated groups: the Turkistan Islamic Party, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IJU and others.
Although Pakistan has shielded the Afghan Taliban, it has waged a campaign that has been exceptionally costly for Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban and its associated groups have attacked Pakistani military, law-enforcement and intelligence targets throughout the country. Late last year, Tawhid Brigades, which killed Pakistani military officers in Karachi, made their intentions clear:
We will turn each and every one of your joys into a cause for sorrow, and we will make your life a living Hell. And we will target each and every one of this Western proxy army in every street and alley, whether individually or in groups, until the Shariah rules over the lands of Pakistan, or we die in its cause.
Unlike in the past, when insurgency raged in tribal areas, Pakistan increasingly faces a threat comparable to Afghanistan, with attacks throughout the country. The spillover of ideological extremism is radicalizing mainland Pakistanis to a point that a very large proportion of the Pakistani fighters now in the FATA are from the mainland. After the U.S.-led coalition withdraws from Afghanistan, it is very likely that both Afghanistan and Pakistan will suffer from the threat groups now located on the Afghan-Pakistan border.
A Ticking Time Bomb
There will be no security in Afghanistan without Pakistan’s steadfast cooperation in dismantling the insurgent-terrorist infrastructure on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. It is not too late for the international community to get the Afghan-Pakistan relationship right. It will require addressing not only the security threats to the West, which stem from terrorism, but also must focus on Pakistan’s geopolitical concerns.
The combined lack of Western understanding of the geopolitics of Pakistan and will to resolve the quagmire makes a solution elusive. With the Western public’s support for Afghanistan operations eroding, insurgency is likely to return to the region with a vengeance. The spillover effect of such a tragedy could be a wave of international terrorism against the West.
Will the West fail in Afghanistan and Pakistan? There is still time for the United States and its allies get their Afghan-Pakistani policy right. Otherwise, geopolitics, not counterterrorism, will determine the outcome of the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. Already, the reality of the return of the Afghan Taliban to Kabul is emboldening jihadist communities—both in the region and beyond.
Professor Rohan Gunaratna is head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore, author of Inside Al-Qaeda (Columbia University, New York, 2002) and lead author of Pakistan: Ground Zero Terrorism (Reaktion, London, 2011).