Taliban Militants Striking Pakistan from Afghan Territory

Author: Zia Ur Rehman

Since the start of the current Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, U.S.-led NATO forces and the Afghan government have blamed much of the violence on militants based in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Insurgents from groups such as the Haqqani network are able to plan operations from their bases located in Pakistan’s tribal areas, cross the border into Afghanistan, execute attacks, and then retreat back into the relative safety of Pakistan.

Yet in the last two years, the issue of cross-border attacks has become even more complicated. Pakistan itself is now victim to Pakistani Taliban militants who are sheltering in Afghanistan, crossing the border into Pakistan to conduct attacks, and then retreating back across the Afghan border.[1] Pakistani officials assert that these militants are part of the Pakistani Taliban factions that once pressed for power in the Swat Valley, but were forced to flee into Afghanistan during a successful Pakistani military operation in 2009. Pakistan believes that these militants have regrouped in the border region and are now confident enough to carry out large-scale, cross-border attacks on Pakistani targets.

Seventeen large-scale, cross-border incursions of militants from Afghanistan to Pakistan have occurred in the last six months.[2] Most of the attacks were carried out in Bajaur Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), an important agency for the Taliban and al-Qa`ida because it shares a border with Kunar Province in Afghanistan—a strategic province from which NATO forces have largely withdrawn.

This article examines the trend of Pakistani Taliban militants using Afghanistan as a staging ground for attacks in Pakistan. It reviews a few key cross-border attacks and speculates whether these operations are part of a larger Taliban strategy.

Cross-Border Attacks
In 2011, security in the border areas remained volatile, with 69 reported clashes and cross-border attacks that killed 225 people.[3] Pakistani military commander Major General Ghulam Qamar asserted that since February 2012, there have been 17 major cross-border incursions where Pakistani Taliban fighters entered Pakistan from Afghanistan to attack Pakistani interests.[4] The incursions have mainly occurred in Bajaur and Mohmand agencies in FATA and Dir and Chitral districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

On June 24, 2012, for example, an estimated 100 militants belonging to Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) entered Pakistan’s Upper Dir District from Afghanistan’s Kunar Province and killed 17 Pakistani soldiers.[5] A few days later, the militants released a video showing the severed heads of the 17 soldiers.[6] The video included a statement from Hakimullah Mehsud, the TTP’s leader, and Maulana Fazlullah, head of the TTP’s Swat chapter.

On July 12, dozens of Pakistani Taliban militants crossed from Afghanistan’s Kunar Province into Pakistan and took scores of villagers hostage, including members of an anti-Taliban militia in the Katkot area of Bajaur Agency.[7] Pakistani forces quickly surrounded the village, killing eight militants.[8]

More recently, Pakistani Taliban militants sheltering in Afghanistan attacked security checkpoints at Inkle Sar and Miskini Darra areas of Samar Bagh Tehsil in Lower Dir District on August 24.[9] The militants were reportedly members of the TTP’s Dir chapter led by Hafizullah.[10]

Also on August 24, hundreds of Pakistani Taliban militants crossed into Pakistan from Kunar Province and attacked security personnel as well as a local tribal militia known as the Salarzai Qaumi lashkar in the Batwar area of Bajaur Agency.[11] Security forces responded, which led to heavy fighting that resulted in the deaths of 30 militants and an estimated six members of the security forces.[12] Fifteen members of the security forces, however, went missing.[13] On August 31, TTP militants released a video showing the severed heads of the 15 soldiers.[14]

Taliban Hideouts in Afghanistan
Pakistani security officials and local tribal elders assert that these cross-border attacks into Pakistani territory have been executed by militants belonging to the Bajaur, Swat and Dir chapters of the TTP, with help from Afghan Taliban militants. Following the Pakistan military’s operations in Swat, Dir and Bajaur in 2009, militants led by Maulana Fazlullah were pushed out of Pakistani territory, and they reportedly fled into Kunar and Nuristan provinces in Afghanistan. From Afghanistan, they prepared for cross-border attacks on Pakistani security forces.[15] With NATO troops largely withdrawing from Kunar and Nuristan throughout 2011, Pakistani analysts suspect that the operating environment has become more conducive to Pakistani Taliban fighters.

The TTP itself has admitted that they use Afghan soil as a springboard to launch attacks on Pakistani security forces—even though the Afghan Taliban deny it.[16] Sirajuddin, a spokesperson for the TTP’s Malakand chapter, said that Maulana Fazlullah is leading militant attacks and remains in contact with Pakistani Taliban fighters based in Pakistan’s Malakand division. Sirajuddin claimed that Fazlullah commands more than 1,000 fighters who move regularly across the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.[17] The exact number of TTP militants in Afghanistan is not known, but Pakistani Major General Athar Abbas said that 200 to 300 militants have been mounting cross-border attacks in Dir, Chitral and Bajaur.[18]

Firm evidence of the TTP’s use of Kunar Province came to light when the head of the TTP’s Bajaur chapter, Mullah Dadullah, was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Shigal district of Kunar Province on August 24, 2012.[19] Dadullah, whose real name was Jamal Said, had a close association with senior members of al-Qa`ida from 2003 to 2007, according to tribal sources. He was the chief of the TTP’s moral police and head of the Taliban’s treasury.[20]

Media reports suggest that Qari Ziaur Rehman, a key al-Qa`ida commander who is from Kunar, as well as Shaykh Dost Muhammad, a Nuristan-based Afghan Taliban leader, are hosting the Pakistani Taliban militants.[21] Rehman is thought to have once been a close confidante of Usama bin Ladin and hosted him temporarily after his escape from the Tora Bora Mountains in 2001.[22] Rehman was sheltered by the Pakistani Taliban in Bajaur Agency for years, and he is now reportedly returning the favor.[23]

Broader Strategic Plan?
Some analysts believe that violence on both sides of the border is a coordinated strategy of al-Qa`ida, the TTP and the Afghan Taliban to damage ties among Islamabad, Kabul and Washington by increasing mutual distrust. Former Afghan Defense Minister Shahnawaz Tanai explained that Taliban elements in both countries helped each other during the fight against the Soviet Union, and this same cooperation extends today.[24] The TTP’s use of so-called “safehavens” in Afghanistan mirrors the Afghan Taliban’s successful use of safehavens in Pakistan.

Other experts argue that the recent rise in cross-border attacks is part of a coordinated strategy to prevent a Pakistani military operation against the Haqqani network.[25] Karachi-based security expert Raees Ahmed believes that the TTP has escalated attacks in Bajaur in response to an impending army operation in North Waziristan, which would coincide with U.S. or Afghan military action against TTP bases in Afghanistan.[26] Militants may be seeking to carve out territory in Bajaur so that they can threaten violence in the settled areas of Malakand division in case Pakistan and the United States coordinate a military offensive.[27]

The recent cross-border incursions on both sides of the border clearly show that Pakistan, Afghanistan and NATO have all failed to clear the strategically important border areas of militants, permitting previously dispersed extremist organizations to regroup and prepare new, large-scale attacks in both countries. Although security forces have begun operations to repel further attacks, they are unlikely to be successful until they deal collectively with the issue of cross-border militancy—a problem to which there are no easy solutions.

Zia Ur Rehman is a journalist and researcher who covers militancy in Pakistan. He has written for The Friday Times, The Jamestown Foundation, Herald and The News International, and contributed to the New York Times.

[1] “Pakistan Accuses Afghanistan of Backing Taliban Enemy,” Reuters, August 5, 2012.

[2] Daily Azadi [Swat], September 7, 2012.

[3] “Pakistan Security Report 2011,” Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, January 2012.

[4] Daily Azadi [Swat], September 7, 2012.

[5] “Taliban Release Video of Beheaded Pakistani Soldiers,” Agence France-Presse, June 27, 2012.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Militants Take Villagers Hostage in Bajaur,” Dawn, July 12, 2012.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Taliban Attack Security Posts in Lower Dir,” Express Tribune, August 24, 2012.

[10] Ibid.

[11] BBC Urdu, August 27, 2012; personal interview, member of Salarzai Qaumi Lashkar, September 3, 2012; “At Least 28 Militants Killed in Bajaur Agency,” Dawn, August 25, 2012.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Anwarullah Khan, “Militants Release Video of Beheaded Soldiers,” Dawn, September 1, 2012.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Personal interviews, elders of Salarzai Qaumi Lashkar, Khar town, Bajaur Agency, Pakistan, March 25, 2012.

[16] Tahir Khan, “Cross-Border Cooperation: Ties That Bind Militants Persist,” Express Tribune, July 8, 2011.

[17] Tahir Khan, “TTP Admits to Having Safe Haven in Afghanistan,” Express Tribune, June 26, 2012.

[18] Zia Khan and Naveed Hussain, “Border Incursions: Suspicions Grow about Afghan Support for TTP,” Express Tribune, September 11, 2011.

[19] Declan Walsh, “Pakistani Militant Leader Dies in Airstrike, NATO Says,” New York Times, August 25, 2012; Javed Hamim Kakar and Khan Wali Salarzai, “Key Haqqani, TTP Leaders Killed in Drone Strikes,” Pajhwok Afghan News, August 25, 2012.

[20] Zia Ur Rehman, “On the Borderline,” Friday Times, September 7-13, 2012.

[21] Khan, “Cross-Border Cooperation: Ties that Bind Militants Persist.”

[22] Khan and Hussain.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Khan, “Cross-Border Cooperation: Ties that Bind Militants Persist.”

[25] “Understanding with US on Joint Action Against Haqqanis,” Dawn, August 6, 2012.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Personal interview, Raees Ahmed, security analyst, Karachi, Pakistan, September 4, 2012.

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