Combatting terrorism: approaches and prospects -Express Tribune

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Non-state actors in Afghanistan continue to cause mayhem at an alarming pace. Last week’s attack on a mosque in Kunduz killed nearly a hundred people. Such attacks signal to the world that insurgent groups are active and far from defeated. To contain the spread of terrorism, the approach of the regional countries seems a unified strategy. However, in parallel, the Taliban are required to take concrete steps to meet the challenges that will come once they are recognised globally and can establish their writ.

The major sources of terrorism now reside in Afghanistan, and nearly all the regional states are under threat. At present, there are cells of al-Qaeda, Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The most dangerous are al-Qaeda and ISISK which aim to “replace all Central Asia’s secular regimes with an Islamic caliphate that would encompass Central Asia, Afghanistan, and parts of Pakistan and China”.

Each group poses a significant problem for each specific country of the region. For China, it’s ETIM and its collaboration with the Uighur militants. For Russia, IMU; for Pakistan, TTP; and for Iran, ISIS. All the countries have been grappling with the perennial issue of cross-border terrorism.

Another threat perception comes from hardliners in the Afghan government. Although Taliban leaders maintain that their movement is purely nationalist and Afghan soil will not be used against any other country, they are still viewed sceptically. The hard-line government is causing uncertainty as some leaders may render support to the mentioned groups. But do they have enough resources to control such groups?

Regional countries see the likelihood of increased terrorism with the Taliban’s victory and are undertaking various measures to counter this possibility. They realise that despite Taliban assurances, their government and resources cannot be trusted.

A global policy of not recognising the Taliban government until certain conditions are met has been adopted. Yet, regional and some Western countries view engagement and communication with Afghanistan as imperative to prevent a collapse that would have dangerous implications. In this regard, Pakistan, China, Russia, and Iran are leading. China has pledged $31m worth of aid, including food supplies and coronavirus vaccine. Last week a meeting with the Iranian delegation to discuss trade relations, a key driver of Afghanistan’s economy, was held; and another with the British. Russia has invited Taliban representatives to Moscow on Oct 20. The UN also said it will continue its assistance programmes in the country.

Another common approach is strengthening military capability through joint exercises. Russia held 10-day-long drills with Tajik and Uzbek armed forces. Tajikistan shares an 800-mile border with Afghanistan. Russia is seeking to secure its border and those of its Central Asian allies through the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Pakistan and China have also participated in joint military exercises to share best practices in counterterrorism operations. Iran recently acquired full SCO membership and plans to participate in joint military exercises with Russia and China later this year or early next year.

The regional states are looking to protect themselves while engaging cautiously with Afghanistan. They could further help the Taliban government through some kind of ‘Operation Clean-Up’ to eradicate common threats, but this would only be possible when the Taliban are ready for this. When they are diplomatically recognised, they can collaborate on state level to invite any kind of deployment force from their neighbours.

The Taliban’s desperate efforts for recognition of its Islamic Emirate have so far been futile. Despite knowing their recognition is contingent upon meeting certain conditions, no progress has been made in that direction. Further, as an aid-dependent country, Afghanistan is grappling with an economic crisis and frozen assets. Disbursements from international organisations that once accounted for 75% of state spending have been paused. Incidents of terrorism from within have alarmed stakeholders. China, whom the Taliban see as their future partner, has emphasised that the establishment of the new interim government is a “necessary step to restore order” in Afghanistan.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 13th, 2021.