Islamabad and the fight against terrorism in FATA


A travel through the FATA to understand the geographical, political, economic and social peculiarities of the region; the role played by jihadist terrorism; and the answers of Islamabad to this complex set of interconnected issues


THE TRIBAL AREAS OF THE NORT-EAST – FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) is a semi-autonomous region of north-western Pakistan, bordering Pakistan’s provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan on the east and south, and Afghanistan to the west and north. Geographically, FATA is crossed by the Hindu Kush, one of the world’s highest mountain ranges This mountain range, which has in Pakistan some of its highest peaks, is characterized by rocky where impervious passes are often the only transport route for the region’s inhabitants.

Demographically, FATA has a population of about 4.5 million, the majority of whom belong to the ethnic Pashtun group and to the Sunni branch of Islam. The almost totality of FATA’s population lives in rural areas, where it has been possible to preserve a century-old tribal lifestyle and historic clan ties. However, this rural anchoring has hindered FATA’s industrial and urban development and the region is today Pakistan’s poorest and most underdeveloped one.

On the political-administrative level, FATA is divided in seven Tribal Agencies and six Frontier Regions, administered by the Pakistani federal government according to laws known as Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) that date back to 1901. These laws were introduced by the British Colonial Empire to make of FATA a sort of “buffer” along the border with Afghanistan, so as to protect British India from the threats of Russian expansionism. Since then, the FCR have placed a significant degree of power and autonomy in the hands of local tribal and religious leaders and they continue today to make of FATA an exceptional case of semi-autonomous government within the Pakistani political system.


TRIBAL AREAS AND JIHADIST TERRORISM – A considerable gap exists thus between FATA and the rest of Pakistan. FATA is characterized by exceptionally high rates of poverty, underdevelopment, and illiteracy; by a rural population mainly Sunni and Pashtun that is still organized according to old clan bonds and that lacks the ethnic and religious diversity observed in other areas of the country; and by an administrative semi-autonomy that renders FATA’s people excluded from constitutional rights.

This situation, made of a dangerous mix of chronic poverty and political vacuum, has created over the past decades a fertile ground for various terrorist groups seeking a safe haven in South Asia. Especially after 2001, the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom against the Taliban Emirate in Afghanistan forced the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other linked groups such as the Haqqani Network to abandon their Afghan bases and seek a safe haven somewhere else. This safe haven was found in the AfPak area and, in particular, in FATA. Here, in fact, those terrorist groups could find an ideal ground for their settlement thanks to two main elements: the mountain passes that allow an immediate connection between FATA and the Taliban traditional bases in eastern Afghanistan; and the limitations imposed by the FCR upon Islamabad’s possibility of control and intervention in FATA.

Moreover, the Tribal Areas have revealed to be also an ideal ground for recruitment for those jihadist groups. Exploiting the poverty of the local people; the lack of any prospect of economic improvement; the low schooling rate and weak religious awareness; the alienation towards Islamabad due to the exclusion from constitutional rights; and the absence of reliable judiciary institutions, the groups led by Mullah Omar, bin Laden, and Shirahuddin Haqqani found in FATA many new recruits and broad popular support. These groups, in fact, were able to provide to the locals an alternative to the low-paid work in the fields and to set up satisfactory structures of shadow governance capable of providing the lacking health, education and judiciary services.

The Taliban, in particular, also managed to exploit their decade-long relationships with the local imams of Sunni madrassas to spread their message of religious extremism, so as to obtain from FATA’s people a strong ideological support.


CHANGE OF ROUTE IN ISLAMABAD… – In March 2004, after the pressures coming from an American power just hit at its heart and an international community ever more sensitive to the threat of jihadist terrorism, the Pakistani government had no choice but that of intervening with the army in FATA against the terrorist groups hidden there.

The series of military campaigns that the Pakistani army has carried out since then has curbed the process of Talibanization that was interesting the Tribal Areas and has driven out of FATA many terrorist cells. Nevertheless, the fight against terrorism in FATA is not completed and the recent attacks perpetrated across Pakistan by groups such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) have reinforced in Islamabad the voices of those who were calling for a political approach to be combined with the military one in dealing with FATA.

On the wake of this new approach, in November 2015 the government established an ad hoc Committee (FATA Reforms Committee) that after ten months of discussions proposed to integrate FATA in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; to extend to FATA the Pakistani jurisdiction; and to suppress the FCR. The laws of the British Raj should be replaced partly by the Pakistani laws applied to the rest of the country, partly by a set of laws based on local Riwaj (traditions).


… AND ATTEMPTS AT HIJACKING – However, the proposal of integrating FATA is opposed both outside and within Pakistan.

Among the external opponents, there is Kabul. Afghanistan in fact never accepted the 1893 Durand Line that marks the border with Pakistan, so that accepting the inclusion of FATA in the Pakistani administrative and political system would be for Kabul a diplomatic defeat and would imply a cost in terms of internal political support that Ghani cannot afford to pay.

Within Pakistan, the main opposition comes from FATA’s tribal, political and religious chiefs. These local heads, in fact, do not want to cede to Islamabad the advantages obtained thanks to the FCR, since those laws placed in their hands almost unchecked powers. To this, it is then to be added that local religious and tribal leaders are worried about losing the advantages (in terms of influence and military edge) given to them by the relations that they have established with extremist and powerful Pashtun militant groups such as the Taliban and the Haqqani Network.


It thus emerges that fight against terrorism in FATA cannot succeed until other steps are taken:


  • Pakistan should embrace a strategy of fight against terrorism that aims not only to physically eliminate terrorist groups but also to cancel the popular support they found in FATA. To do so, it is necessary to take measures such as a tighter control over the religious messages promoted in local madrassas; the implementation of development plans so as to avoid situations in which local youth see in terrorism the only way to earn an income; the promotion of a secular education; the spread of non-extremist religious narratives…


  • Pakistan and Afghanistan should abandon the dangerous distinction between “Afghan terrorism” and “Pakistani terrorism” and rather initiate a dialogue aimed at addressing jointly the common problem of terrorism in the AfPak area, so as to avoid that terrorist groups continue to exploit the porosity of the Afghan-Pakistani border to conduct attacks in one country and find easy refuge in the other.


  • The international community should be more active in helping Pakistan (not only financially but also in terms of shared expertise) to cancel the popular support that terrorists still find in some areas of the country, emphasizing in particular how religious moderate leaders and the civil society can positively work with the Pakistani government in countering terrorism.



Pakistan’s internal and ever-lasting war



The attacks of Monday are a reminder of how terrorism continues to be the main challenge for Pakistan and how Islamabad has more than one reason to embrace a non-ambiguous and effective policy of counter-terrorism


On Monday morning, the Pakistani city of Quetta became (once again) the theatre of a brutal terrorist attack that claimed the lives of 64 people and wounded dozens more. The target of the attack was a gathering of lawyers who had gone to a local hospital where a colleague of their – the President of the Balochistan Bar Association, Mr Bilal Anwar Kasi – had been brought after being shot while on his way to work.

The terrorist attack was claimed within some hours by spokesmen of both a branch of the Pakistani Taliban and of ISIS. Nevertheless, whoever the actual responsible is, what the attack of Monday pointed out is that – despite the shy improvements in terms of crackdown made by the Pakistani government – terrorism continues to be a major source of internal insecurity for Pakistan and a major threat for the Pakistani population.


The terrorist threat, embodied mainly by the Tareek-e-Taliban Pakistan but also by emerging groups such as the South Asian branch of ISIS, is particularly problematic in volatile provinces such as Balochistan (where the city of Quetta indeed is). Here, in fact, the central government has always faced difficulties in extending its control due to the existence of tribal insurgence movements who reject Islamabad’s legitimacy – and this has made it easier for terrorist groups to find ground for recruitment, training and action.


However, in order to understand how this state of things has come into being and has evolved one cannot only look at Islamabad’s difficulties in controlling the country’s tribal areas (with FATA being the most emblematic case) but needs to look deeper into the government’s traditional approach to regional terrorism.

As far as terrorism is concerned, in fact, Islamabad has always played a dangerous “double game”: elaborating a non-sense distinction between the so-called “good Taliban” who operate within Afghanistan and the so-called “bad Taliban” who are instead active in Pakistan, Islamabad has traditionally maintained an opposite approach to the two groups. On the one hand, it has (not even too covertly) supported the Afghan Taliban and, when needed, given to them a safe haven where to hid and re-organize. On the other hand, instead, the Pakistani government has always considered the presence of terrorists in Pakistan as a major threat and a destabilizing factor and has tried to act militarily against them (or at least keep them confined to peripheral areas only).


But what are the roots of Pakistan’s double approach to the jihadi terrorism espoused by the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban? For that, one needs to look at the country’s historical relations with its immediate neighbours – Afghanistan and India.

With respect to Afghanistan, Islamabad has always tried to exploit the threat posed by the Taliban to Kabul’s credibility and the destabilizing effect of their activity in order to turn the Afghan government into a puppet eager to follow Islamabad’s guidelines (read impositions), such as the undiscussed acceptance of the 1893 Durand Line (the line that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan for a length of 2640 km) and the adoption of an anti-India foreign policy. This last element is especially important: Pakistan, indeed, has always tried to use the Taliban and to take advantage of their presence in Afghanistan in order to gain strategic depth in an anti-India logic.

In other words, treating the Afghani Taliban as “good terrorists” and sustaining (or at least not refraining) their activity so as to weaken Kabul has always been part of Pakistan’s calculations to strengthen its position vis-à-vis the Indian enemy and turn in its favour the regional system of alliances.


However, what the wave of attacks that has been hitting Pakistan over the past years highlights is that Islamabad is now paying the price (and an extremely high one) of its “double game” with terrorism. Over the past years, the country has become a preferred target for many terrorist groups operating in the region and this is now starting to make Islamabad aware that no such distinction between “good” and “bad” can exist when terrorism is concerned and that a single approach aimed at its defeat is rather needed.


Pakistan today cannot escape the reality of facts that a serious fight against terrorism is vital to protect its own national security and its international credibility.


In addition – as if the above was not enough – Pakistan now has also economic motivations to pursue a harder line against terrorists, and this is evident if the Pakistan-China relationship is taken into consideration.

China is not only a long-time political ally of Islamabad but it is also the number one investor in Pakistan’s economic development, with a recent plan of a 46-billion-dollar investment for the construction of ports, railways, roads, telecommunication and energy infrastructures.

Thanks to these massive investments, Pakistan would see its potential of economic development fuelled and it could retrieve the levels of economic growth that it had known in the past and that had led many to see in it the next Asian economic power. However, nothing of this will become reality if Pakistan does not create a stable and reliable security environment: the waves of terrorist attacks, in fact, risk discouraging China from proceeding with its investment plans and if this were to happen and China’s projects were stymied, Pakistan economy would lag behind that of the other Asian countries for the next future.


Islamabad’s double game has thus security and economic costs that cannot simply be ignored.





China’s Role in the Match between Kabul and the Taliban

While the dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban has entered a phase of stalemate, China continues to be one of the most important actors involved in the efforts of pushing the parties to talk. But what are the reasons and the implications of such Chinese policy?



Of the various regions with which China shares its borders, the area known as AfPak always had a major importance. Yet, it is especially over the past few years that this region – that spans across Pakistan and Afghanistan and borders China’s Xinjiang province – has seen its relevance increase even more in the strategic calculations of Beijing in South Asia.

Since the ‘80s – with the Soviet-Afghan war and the advent of jihadist terrorism – the area has emerged as source of instability and insecurity for the whole region, and it is such a volatility that is giving it priority in China’s geopolitical choices (and worries).  In the eyes of Beijing, in fact, the instability of an area that is at its south-western borders represents a double threat with which it necessarily has to deal – and in front of which it cannot delay an effective response.


On one side, there is the threat posed to China’s national security. This threat mainly takes the form of the influence that Afghan and Pakistani terrorist groups exert on extremist groups of Uighurs active in the Xinjiang which in more than one occasion have resorted to terrorism to express their opposition to Beijing.

On the other side, there is the threat posed to China’s economic interests. Due to its geographic position, the AfPak region plays a primary role in the trade relations that China maintains with the Central Asian countries from which it imports oil and gas. In addition, it is vital for the implementation of the silk road economic belt – a crucial development and economic project elaborated by China in and for Eurasia.


The stability of the AfPak region is therefore a priority for the Chinese government due to economic and security reasons.

It is for these reasons that over the past few years Beijing has deepened its role in the region’s dynamics and it is in this context that we shall place (and explain) the strategy followed by China with respect to the issue of the dialogue between the Taliban and Kabul.  Since the beginning of last year, China has proposed itself as key player in that delicate and complex process aiming to seek a direct negotiation between the two conflicting parties. In the specific, it has intervened by exploiting its influence over Islamabad (explained by the numerous trade agreements and investment plans that bind Pakistan and its economic growth to China) to convince the Pakistanis to review their afghan policy and encourage the Taliban to talk.


Such a direct intervention on China’s part is especially meaningful as it represents a turning point in the Chinese foreign policy and has relevant implications at regional level.

Traditionally resistive to any direct involvement in the political and diplomatic landscape of South Asia, China is now facing a phase of re-definition of its afghan policy: firm to protect its economic and security interests, Beijing has elaborated an approach centered on a greater political direct involvement. This new approach on the Chinese side has favored the emergence of new dynamics in the game of alliances in the region: under President Ghani Afghanistan has abandoned the traditional line followed by Karzai and has moved away from the Indian ally while getting closer instead to China and Pakistan.

Equally important is then the fact that China’s decision to avoid unilateral interventions and join the Group of Four signals a renewed cooperation with the United States in the AfPak area. In Afghanistan – after all – the strategic interests of Washington and Beijing point in the same direction, with the consequent overture of cooperation opportunities that might impact positively on the negotiation possibilities.


However, the efficacy of the new afghan policy implemented by Beijing will depend on a series of factors.

First of all, there is the relation between China and the United States. As said, the more the two countries will be able to take advantage of and work on their common interest in the AfPak’s stabilization, the more China will have in its hands the right cards to play a decisive role.

Secondly, there is the issue of the relationship between China and Pakistan. Beijing’s role, indeed, will largely depend on its capacity of using its political and economic pressure to have Islamabad to moderate its afghan policy (traditionally based on the support given to the Taliban in an anti-Delhi key).

Furthermore, much will depend on the consistency of the Taliban front. Since last summer, when the death of Mullah Omar was confirmed and Mansour became the group’s new leader, the Taliban are internally fractured and this fracture represents the main obstacle to dialogue. The success of negotiations will thus depend on the capacity of the Group of which China is part of identifying reliable interlocutors.


Moreover, it is to underline how this new Chinese involvement will not come without risks.

The main risk lies in the fact that an excessive involvement of Beijing in its support to Kabul and – more broadly – in the whole issue of the regional fight against terrorism might exasperate even more the tensions within Xinjiang and strengthen the Uighur radical groups’ hostility to Beijing.

In addition, intervening ever more in the Afghan issues, China risks undermining its friendly relations with many of the countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, each of which has in Afghanistan its own political and economic interests that they are more than determined to defend. Among the SCO countries, indeed, the Afghan issue has always been a major source of tension because of its undisputable relevance, and the Chinese intervention might widen differences and diffidence and slow down cooperation also in other areas and on other matters.

Finally, there is to consider the element of the USA and NATO presence in Afghanistan. The more the presence of Western forces is reduced (both in terms of actual numbers both in terms of the tasks and missions to be carried out), the more China – due to its new foreground role – risks finding itself exposed to pressure as far as the possibility of a future ground intervention is concerned. Beijing’s credibility as regional actor might risk being compromised if China did not prove capable of finding a successful balance between its desire of stabilizing the region and its rejection of any military intervention.

New hopes for Af-Pak-India?

The bilateral meeting between India and Pakistan held in occasion of the Heart of Asia Conference could be opening new room for dialogue, capable of influencing not only the relations between Islamabad and New Delhi, but also those with Afghanistan in the broader regional arena

In early December, Islamabad was the venue of the Heart of Asia Conference, instituted by fourteen countries to discuss and frame common policies that could stabilize Afghanistan – the country at the heart of Asia – and thus increase security in the whole region.
On 8th December, there was the Senior Officials meeting, while on 9th the much-awaited ministerial meeting. To make the latter so important is the fact that it was turned into an opportunity of dialogue between India and Pakistan, there represented by Sushma Swaraj and Sartaj Aziz.
After the fiasco in August, when the meeting planned months before was cancelled at the very last minute due to disputes on the topics to be put in the agenda, there were few hopes that it would be possible to witness a change of direction so soon. And if it is undoubtedly premature to talk now of “turning point” in reference to the Islamabad meeting, the fact that it took place is encouraging per se. A sign that, maybe, something is moving in South Asia and the fiercest enemies of the region can respond to new chances of dialogue timidly emerging on the horizon.

So, what did create these chances of dialogue? Not a single, specific event but rather a series of events that altogether had a positive impact in recreating a minimum level of mutual opening.
Firstly, there was the meeting between Modi and Sharif at the sidelines of COP21, where it seems that new points of contact were found on the issue – for India crucial – of the Mumbai terror attack of 2008, with respect to which Sharif promised a speeding up of the investigative and punitive processes.
A week later, there was the bilateral meeting in Bangkok between the heads of the respective national security agencies, during which they talked of terrorism, border clashes, and the Kashmir issue (probably the biggest wound caused by the partition process of 1947 and still open and bleeding today). Clearly too soon to talk of significant steps forward, the meeting nevertheless ended with a joint statement in which the climate of dialogue was described as constructive and cordial (adjectives not often encountered when India and Pakistan are the subjects).

It is in this surprising climate that the third stage of this latest path of rapprochement took place: the meeting between Swaraj and Aziz.
Publicized by both sides as sign of disposal to retrieve those relations interrupted in August, the meeting marked the revival of those peace talks interrupted in 2012 and is thus a positive step for both Modi and Sharif.
On the table, the main topics were the issue of Kashmir – whose resolution is for Pakistan the key of the relations with New Delhi – and terrorism, topic of particular importance for India that has always considered itself (and not without reasons) victim of that Islamic terrorism supposedly financed by Islamabad. Complex and delicate topics that not only touch the bilateral relations India-Pakistan, but also interest (and are interested by) broader regional dynamics and other actors (namely Afghanistan and China).

In particular, it is of primarily importance the role played by Afghanistan in this new chance of distension.
Afghanistan, indeed, finds itself both upstream and downstream of the dialogue, as actor potentially capable of inducing Islamabad and New Delhi to mutual rapprochement and as actor that from the Indo-Pakistani distension as all to gain.
Regarding Afghanistan’s role in the dialogue between the two historical rivals, we should above all remember its position – at the heart of Asia. It is indeed because of it, that the afghan dynamics touch in a crucial – when not even direct – way the dynamics of the regions’ actors, thus interesting both Pakistan and India.
An Afghanistan secure and in peace, founded on political institutions fully functioning and independent from external influences, would thus be a source of stability and security for the whole of South Asia. It would imply the presence in the center of the region of a reliable partner and of an economic, commercial and energetic bridge linking South Asia and Central Asia.
Conversely, an Afghanistan unstable and unsafe as it still is today – where the control exercised by the central government doesn’t reach all provinces, where there are areas under Taliban control, where the presence of foreign troops is essential to avoid the collapse of the local security forces – makes more unsafe the whole region (as the continuous terrorist attacks prove).
India and Pakistan, then, have undoubtedly much to gain, both in terms of security and in terms of commercial and energetic prospects, from a sincere cooperation that includes among the other objectives the stabilization of the western neighbor.
From Kabul’s perspective, then, it is to be considered that what said thus far applies also in the opposite way: a distension between New Delhi and Islamabad is for Afghanistan desirable, since it would have for the country significant advantages – especially in terms of military and intelligence cooperation in the fight against terrorism, and in terms of investments.
Going beyond an afghan foreign policy that after embracing for years an exclusive friendship with India has diverted direction over the past twelve months and moved towards Pakistan, Ghani should invest his energies in pushing for an India-Pakistan rapprochement from which it has all to gain.

Favoring the dialogue between the two long-time rivals is thus of regional interest in order to create new and positive dynamics of cooperation, in absence of which the “Asian Century” cannot become reality.

India and Pakistan – Illusion of dialogue

Historical and current reasons are preventing the dialogue from taking off – and neither side has interest in changing thestalemate
The history of International Relations is – and has always been – characterized by deep and solid friendships, like that between the United States and Great Britain, and also by threatening and unsolvable enmities, like that between India and Pakistan.
Divided by a mortal rivalry emerged with the collapse of the British Raj in 1947, India and Pakistan are the neighbors whose bilateral relationship follows an exhausting and apparently endless cycle. Clashes along the border, steps towards an opening to dialogue, impossibility (and at times unwillingness) of finding points of agreement, collapse of the dialogue, mutual accusations, return to border clashes.

No surprise, then, when this cycle repeated in late August, in the occasion of a dialogue between the security advisors of the two countries on which Modi and Sharif had agreed in Ufa months back. Once again in fact (repetition of what had already happened as early as last November) a few days before the meeting Pakistan stated its intention to meet Kashmir’s separatist leaders, and India reacted setting a red line on the issue. What followed after that (when no one was longer hoping that the meeting could move on) was that Pakistan refused India’s ultimatum, saying that a meeting limited to discussing terrorism would be futile. And everything went up in smoke as we are used to seeing it go.
Little hope, then, that the meeting between the Indian Border Security Force and Pakistan’s Rangers, held in Delhi between the 10th and 12th of September, can lead to an actual and long-term arrangement on such a delicate issue as the common border is. In fact, despite both sides stated at the end of the meeting their commitment to increase cooperation through renewed CBMs in order to avoid clashes along the border and violations of the 2003 ceasefire, it is difficult to believe such an entente will be durably respected once back to the reality of the tough and tense coexistence in Kashmir.

And though, looking back and around us, it is clear that two neighboring countries always have more to gain from a peaceful coexistence than from hostility (be it covert or open). This because their shared border implies the existence of shared interests, and is therefore more than a mere point of geographical contact. France and Germany, for instance, understood this more than 60 years ago, when in the dispiriting environment of post-war Europe they moved towards a solid cooperation through the Schuman Declaration and the ECSC.
And despite the distance between France and Germany in the ‘50s and India and Pakistan today, cooperation is still the best card two neighbors have to play in the game of their bilateral relations, and not even Delhi and Islamabad can escape this plain truth. In fact, if for a while we removed from the picture the historic rivalry between the two countries, it would be quite difficult to deny that reasons for cooperation – in the current political, security, and trade dynamics – do exist.

So why is dialogue and cooperation between the two South Asian countries such a chimera? What is that makes it so difficult for them to seat and work to find – of course through considerable efforts and with no little time – agreements that they are sincerely (and not just rhetorically) disposed to be bound by?

The fundamental problem is that we are talking of a dialogue none of them wants.

Born out of the painful process of partition in 1947, Pakistan has always legitimated its birth, its raison d’être, and its later survival in an anti-India perspective. Born as a territorial and political entity distinct from the one under New Delhi, born as a pure Muslim country distinct from the majoritarian Hindu neighbor, it has since the dawn of its existence as autonomous reality adopted an anti-India political identity and an anti-Hindu religious identity (identities that paradoxically can only survive thanks to the existence of an “Indian enemy” to oppose).
In Pakistan’s case – somewhat differently from what happened in most cases of secession in the XX century, where people were fighting to build their own state on the basis of a strong common identity – the process of identity building (that came after a secession the common people had never really planned) was structured more than around what Pakistanis were, around what they were not: non-Indians and non-Hindus.
Quite evidently, from an identity conceived in such terms it couldn’t but stem a political view centered on the opposition to India (view that has always allowed those who detain power to legitimize any use they make of it as long as aimed at contrasting the neighboring enemy); centered on the objective of gaining a strategic depth that could threaten India’s position in the region (and this has indeed been the major driver of Pakistan’s approach to Afghanistan since the ‘70s); centered on the perception that India is a real existential threat for Pakistan (a distorted view that has always been used by the Pakistani army as a pretext for assertiveness).
The opening to dialogue with India would cancel all this. It would cancel the way in which Pakistan has perceived itself and its role in the region during its 68 years of life, and it would make it necessary to define a new identity, to find a new legitimacy to its existence, elaborate a new foreign policy, and carve out a new regional role to play. Changes that Pakistan’s political and military elites are today not ready for.

Moving to the other side of the border, it is necessary to reckon that here too (though India has an autonomous and independent national identity that finds its roots in a millennial history of which 1947 is just the latest chapter) the political discourse has been characterized for 68 years by an anti-Pakistan rhetoric that has never faded and that – on the contrary – any clash along the border (and beyond it) and any collapsed dialogue do ignite and deepen. Thus, for an Indian population that has always regarded the western neighbor as its main enemy, the reasons that in economic, political and security terms could be adducted for a re-approach to Pakistan appear to many simply not enough to justify an opening to dialogue with a country they think they just can’t talk with. The demonization (at times understandable, at times pretentious) Pakistan was – and largely still is – subject to in India has produced a general mood of suspicion and closure that makes it difficult for Modi (or anyone else in his place) to collect enough support for a dialogue. Let alone for concessions, and let alone on Kashmir.
Even more important though – or at least element that has become ever more so in the last year – is the constant growth of India’s power. Indeed, the implications such a rise has on the Pakistani issue are that the more Delhi presents itself (and gets recognized by others) as a solid economic power, the more it widens its alliances with both old and new partners, the more it diversifies the areas of intervention where to exert its influence, the more it gets involved in extra-South Asian dynamics, the more it emerges as an autonomous, coherent and confident actor of the international arena, and the more it perceives Pakistan and the easing of relations with it as a non-priority of a foreign policy agenda that moves on regardless of what Islamabad does or does not.

In conclusion, unless Pakistan embarks on the process of defining its own autonomous identity and regional role, and unless India sees how it is precisely to increase and defend its great power status at the eyes of the world that it should make of the stabilization of relations with Pakistan a priority, there are no economic, security and political advantages that cooperation can promise capable of successfully stopping and breaking that vicious, decade-long cycle that dooms dialogue to failure even before it starts or as soon as parties are back home.

The long-time friendship that obstructs peace

Ghani’s re-approach to Pakistan hoping to jointly address the problem of terrorism is deemed to fail until Islamabad is the best friend those terrorists ever had

Even for a country like Afghanistan – whose population has been the victim of continuous violence since 1979 – this year the Taliban’s spring and summer offensive has been a particularly bloody one.

Between the 7th and the 10th of August Kabul was the theatre of four days of terror, death and anger that turned into a game changer for a President who spent the last year trying to cooperate with Pakistan to reach a deal with the Taliban. After the attacks, in fact, Ghani blamed Pakistan for the wave of violence in the capital, portraying the image of a Pakistan that sponsors terrorism – where the training camps for terrorists and the bomb-making facilities that used to operate in the past are still operating today, and where the Taliban are free to hold their meetings – a reference to the meeting held to appoint the new Taliban leader.

It seems, thus, that a turning point has been reached – one that makes Kabul no longer disposed to depend on an ambiguous neighbor, and that reveals how past enmities have always been around the corner during the last year, waiting for the moment to resurface again. Well, that moment might have come.

But why have Ghani’s efforts to get Pakistan cooperate with Afghanistan in the fight against terrorism failed?

This latest turning point in the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan reminds us that Pakistan is already involved in a decade-long relationship from which it can’t (read doesn’t want) get out: the one with the Taliban, whom – product of Pakistan’s deobandi madrassas – have always been used by Islamabad as a means through which to intervene in Afghanistan.

The friendship between Islamabad and the Taliban finds its roots in the Soviet-Afghan war, when Pakistan was supporting through weapons and finances (coming from Islamabad but also from Riyadh and Washington) the most radical mujahideens – above whom Hekmatyar – to get to indirectly control Kabul. After 1989, though, Pakistan’s support shifted from the mujahideens to the Taliban, because it had become evident how Hekmatyar would never enter Kabul, and because the fall of Najibullah and the discredit of all mujhaideen leaders were creating a vacuum the Taliban could exploit to gain support and take the capital.

If the Taliban had more chance than any other to take Kabul, then support to the Taliban was for Islamabad the key to reaching its long-time strategic and political objectives: gain strategic projection in Afghanistan in an anti-India perspective; have in Kabul a Pashtun pro-Pakistan government that would abandon Afghanistan’s territorial claims; turn Afghanistan into a place where to train Kashmiri militants; intervene from Afghanistan in the dynamics of Central Asia – a region whose natural resources had yet to be exploited.

Part of the calculus at the core of Pakistan’s friendship towards the Taliban were also economic interests, as – by supporting the Taliban – Islamabad could use the Quetta-Kandahar road to transfer goods westwards to Central Asia and southwards to the Middle East and the Gulf. Moreover, under the Taliban Emirate, Afghanistan’s poppy production increased dramatically, thus giving a major boost to Pakistani dealers and transport mafia and turning Pakistan into a key transport route for drug exports from Afghanistan.

These the main political, strategic and economic reasons behind the support given to the Taliban by the Pakistani government, the Pakistani army, the Inter-Services Intelligence, the transport mafia and drug dealers.

And though, in the early ‘90s, the friendship between Islamabad and Mullah Omar’s group was leaning in favor of the Taliban, as they were at the time more important for Pakistan than Pakistan was for them: they were in fact Pakistan’s door of access to Afghanistan and Central Asia and the ones who provided hosting and training to Kashmiri militants. Such imbalance became essential in influencing the bilateral dynamics between the two neighboring friends, as it led the Taliban to take advantage of it and refuse to recognize the Durand line, advance claims in parts of the NWFP, give havens to radical Sunni Pakistani groups, and advocate an Islamic revolution in Pakistan. The result was an inevitable social and political unrest in Pakistan – with the security and stability of the country threatened by Sunni-Shia sectarian clashes and Sunni extremism, and the government losing any sparkle of legitimacy and credibility it might have.

To these counter-effects that were beginning to result from Islamabad’s support to terrorists, it is to be added that the smuggling trade in which Pakistan was involved with the Taliban was making corruption spread, was obstructing Pakistani industries, undermining law and order, widening the rich-poor gap (and therefore social contradictions) through a vicious spiral that was making the rich even richer and the poor even poorer.

Moreover, backing a terrorist group condemned by the international community for its abuses, Pakistan found itself isolated – something that had tough consequences on the country’s already suffering economy.

But the political and military elite, as well as the intelligence, had no interests in changing a policy that was increasing their personal wealth and power.

Then, 9/11 and the US invasion of Afghanistan came. Far from being a turning point that led Islamabad closer to the international community, it actually led it closer to the Taliban. After being defeated, in fact, Omar and his loyalists fled to Pakistan, where they could re-organize the group through the establishment of their Shura in Quetta and plan their resurgence thanks to the help coming from those among the elite who hoped to use the Taliban as a proxy force after the US withdrawal. From 2001, thus, Pakistan has been the safe haven from where the Taliban could freely plan attacks to be carried out beyond the Durand line.

But the friendship with the Taliban has always been extremely costly for Pakistan (for the country’s population, if not for its leaders) and new counter effects emerged in 2007 with the birth of the Pakistani Taliban, whose aim was to turn Pakistan into a Taliban state, and who began conducting attacks within Pakistan that are still hitting the country today (as happened in Peshawar last year).

Their emergence clearly showed how Pakistani leaders, by supporting terrorism, were condemning their own country to it. And though, this didn’t lead to any shift in Pakistan’s Afghan policy. It merely led to a hideous distinction between “good” and “bad” terrorists that largely survives today, and that is proving itself the main obstacle to have a sincere cooperation between Kabul and Islamabad on the issue of the Afghan Taliban.

Until Islamabad puts an end to its long-time friendship with the Quetta Shura’s Taliban, no counter-terrorism cooperation with Kabul will be possible.

The only, faint hope left to Ghani, the Afghan people and the peace process, is to convince Islamabad that a cooperation with Kabul would bring about benefits – in terms of regional and internal security, legitimacy, and inclusion in the international political and economic system – that the friendship with the Taliban cannot give.

Only time will tell us how many Afghans and Pakistanis still have to die for this to be understood in Islamabad.


Too many divisions and contradictions within Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban make the peace deal a target that cannot be reached now. But the developments of the last months have shown us where should we start from and what should we go through

Since his earliest days as President, Ashraf Ghani’s main target has been the fight against terrorism, meant not as a military confrontation that no side could endure, but as a diplomatic arrangement to a problem that is tearing the country apart. And this is indeed the most realistic approach: due to the support the Taliban enjoy both within and outside Afghanistan’s borders and due to the difficulties – in terms of preparation, organization, means at disposal – the Afghan Army and the Afghan Security Forces still face, a military confrontation would be vain. The only possibility to put an end to terrorism, then, is to sit down, talk and work on an arrangement that would include the Taliban in the country’s political framework.

For this to happen, though, Ghani needs the support of Pakistan – a country that has always given Afghan Taliban a safe haven to act from and to hide in; and this is where Kabul’s recent shift in foreign policy and in the weaving of regional alliances finds its justification.

After Ghani spent months trying to convince Pakistan to convince the Taliban to negotiate, a first step forward was the talk held in Murree on the 7th of July, that saw the attendance of the Afghanistan High Peace Council, the Taliban, Pakistan and – as observers – China and the United States. The importance of these talks lies in the fact that it was the first time the Taliban accepted to take part in such discussions with the government of Kabul, that they used to consider an American puppet. And though, interpreting these talks as a sign that the peace deal is around the corner, would be an optimistic overestimate of what the situation actually is, and an unjustified underestimate of the divisions and tensions that exist within each party involved in the process.

First of all, in Afghanistan there are still tough contrasts between Ghani and those politicians – mainly linked to former President Karzai – who condemn the country’s new foreign policy as one that will make Kabul dependent on Pakistan. They criticize Ghani for getting politically closer to a country that has always allowed Taliban to find a safe haven in its south-western region and in cities such as Quetta, Karachi and Peshawar. And this criticism doesn’t only come from Karzai’s entourage but also – and most importantly – from a large portion of the Afghan population – especially in the South, where Taliban traditionally conduct their attacks. Therefore, Ghani’s new approach to the issue of terrorism and to Pakistan doesn’t enjoy full support within his own country, and makes the Afghan side of the talks a divided one. On the one hand, in fact, there is the government, disposed to change the country’s traditional alliances to pursue negotiations with a terrorist group against whom military actions have always proved vain; on the other hand there are the government’s political opponents who condemn a negotiating process that leaves to Pakistan the leading role, and part of the population that, after years of suffering at the hands of the Pakistan-backed Taliban, feels betrayed by the perspective of talks with them. A non-united front, thus, that could curb Ghani’s freedom to propose mutually acceptable arrangements and, therefore, weaken his negotiating position.

More worrying – and threatening – than Afghanistan’s divisions, though, are Pakistan’s.

If Islamabad, in fact, has over the last months publicly stated its support of the Afghanistan-Taliban talks, the truth is that its stance is as ambiguous as ever and the real commitment of its political and military entourage quite dubious and inhomogeneous. On the one hand, there is the position – still to be understood how strong and influential – of those who think that Pakistan, for giving the Taliban a safe haven, has itself paid too high a price in terms of internal terrorist acts, and that the country should now support the talks between Kabul and the Taliban in order to reach regional stability. On the other hand, especially within ISI (the Inter-Services Intelligence) and among some officers of the Pakistan Army, there are those who make an opprobrious distinction between “good” and “bad” terrorists (represented respectively by the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban) and still look at the support given to the Afghan Taliban as an efficient way to limit India’s footprint in Afghanistan, while giving Islamabad influence on the events over its western border.

Such divisions, thus, make it difficult to judge how sincere Pakistan’s efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table are, and whether Islamabad is seriously looking for a stabilization of the region or just engaging in its latest attempt to widen its influence through a manipulation of the peace process.

But more relevant than the internal opposition Ghani has to face and more relevant than Pakistan’s ambiguity, are the divisions on the Taliban side. Not only are there significant differences between the Quetta Shura and the Taliban Qatar office (that sent no representative to Murree), but also within the Quetta Shura itself cohesion is far from being the norm. Some, such as Mullah Zakir and many young fighters, oppose the peace talks and prefer to continue the war and make the most of the successes achieved during the spring and summer fighting seasons. Others, among whom Mansour, seem instead to recognize that the perspective of establishing again a Taliban Emirate in Afghanistan is nothing more than a utopia and that the only possibility the Taliban have to regain some of their past power is through an arrangement with the government and an inclusion in the existing political system.

These divisions have now been further worsened by the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death – until July 30th known by a few Taliban leaders only – that has opened an internal fight for succession. The main rivals appear to be Mansour – on July 30th elected new leader – and Omar’s son, Mullah Yaqoub, who is backed among others by Mullah Zakir. Such internal contrapositions at the leadership level at this point in time can’t but have serious consequences on the peace negotiations. Until the Taliban lack a leader recognized as legitimate by everyone, they risk losing their unity and cohesion, making thus impossible for Kabul to continue with the talks. Proceeding now, in fact, Kabul would inevitably find itself talking with only one part of the group, while leaving out the other(s) -something that would imply for Afghanistan many costs and no benefits. The country and its people would have to pay the double price of making some political concessions to the Taliban engaged in the talks without, though, getting security in return, as those Taliban branches not involved in the negotiations would refuse to recognize any Government-Taliban arrangement and would rather take the arms to undermine the peace process and delegitimize any agreement.

A peace deal is the last card the country can play to come out of a decades-long internal war. The truth, though, is that the deal is based on a triangle made up of Afghanistan, the Taliban and Pakistan, but none of them seem to be internally united nor coherent in its actions and in its approach to the negotiations. The deal, thus, remains for now the chimera it has always been, and it will have a chance of becoming something concrete only when Ghani gets the internal support he needs to push his negotiating initiatives ahead; when Pakistan hardliners manage to realize all the political and economic benefits a regional stability would bring; when the Taliban unite themselves under a single leader capable of seeing how a deal is for the Taliban too the last card they can play to save themselves from vain terrorist acts that bring mujahideens to death but not to Kabul.