The United States has offered to help Pakistan in dealing with the terror threat posed by the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Recent developments indicate that a conversation between Pakistan and the U.S. in this regard may have begun, allowing space for coordinated action against TTP and other militant groups.
Addressing a news briefing last week, U.S. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said that Pakistan remains an important security partner. Highlighting concerns regarding militant threats in the region, he said terrorist groups are “present in Afghanistan, in the Afghan-Pakistan border region that present a clear threat as we’re seeing not only to Pakistan but potentially to countries and people beyond.”
“We’re in regular dialogue with our Pakistani partners. We are prepared to help them take on the threats they face,” he added.
Ahead of the State Department’s comments that indicate an eventual partnership between the two countries, U.S. Central Command chief, General Michael Erik Kurilla, visited the Torkham-Afghanistan border crossing and hailed Pakistan’s gains in the fight against terrorism. During his meeting with Pakistan’s top military leadership, Kurilla also discussed prospects to strengthen the military-to-military relationship and opportunities for addressing the TTP threat.
A government source told The Diplomat that Gen. Kurilla’s visit was aimed at conveying to Pakistan that the U.S. understands, perhaps even sympathetic to Pakistan’s security concerns emanating from Afghanistan and remains ready to assist. The source further said that both countries broadly agree that Afghanistan under the Afghan Taliban should “remain peaceful” and that international militant groups, including the TTP, should not establish sanctuaries there.
It seems that the TTP fears that the U.S. may be working with Pakistan to take action on its leadership inside Afghanistan.
“America should stop teasing us by interfering in our affairs unnecessarily at the instigation of Pakistan — this cruel decision shows the failure of American politics,” TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud told CNN in an interview. The recent suicide bombing carried out by the TTP in Islamabad and the U.S. embassy’s alert for citizens in Pakistan underscores that the militant outfit sees the forthcoming cooperation between Islamabad and Washington as a development of concern and may want to hamper it.
Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari who returned from a week-long visit to the U.S. earlier this week, revealed that Washington is willing to offer Pakistan financial assistance to improve border security for preventing cross-border attacks from Afghanistan. However, the details of the funding for border security have not been made public yet.
In a surprise development recently, the U.S. Senate approved $200 million for programs on gender equality in Pakistan and also highlighted the need to combat terrorism in the country. It is unclear how these funds will be used but the omnibus bill passed by the Senate for 2023 mentions that funds appropriated for the country under the heading “Foreign Military Financing Programme” can be “made available only to support counterterrorism and counter insurgency capabilities in Pakistan.”
Besides, reports suggest that Pakistan may also be interested in obtaining more military hardware from the U.S. to enhance its border patrol capabilities to better detect the movement of the TTP and other militant groups along the Afghan border. Additionally, both countries may push to readjust their intelligence cooperation to deal with terror threats emanating from Afghanistan. It is unclear if the cooperation against the TTP and other extremist groups will also include taking the fight inside Afghanistan.
The U.S. has reiterated many times that it will take action if terrorists regroup in Afghanistan. The killing of al-Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a U.S. drone strike in Kabul was one instance of such action.
However, if history is any lesson, Pakistan should know that entering into a broad-based counterterrorism partnership with the U.S. carries its own risks. It is unclear how far Pakistan’s leadership will be willing to go with regard to such cooperation with the U.S. to tackle the TTP and other groups.
In the past, Washington has pushed for a partnership with Islamabad that goes beyond targeting TTP and perhaps involved action against groups like al-Qaida, Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) and other terrorist groups that the U.S. considers a threat. Pakistan, on the other hand, may only be interested in enlisting U.S. support to weaken the TTP in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Arguably, Pakistan wouldn’t be interested in becoming a staging post for U.S. counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and beyond, as such a scenario could push Pakistan’s already troubled relationship with the Afghan Taliban to a point of no return. The situation has the potential to create more security complications for Pakistan as Islamabad could end up having more enemies than just the TTP on the Pak-Afghan border region. This increases the potential of a backlash on a greater scale.
On the whole, Pakistan and the U.S. share interests in tackling militant threats on the Pak-Afghan border. But the real issue rests with the scope of the cooperation as Pakistan’s military policy will need to walk a fine line between tackling TTP and avoiding broader backlash.