Nafisa Hoodbhoy – Voice of America
The renewed tension with India has pushed Pakistan to move some of its troops from the border region with Afghanistan to the Indian Line of Control (LOC), leaving fewer resources to contain the cross-border infiltration of militants along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, a senior Pakistani army official tells VOA.
“Each time there is an escalation of tension with India, we have to pull away troops from our fully porous border with Afghanistan,” said the army official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media given the sensitive nature of the topic.
“Forces on both sides [of the Pakistan-India border region] are on high alert since February this year after the Pulwama attack,” the army official added.
The Pakistan army redeployed paramilitary forces to the LOC in February after a terror attack in Pulwama (Indian-administered Kashmir) killed 40 Indian troops.
India blamed Pakistan for the attack, triggering a high alert on both sides of the border. As tensions peaked in August, Pakistan deployed additional troops along the border as well.
Asif Ghafoor, a Pakistan army spokesperson, said during a press conference in Islamabad last week that “Kashmir is our jugular vein and we will go to any lengths to protect it.”
Some experts, however, charge that Pakistan is simply trying to get the United States’ attention about the Kashmir issue.
“Pakistan’s army is simply making a point with the Americans,” Shuja Nawaz, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, told VOA. “Pakistan’s troops are never too far away from India’s LOC.”
Nawaz said that foreign fighters, including Islamic State, had already made inroads inside Afghanistan in provinces close to the border with Pakistan, including Nangarhar, Nooristan and Kunar before the recent Kashmir escalation.
Nawaz said, however, that if neglected, the Afghanistan and Pakistan border region could become problematic, allowing militants to infiltrate.
With U.S. and Taliban engaging in direct talks over the past year — negotiations that fell apart this week, with Trump declaring the talks “dead” — there were concerns among some in Afghanistan that Pakistan would either turn a blind eye to IS emergence in the border region or support its growth as an alternative to perceived Indian influence in Afghanistan, should Taliban part ways with Islamabad.
Even in the past, Afghan officials have suggested that IS in Afghanistan had the support and blessing of Pakistan’s intelligence agency.
“Based on our intelligence, they [IS] do not have the ability to carry out such attacks in the capital or its suburbs. Unfortunately, regional intelligence agencies are trying to portray them as a powerful group,” General Mohammad Radmanesh, a spokesperson for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, told VOA last year.
“And it is very clear that (the) Haqqani terrorist group is carrying out these activities [attacks] under the name of IS,” Radmanesh said at the time.
A former intelligence official in Pakistan’s Balochistan province told VOA that Pakistan’s support for IS could be a possibility, given Pakistan’s fear of India’s influence in Afghanistan.
“The Pakistani establishment is giving space to the Taliban to join the more extremist IS in order to act as a check against India in Afghanistan,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Some Afghan experts charge that IS’s growth in eastern Afghanistan and elsewhere in the country would have been impossible without some sort of support from a state actor.
“The Islamic State could not have become so powerful without the space provided by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) (Pakistan’s spy agency),” Kabul-based analyst Zmaryaray Abbasin said.
“It is the same scenario, the same agreement when Pakistan allowed foreign fighters to converge along the Durand Line and used them in Afghanistan,” Abbasin told VOA.
“Daesh and Taliban are two faces of the same coin. One conducts the attack, while the other benefits from it,” Asif Nang, a Kabul-based analyst and former governor of eastern Laghman province, said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State terror group.
Pakistan has denied allegations it supports IS and charges that the country does not have the financial ability to fight and contain terrorism on its soil.
However, Nawaz, of the Atlantic Council, who follows developments in the region, said he has not seen evidence that Pakistan supports or provides sanctuaries to IS in Afghanistan as an alternative to the Taliban.
“I have not seen any evidence that Pakistan’s army supports Islamic State,” Nawaz said. “It would be suicidal if they did.”
Some experts believe the peace talks between the U.S and Taliban, which are called off for now, would push hard-line Taliban to align with IS.
“Certain Taliban factions opposed to the peace talks with the U.S. are joining IS,” Noor Zaman Achakzai, a Pakistan-based reporter and analyst, told VOA.
Last month, a bomb blast killed the brother of Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada in a mosque near Kuchlak, which is a major crossing point for Afghan Taliban to move between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Afghan U.S. officials have long accused Pakistan of being selective in its crackdown on militants on its soil, targeting those who pose a threat to Pakistan’s security and overlooking those who attack NATO forces in Afghanistan. The accusations have strained ties between Washington and Islamabad in recent years.
In recent months, however, Pakistan took a number of measures against militants in the country.
Michael Kugelman, deputy director for South Asia at the Washington-based Wilson Center, said he thinks that despite recent measures by Pakistan, “there is still a mistrust factor in Washington’s perceptions of Pakistan.”
Kugelman said that Pakistan sees the advantage of remaining a U.S. ally.
“There’s a view in Washington that Pakistan won’t want to ease up on its cooperation simply because that cooperation gives it leverage and it doesn’t want to lose that leverage,” Kugelman added.