October Issue 2015
Cover Story: Crossing the Line
For over five years, Fazal Khan has lived in a remote village of Kunar, a province in Afghanistan bordering Mohmand Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). He belongs to the Kabal tehsil of Swat and is the elder son of Rahman Khan, a slain activist of the banned Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM). His father was killed by security forces in an encounter and their family house and adjacent shops demolished; only two rooms were left for the family to live in.
Their house had been raided by security agencies some years before the rise of Fazlullah aka Mullah Radio and his Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) faction in Swat. Fazal and his father were arrested for providing refuge to a Punjabi jihadi militant and his family, on the run from security agencies for alleged involvement in anti-state activities.
Fazal Khan was soon released while his father remained in detention for almost a year-and-a-half. After his release, as Mullah Radio rose to prominence and his group began to assert control over Swat, Rahman Khan was named head of a committee to resolve local disputes.
When Operation Rah-e-Rast was launched against Mullah Radio, many of his deputies and TTP leaders fled to Mohmand Agency, Tirah in the Khyber Agency and other parts of FATA. Fazal’s father did not leave the area, believing he was safe, since he had not been directly involved in militant encounters. But security forces had identified him as a local leader of the TTP-Fazlullah faction and he was eventually killed in an encounter. Fearing for his life, Fazal Khan escaped the valley, moving to Mohmand Agency, then crossing the border to settle in the bordering district of Kunar. His family later joined him.
Initially, many of the settlers in Afghanistan were relatives or supporters and backers of the militants in Swat, who moved from their homes after the TTP spread the word that security forces coming into Swat would not spare those who were associated with the militants in any way. When military action was extended to Mohmand Agency and Tirah, hardcore militant elements too began to cross the border.
“When the TTP was pushed out from Swat, they moved to Mohmand agency, where the Umar Khalid group provided them support. They joined them to battle security forces. Later, they developed differences with local militants and crossed the border to enter Kunar,” said a journalist from Swat.
An Afghan journalist confirms this: “TTP militants have established a strong safe haven in Kunar and Nuristan over the last two years. The majority of militants are hiding in far-flung mountainous forests which have not been inhabited for a long time. They hesitate to move out for security reasons and, in any case, their movements are restricted as they lack means of transportation.”
Their forest and mountain hideouts are far from the Durand Line. They would have to cross the Kunar River and then the border to attack Pakistani forces. Pakistan has a heavy deployment of forces on the borders of Kunar and Nuristan, making it difficult for the militants to cross over to wage terror attacks.
During those years, militants associated with the Fazlullah factions were involved in revenge attacks against members of army-backed peace committees in Swat, and ANP office bearers in Karachi, as they held them responsible for the identification and arrests of their comrades by security agencies. Many have perished in army detention, others are facing trials in military courts.
In Karachi, the Fazlullah faction was also involved in extorting money from traders and businessmen who belong to Swat. They targeted those who had dared to defy their demands.“Money collected through extortion was sent to Kunar, after keeping a fraction of it for local expenses,” said a former TTP Swat militant. But as the operation against militants escalated in Karachi, the TTP Swat network was badly damaged, many militants were killed or had to flee to Afghanistan through the Chaman border, finally reaching Kunar and Nuristan to join their comrades.
Akbar Khan, a former TTP Swat militant who had fled to the UAE, returned to Karachi after three years for his marriage. He kept a low profile and did not rejoin his network, but he had been close to the notorious TTP Swat militant commander, Bin Yameen, and the law enforcement agencies had a thick file on his involvement in terrorist activities.
Akbar’s home was raided by the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) but he had already left. He could not, however, recover his passport from the house and having no way to get back to the UAE, made his way to Afghanistan and joined his former comrades in Kunar.
After Fazlullah was elevated to the position of TTP head and joined by hard-core militants from other factions, he had claimed responsibility for many high-profile terror attacks including the assassination of GoC Swat, Major General Sanaullah Khan Niazi as well as the Army Public School (APS) attack last December in Peshawar. Law enforcement agencies then began to mount operations against TTP networks at urban centres. Karachi topped the list of cities providing financial resources for the militants. Once funding tied to extortion, kidnapping for ransom and bank heists had dried up, TTP members in Afghanistan began to prey on the local population .
“The TTP are in control in the Barge Matal district of Nuristan. Local sources report that they are forcing people to provide food, clothes etc. They are also asking locals to provide information regarding possible raids and attacks, both by government forces and rival militant groups.
“TTP militants usually arrive in villages in small groups of 5-10 men, after one another, finally forming a huge group of 200-300 militants when they need to cross the river and Durand Line to enter Pakistan. Such movement — when noticed by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) — comes under attack from mountain posts and the Taliban have to hide out in caves for a while, after which they resume their movement,” local sources said.
Military action in Khyber Agency and North Waziristan has pushed some militants out from these areas as well, to the adjacent Afghan territories. The Mangal Bagh-led Lashkar-e-Islam and Orakzai militants, led by Hafiz Saeed, have joined hands with Chechen and Uzbek fighters in Nangarhar province. There are some indications of links to the Iraq and Syria-based Islamic State (IS) or Daesh. Their intimidating tactics and closing down of schools and health facilities are forcing hundreds of people to flee Achin and Haska Maina every day.
These groups also have a presence among the Shinwaris. They use the passage of Bazar (Zakha Khel) in Khyber to cross over into Garoko, the abode of the Shinwaris on the Afghan side. TTP militants from the Mehsud and Wazir factions are also present in Khogiani and Sherzad districts.
A veteran politician and expert on Af-Pak issues commenting on the Afghan government’s ability to curtail these factions said, “The Afghan government has problems in keeping full control of the eastern Afghanistan border areas, in Nuristan, Kunar and parts of Nangarhar close to the Durand Line. In Nangarhar, parts of the Khogiani area and Shinwaris( Achin and Nazian districts) are problematic because the Haqqani network penetrates the area from Kurram and Khyber agency.”
There is disillusionment regarding the will of the United States to assist the Afghan government on these issues and a feeling of abandonment is apparent from the statements of Afghan officials and analysts as well.
An analyst said, “The Afghan government lacks resources and has many times asked the US forces to act in line with the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) and target ‘foreign’ militants but the requests were turned down.” Military officials in east Afghanistan claim that in all these troubled provinces, along with Dande Patan district of Paktia, they encounter well-trained, and well-equipped militants from Pakistan.
On a question about ANSF’s lack of capacity to take on these militants he said, “Both Kunar and Nuristan provinces have proved to be extremely difficult battlefields for NATO and the Afghan forces because they encompass mountainous areas, a large river, many water streams and forests. Afghan and US soldiers could not successfully operate here using conventional fighting means.”
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), after heavy losses, had abandoned a few districts there, realising that conventional warfare would not yield results. Since then, almost every week, two or three drone attacks take place. In retaliation, the militants kill civilians, accusing them of spying for the Afghan and US forces. There are reports of militants publicly hanging villagers to invoke fear among them. For a long time now, the Afghan government has not able to secure even those districts which are not mountainous and are close to Jalalabad, such as Kot and Batti Kot.
On a question about support to TTP militants by the Afghan government or intelligence officials, a columnist and frequent commentator on Af-Pak issues said, “At the higher level of the Afghan state there’s no support, but we can’t rule out support at other levels.”
Another journalist from Afghanistan said, “The National Directorate of Security (NDS) had been involved in the past in limited cross-border sabotage activity to pre-empt attacks in Afghanistan. But since the transition ended last year, both the ANSF and NDS face a severe shortage of funds, modern equipment and weapons. The NDS does not even have adequate resources to operate within Afghanistan’s borders let alone indulge in sabotage activity outside Afghanistan.”
A political analyst said, “When Ashraf Ghani took power, he directed the NDS to stop any kind of cross-border militant or intelligence activity immediately.”
But there is a feeling in Afghanistan that Pakistan exercises influence over the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, who are involved in attacks inside Afghanistan. The Afghan government does not have similar leverage when it comes to the Pakistani Taliban. However, some quarters suspect involvement of the NDS in facilitating the TTP, to provide a state sponsored tit-for-tat.
On the Afghan government’s bid to tackle the issue of cross border terrorism after deliberations with Pakistan, a veteran politician contends, “In February, a high-level Afghan source had told me that they had by then conducted 25 operations against the TTP, at least five of them being Fazlullah-specific. But the situation changed after relentless attacks in Kabul. Some elements in the Afghan government, if pushed to the wall, would definitely be tempted to retaliate in a similar vein. But Afghanistan has stakes in promoting peaceful co-existence in the region, and as such cannot afford to indulge in proxy games. There is very
little to be gained in doing so and a lot to lose, including the moral high ground.”
This article was originally published in Newsline’s October 2015 issue.
Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order