By Lt Gen P. C. Katoch (Retd.)*
Torkham is in the news with Pakistan firing heavy artillery and mortars at Afghan forces across the Khyber Pass border since June 14. What the escalation will lead to is anybody’s guess. Would there be a repeat of 2011 when Afghan media had reported that Pakistan fired some 470 missiles and artillery in Kunar, Nangarhar, Khost and Paktia provinces of Afghanistan followed by Pakistani Taliban raids backed by helicopters, killing dozens of civilians in June 2011? Significantly on July 4, 2011 the Afghan Parliament had passed a resolution urging the UNSC and the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) to mount diplomatic pressure on Pakistan, describing the Pakistani attacks in Kunar, Nangarhar, Khost and Paktia provinces as an “act of invasion” by the country.
Trouble began on June 12 when Pakistani authorities began constructing a new post border gate at the main crossing point in Torkham area of Khyber Pass, some 45 kms west of Peshawar. It is unclear which side initiated the fighting, but Pakistan alleges it was the Afghans. Pakistan says it is constructing the gate to stop militants from crossing the border, but then a gate may stop vehicles along the road, not cross-border movement across a porous border. More significantly, Pakistan maintains that the new gate was being constructed on the Pakistani side of the border and that construction of this gate was agreed upon by both sides during a bilateral meeting for the construction of the gate to be done during Ramazan after iftar. The exchange of fire that lasted some seven hours resulted in one Major rank officer of Pakistani army being injured (succumbing to injuries in hospital next day) and another eight Pakistani soldiers were wounded. 200 Pakistani families were forced to relocate to safer areas. On the Afghan side, one soldier was reportedly killed and six injured.
A Pakistan army official on promise of anonymity disclosed to reporters that heavy weaponry and additional troops were moved to the Afghan border on night June-12-13 itself. Afghan National Security Forces too have reinforced their side of the border. Exchange of fire continued on June 13 with two personnel of Pakistan’s Frontier Corps injured. The US State Department urged “a calm resolution to the tension”, but very next day Pakistan opened up with heavy artillery and mortars, claiming they destroyed an Afghan military check post. Thousands from both sides attended funerals of their personnel killed in exchange of fire on June 12. While in Jalalabad over a thousand mourners attended the funeral prayers of the Afghan soldier killed in action on June 12, hundreds of demonstrators burned Pakistani flags at another protest in the southern Afghan city of Lashkar Gah, chanting “Death to Pakistan”.
Both sides have blamed each other for the continuing spat and summoned Ambassadors of the opposite side to register protests. With the Torkham border shut, thousands of vehicles were reportedly stranded along the road all the way to Peshawar. The Afghan Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying, “the Afghan security and defense forces retaliated to safeguard the territorial integrity and defend the country and its people … armed forces are always ready to defend their country and people and to react against any kind of threats”. Concurrently, a senior Pakistani military official told media that the gate at Torkham will “now be built and at any cost” and if someone tries to create hindrance in the process, the army will retaliate with full force.” Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) spokesman tweeted, “this gate is considered essential to check and verify documentation of all border crossers.” However, better sense seems to have prevailed with the Pakistani media now reporting that both sides have formally agreed over ceasefire at Torkham after border authorities of both the sides met for a short meeting. The report goes on to say that construction work on Torkham gate has also recommenced following the ceasefire announcement.
The question here is has Pakistan decided to escalate conflict with Afghanistan by design? It has been evident that Pakistan over the past year plus managed to coalesce both the Pakistan Taliban (TTP) and Afghan Taliban by infusing the Haqqani Network leadership into the top edifice. Mullah Akhtar Mansour, erstwhile Afghan Taliban chief was religious leader of Haqqanis and Sirajuddin Haqqaani, chief of Haqqani network was installed as his deputy. Significantly, Sirajuddin continues as deputy to the new Afghan Taliban chief, Mullah Haibatullh Akhunzada. Pakistan has made full use of the terror potential of the Haqqanis for attacking Afghanistan, including repeated truck bombings in Kabul region. Why should Pakistan change tack with Afghanistan now that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has called Pakistan’s bluff; openly calling upon Pakistan to battle factions of Taliban rather than try to bring them into peace talks, with Taliban leaders finding shelter in Peshawar and Quetta. Post the April 19, 2016 terrorist attack in Kabul that killed 64 and wounded 340, Ghani in his own address blamed Pakistan for supporting groups involved in fighting in Afghanistan. His spokesman added that, “Kabul attack was planned by the Haqqani network in Pakistan”, and that Afghanistan would use diplomatic efforts to isolate Pakistan at regional and global levels. Sitting in the Chinese lap, Pakistan possibly sees no need to woo the US much especially since the F-16s deal is practically off.
The question also arises as to which militants Pakistan wants to check at Torkham and coming from which direction in the largely porous border extending some 2,200 kms. Pakistan itself is the hatchery feeding some 14 terrorist organizations. In December 2015, President Ghani had said “unfortunately, recent events in Pakistan have forced us to host close to 350,000 to 500,000 Pakistani refugees on our soil. The refugee issue is a common issue, like other issues that confront us”. Pakistan has been attacking Afghanistan not only through a combination of both Taliban, Haqqanis and an ad-hoc ISI headed Brigade level outfit (dubbed Khorasan chapter of the ISIS) but also has inducted regulars from of its Mujahid battalions disguised as Taliban to support the Taliban offensive. There is ample evidence of Pakistani support and involvement of Pakistani army and ISI in terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, even during the Taliban capture of Kunduz last September.
Post the targeted killing of Pakistan-appointed Taliban leader Mullah Mansour, the US had warned Pakistan against terrorist activities in Afghanistan. The editorial in New York Times of May 12, 2016 urged the US government to ‘put the squeeze on Pakistan’ for continuing to play a double game in its dealings with the US and Afghanistan, also pointing out the USD 33 billion “immense” aid already given by US to Pakistan for fighting terrorism in the region. So, it will be interesting to watch what will be the US stance in the event of escalation of Af-Pak hostilities even if Torkham ceasefire holds. Pakistan would certainly like to divert attention from the trouble brewing at home; Balochistan, Gilgit-Baltistan, millions displaced in Federally Administered Tribal Areas through Pakistani military actions- you name it. Bartering its sovereignty to China in permitting PLA deployment on its territory will unlikely help quell the disquiet; it may actually aggravate it. It is well known that the Pashtuns never recognized the Durand Line that split them in two, but one wonders if Pakistan realizes that by coalescing the two Taliban, plus the Haqqanis, they have set the stage for greater Pashtun autonomy.
*Lt. Gen. P.C.Katoch (Retd.) is veteran of Indian Army. He can be reached at: [email protected]