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Af-Pak: Terrorism, Organized Crime, And Competitive Violent Jihad
Saman Ayesha Kidwai
2023-06-20
Region : South Asia, Pakistan, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Border,
Issue : Security, Terrorism,
Introduction
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The last two years have proven catastrophic for Afghanistan’s stability and security in traditional and non-traditional domains. The regime change has also resulted in fissures between Pakistan and its previously strategic depth partner (Afghan Taliban), while the former has borne the consequences of nurturing terrorism and oppressing its Baloch populace.
Furthermore, the decades-long insurgency waged by the Taliban, coming to a close in August 2021, has further pushed Afghanistan towards an era of deepened conflict with rival terrorist organisations, widening the scope for profiteering from narco-trafficking, repression of marginalised communities, and diplomatic isolation of its own making. These characteristics will continue defining Af-Pak’s fate for the foreseeable future with minimalist hopes of recovery or progress in the light of these developments. This will also significantly affect regional security and integrity, impacting contiguous or countries in proximity, such as India.

The AT-TTP-Pakistan Factor
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Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)’s expansion within Pakistan, mainly after the Afghan Taliban’s (AT) takeover nearly two years ago, has served as a crucial reminder about the viability of ethno-jihadist networks and kinship binding the two actors. Despite engaging bilaterally with Pakistan or trilaterally through dialogues involving China, AT has steadfastly committed to its TTP allies.
As per reports, the Afghan leadership’s assistance has been critical to TTP’s rise as a significant terrorist threat within and across Pakistan’s porous borders with Afghanistan. This has mainly been the case as a shadow or parallel governments and administrative units have been instituted in various Pakistani provinces (all barring Sindh), terrorist attacks are on the rise, and media propaganda against state institutions, the federal government, and its allies has been on an upswing.
Despite mediating in previously failed peace negotiations between TTP and former Prime Minister Imran Khan and now Premier Shahbaz Sharif, AT has broadly washed its hands off ‘Pakistan’s problem’ to be dealt with by its leaders as deemed appropriate. This has added to Pakistan’s burgeoning problems, with humiliation dealt at their erstwhile client’s hands while struggling to keep pace with socio-political and economic difficulties, such as bankruptcy.
Additionally, the Baloch insurgents’ (waging a protracted insurgency since Pakistan’s inception) manufactured alliance with TTP has cultivated a two-fold security threat for Pakistan. Baloch attacks on Chinese investments or by TTP militants on a Hungarian energy firm have placed the Pakistani state in a precarious situation putting its foreign direct investments, already depleting reserves, and abject failure to provide security to external investors under scrutiny with little room to manoeuvre.
At the same time, Afghan Taliban’s reluctance to cede any ground to a state considered ‘un-Islamic’ by its Pakhtun jihadist brethren stems from its ethnic-jihadist-Islamist ideology and ambition to retain its legitimacy in the backdrop of narrowing space created by competing violent extremist rivals such as Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) and Islamic State in Pakistan Province.
Perhaps it (AT) hopes that by using its ties with TTP as leverage, it will be able to act more independently (especially on contested border issues) and prevent the federal government or the armed forces’ chokehold from tightening any further. Furthermore, the political-economic paralysis playing out in its neighbouring country might be why the Afghan regime has become more emboldened in pushing back against the former’s demands to rein in and abandon TTP swiftly. The Afghan Taliban might hope Pakistan’s internal crises can prolong its compulsion to inevitably decide where it stands in a conflict between its jihadist brethren and former patron.

Understanding Afghan Taliban’s Ethno-Jihadism: Internal and External
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Dynamism
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Given that Afghanistan’s interim government is yet to secure international diplomatic recognition and lacks popular support among Afghans, it presumably requires the assistance of its allied terrorist organisations to sustain its rule and ideology through coercion and terror financing within the country.
The Afghan Taliban and the rest of the world understand that unless a marked break in the interim government’s behavioural patterns is visible, the international community will not grant it the status of a legitimate state actor.
At the same time, modifications to its hardliner jihadism would sound its death knell in the battle of competitive extremism against rival organisations and turn its members against it in the long term. It has therefore stopped short of enacting genuine reforms while refraining from directly participating in terrorist activities against the powers it seeks to engage.

Makings and Ripple Effects of Organised Crime-Terror Nexus
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Understandably, this does not account for its illicit activities that involve narco-trafficking with drugs travelling to European countries via Iran or harbouring outfits such as al-Qaeda (AQ), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), and TTP who have complete leeway in maintaining their training camps within Afghanistan. For example, as per details underlined in the recent UN Monitoring Report on the Taliban, at least five AQ camps can be found in places such as Helmand, Nangarhar, and Zabul, and anywhere between 400 to 2,000 AQ members (including kin) are placed in areas including Kunar, Kabul, Kandahar, and Helmand.
Considering these dynamics, it is unsurprising that AT has refused to pursue concrete measures to reform itself amid intensifying global clamours to uphold the rule of law and human rights on the one hand and ISKP’s continued efforts to poach fighters from within the Taliban ranks, mainly using targeted assassinations of high-ranking leaders and exploitation of media. Taliban’s hardened posture is unlikely to thaw anytime soon in light of these trends.
For example, on the surface, Afghanistan’s de facto administration has claimed to significantly reduce opium cultivation by destroying poppy fields and detaining those violating its apparent diktats. Nonetheless, the revenue generated from such activities has persisted in keeping the country’s coffers filled in the backdrop of a widespread humanitarian crisis and frozen monetary assets in the United States of America worth billions of dollars. It, i.e., poppy production also occurs due to the manufacturing of opium-based products ranging from heroin to morphine which has proven profitable for those in charge. Notably, 90 per cent of global heroin production is traced to Afghan soil, while the opium industry, cumulatively, accounts for profits worth approximately USD 3 billion yearly.
For example, per the UN Office on Drugs and Crime Research Brief released in November 2022, the farmers’ income hinged on poppy cultivation, and sales surged from USD 425 million in 2021 to USD 1.4 billion in 2022. Moreover, substantial portions of arable agricultural tracts across provinces, including Helmand, account for no less than one-fifth of all agricultural lands potentially used to grow crops such as wheat.
As food insecurity worsens and inflation continues to rise, the diminishing space for crops necessary for human survival will put the lives of ordinary Afghans in jeopardy, pushing more and more of the youth and impoverished communities towards substance abuse further despite high sources of revenue generated from poppy production and illicit sales within Afghanistan and beyond.
Hostile elements have long exploited unlawful revenue sources such as this to finance their violent extremist insurgencies. The Taliban single-handedly dominated the illicit production of opium and opium-based products during its two-decades-long bloody insurgencies against democratically-elected governments. Those patterns have remained consistent even with the Taliban in power and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. The unhindered flow of opium sales is also likely to continue due to farmers’ compulsion, as per which the margin of profits sourced from narcotics is far more significant than what they might procure through wheat. This is bound to result in a bludgeoning black-market economy in Afghanistan, which could also lead to unregulated cash flow changing hands between the Taliban and its jihadist allies, further destabilising the country.

Conclusion
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AT would inevitably be invested in sustaining the terrorist networks that have supported its rise to power during the 1990s and post-August 2021. This is regardless of its assurances to regional and international state actors of its willingness to engage with the system instead of terrorism.
Furthermore, it did not take long to blur the lines between Taliban 1.0 and Taliban 2.0 as the regime swiftly regressed to their stone age era policies of oppressing women, ethnic minorities, and dissenters, often with extremist or violent ramifications for their victims. Such policies have been met with severe condemnation by human rights advocates and liberal democratic leaders, particularly in Western countries. Western critics have refused to bestow diplomatic recognition on the change of guard while strategically engaging it to serve their interests.
The prospect of a continued surge in narco-trafficking in the region is one of the most likely scenarios associated with the Taliban regime, with devastating consequences for regional security and stability. This is particularly significant for countries like India that sit at the crossroads of the Golden Triangle and Golden Crescent and are thereby faced with critical security challenges. These routes are two of the most notorious drug trafficking routes with a bearing on Indian security. Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) have suffered the first round of impact due to narco-trafficking and substance abuse.
This is all the while ISKP has sought to expand its violent extremist tentacles into Indian soil, attempting to move beyond its traditional areas of influence in the Af-Pak region. Its recent Voice of Khorasan publication has indicated this. It assumed responsibility for botched terrorist attacks in Mangaluru and Coimbatore (2022) and terror modules busted by security and law enforcement recently. More recently, a four-member module was dismantled by state’s police’s anti-terrorism squad in Porbandar, Gujrat, in June 2023. Finally, the presence of overtly Pak-sponsored anti-India terrorist outfits, including JeM’s training camps in Afghanistan with complete leeway in their operations, will further worsen the security threats emanating from India’s strategic neighbourhood.
*Saman Ayesha Kidwai is a Research Analyst in the Counter-Terrorism Centre at MP-IDSA, New Delhi. Her views are personal and do not reflect those of the institute or Government of India.
This article originally appeared in MP-IDSA
The views expressed above belong to the author(s)

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