The capture last week of a prominent Pakistani militant in the Afghan province of Nangrahar by Afghan police and intelligence has made a sensation in both countries, being widely interpreted as a positive step for diplomatic relations and cooperation. But it also led to controversial commentaries by some observers. The presence inside Afghanistan of Pakistani militants who oppose their own government, and whose arrest is vocally demanded by Islamabad, is just the latest bone of contention between the two countries, and it gets inevitably linked with the other issues at stake, creating more- or less-realistic scenarios and theories. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini looks into some of the potential political rationales behind this arrest, as suggested by its location and timing.
On Tuesday, 19 February, the arrest of Mawlawi Faqir Mohammed, that reportedly happened the afternoon before, was announced to the media by sources in the National Directorate of Security (NDS) of Nangrahar. The Pakistani Taleban commander was in fact nabbed by the Afghan intelligence in this province, in Hazarnaw, a small village a few kilometres past the district centre of Mohmand Dara, Basawal, in the direction of Torkham, an official Afghan-Pakistani border crossing. The arrest was successively confirmed by the Mohmand Dara district governor and the spokesperson of the governor of Nangrahar. There seem to be no doubts as to the identity of the prisoner, who is currently held in an NDS detention centre in Kabul. Alongside Faqir Mohammed, four more persons were detained: two bodyguards and two of his close collaborators, apparently all Pakistani nationals. There are slightly contrasting reports as to the details of the operation and the ultimate direction of the militants’ movements (links here and here).
Faqir Muhammad’s capture represents by far the most important arrest of a Pakistani militant in Afghanistan. In his forties, he has been an active militant for the past two decades, having been affiliated with the Tehrik-e Nifaz-e Shariat-e Muhammadi (TNSM). This fundamentalist movement has been agitating for the introduction of Islamic Law in Swat since the early 1990s and, in what became the first Islamist uprising in Pakistan, held large parts of Malakand and Swat for several days in the spring of 1994 (a short history here). Faqir Muhammad later fought in Afghanistan under the Taleban regime, and he remained active in propagating militancy in his home tribal agency of Bajaur even before joining the Tehrik-e Taleban Pakistan (TTP) at its formation in 2007.
A relatively senior figure among the usually younger TTP militants, Faqir Mohammad has been a constant in the movement’s leadership. Initially the third person in its line of command, he briefly held the leadership for an interim period after the death of Baitullah Mehsud. He could not achieve, however, a shift of the movement’s leadership to his own Bajauri chapter against the resiliency of the Waziristani (and especially the Mehsud) militants who refused to relinquish their supremacy. However, he remained a core TTP member and became the deputy of the new leader, Hakimullah Mehsud. This reflects his personal role and that of Bajaur as the second most important stronghold for the TTP militants, particularly before being targeted by a prolonged military operation of the Pakistani security forces in 2010, which limited the Taleban presence and weakened local TTP leaders.(1)
It is to that period, according to most observers, that Faqir Mohammad’s presence inside Afghanistan may date back. Bajaur shares a particularly porous border and many tribal and social connections with Kunar province. The TTP and other Pakistani militants have been a constant presence in the insurgency landscape of that Afghan province, and Faqir Mohammed was widely believed to have spent time in hiding in some district of the upper Kunar valley, possibly Dangam or, more probably, Shigal. It was in this last district that another prominent Bajauri commander – actually Faqir Mohammed’s replacement as TTP amir for Bajaur – was killed by a drone strike last August.(2)
According to local analysts, a main reason why he left Kunar would have been the danger posed by drone strikes there. Also, the free-for-all conflict situation in Kunar, perpetuated by different indigenous actors (Taleban, Hezb-e Islami, local Salafis) joined by the influx of militants from Pakistan, has created a confusion of political-military actors, and this has sometimes turned into a problem for the insurgents themselves. Previous misunderstandings between Afghan and Pakistani Taleban have sometimes ended in armed confrontation, while competition among insurgent commanders may lead, even inside a single organisation, to the leaking of information by rivals. Senior commanders with a prize of more than 150,000 dollars on their heads (like Faqir Mohammed) must have been particularly careful because of these risks. According to sources in Nangrahar, Faqir Mohammed could already have had found shelter in a valley of Deh Bala district, south of Jalalabad and close to the border with the tribal areas of Pakistan.
His arrest in a completely different area however raises questions as to his movements. The first and most obvious thought is that he was moving to Pakistan (or coming back from it, as some Afghan officials suggested). The fact that the group was detained with a vehicle (although other local reporting suggests that they were inside a local’s house at the time of the arrest) and their position along the main road connecting the two countries has led most of the articles to assume this. However, claims differ on some points: Afghan officials have hinted that he entered the country not from Torkham but rather through the more remote Goshta district, while Pakistani media seem to subscribe to the idea that he was going to cross into Pakistan, if not via Torkham then through the mountain passes leading into the Tirah valley of Khyber Agency. Zabihullah Mujahed, the Afghan Taleban spokesperson, only commented that Faqir Mohammed moved regularly between Nangrahar and Peshawar.
These seemingly trivial points actually imply important political issues. Apart from the evident reluctance of both countries to admit that their major border-crossing point is permeable to safe travelling by ultra-wanted militant commanders – which is sadly true, provided these have the money through good sponsors to secure their transport– it is evident that everybody would like to have the departure point of Faqir Mohammed’s so far last travel in the other country. Since mid-2011, Pakistan has been complaining that Afghanistan does not do enough against (or even actively supports and encourages) Pakistani militants who are at war with their own government and who are settled on the Afghan side of the border (read our previous blog here).
The arrest of this much-wanted militant has thus been widely seen as having the potential to improve the tense relation between the two countries. On 21 February, two days after the arrest, Pakistan has even askedfor Faqir Muhammad’s extradition, which was however refused by the Afghan government on the basis of the lack of an extradition treaty between the two countries.
The political importance of the arrest makes it in turn necessary to consider its timing. The capture was unlikely a completely fortuitous circumstance or the effect of a report received at the last minute. Reports claimed that a special NDS unit was flown to Nangrahar from Kabul to participate in the joint operation with the police. The NDS may just have been waiting for the right occasion to net their fish, but the impression is that Faqir Muhammad’s arrest assumed more importance because of the particular political juncture at which the two neighbouring countries stand after the recent tripartite meeting in London with the UK. In exchange for new Pakistani commitments for bringing the Taleban to the peace table in six months, the Afghan government may have taken compensating action with this long-sought arrest.
But there is also another, opposite, take on the events. Some commentators in Pakistan have often alleged that the NDS knows the location of Pakistani Taleban leaders inside Afghanistan and even keep them on the payroll; they see the arrest as motivated by the decision of Faqir Mohammed to ‘come in from the cold’ and reconcile with the Pakistani government.
Early last year, in fact, Faqir Mohammed had engaged in exploratory peace negotiations with Pakistan.(3) This led to his demotion to the rank of common fighter by the TTP leadership, and his replacement as leader for Bajaur with Dadullah, although the latter did not last long. These developments created tensions between Bajauri and Waziristani networks in the TTP but ultimately considerably weakened Faqir Mohammed’s position. The issue was solved only recently, apparently after Mulla Fazlullah (the TNSM leader) and the other militant reportedly hiding inside Afghanistan whom Pakistan desperately wants, helped mediate a complete re-admission of Faqir Mohammed in the TTP ranks. The latter’s interest in peace negotiations had not been renewed afterwards, at least publicly, but the incident has created the suspicion that his timely arrest while possibly on route to Pakistan might represent – to say – an Afghan equivalent of the arrest of Mulla Baradar by Pakistan in February 2010, widely believed to have been aimed at stalling a possible negotiation.
A much more probable reason for a ‘timed’ arrest is linked with the recent London summit and the efforts by the Afghan government to have Pakistan release and repatriate Afghan militants detained there, with the aim of bringing them into a peace process. The Afghan government’s refusal of the extradition of Faqir Mohammed is based on legal terms, but also comments that when during the recent tripartite meeting in London the Afghan government asked Pakistan for the extradition of Afghan Taleban leaders, Pakistan refused. The timely arrest of Faqir Mohammed provides Afghanistan with a bargaining chip that may help re-balance the cards in Afghan hands in this negotiation, or at least convince the two countries that it’s time to develop an appropriate extradition treaty.
And then, many doubts are expressed regarding the meaning and the value of reconciliation in Afghanistan, and with some reason, but what would a possible reconciliation of Faqir Mohammed with Pakistan have looked like? The arrangements that some of his Waziristani peers, those who parted ways with the TTP years ago, have reached with the Pakistani authorities (while continuing unhindered to support and participate in insurgent activities against Afghanistan) provide only ominous perspectives.
The option that Faqir Mohammed would have publicly renounced militancy and put down arms is unlikely. What he could have probably bargained for is to go back to Bajaur with the tacit support of the Pakistanis, assume a less aggressive attitude towards the state and manage to control the militants there and channel them towards attacks against Afghanistan only – becoming what some observers call a ‘good Taleb’ (from a Pakistani perspective). Of course, his long-term association with the leaders of TNSM – recently reaffirmed – would complicate this rapprochement with Pakistan, at least until Mulla Fazlullah is on top of Pakistan’s list of concerns. On the contrary, what would have played in favour of a possible deal with the Pakistani authorities is what basically differentiates him from his Swati colleagues: his ‘strategic’ location in a tribal area far from major urban hubs. In this respect he could have managed a deal similar to those enjoyed by Hafez Gul Bahadur and Mulla Nazir (recently killed by a US drone) – a sort of deal that people like Fazlullah cannot even dream of because of the central location of Swat, which for Pakistan is not for compromise, even in the form of a condominium with militants.(4)
From an Afghan perspective, a Faqir Mohammed settled back on his own turf in Bajaur, unmolested by Pakistan and busy training and sending volunteers to fight in Afghanistan, could prove even more troublesome than having him inside Afghanistan, with a bounty on his head, and on the run from Afghan, American and Pakistani intelligences. The NDS, quite legitimately, would have been interested in preventing such an option.
Out of the realm of speculation, the arrest of a senior commander of the Pakistani Taleban such as Faqir Mohammed holds a great significance for Afghanistan and represents a major success for its security forces. The existence of the Pakistani Taleban, the support they always lent to their Afghan counterparts and, particularly in recent years, their very presence and activities on Afghan territory, have constituted a major thorn in the side of the Afghan government. Furthermore, the presence of commanders belonging to TTP or to other Pakistani anti-government groups, and their cross-border activities, has recently allowed Pakistan to reciprocate the long-standing Afghan accusations that it abets and supports the Afghan insurgency.
However, if Afghanistan had really joined the not-so-Great Game of jostling militant leaders along the frontier in the hope of utilising them as tools for diplomatic influence, Mawlawi Faqir Mohammed’s arrest may represent something more obscure, and somehow diminish its worth for Afghanistan, its security forces, and its long-term security. Considering the widespread belief that Pakistani security forces have been playing this game repeatedly in the past with Afghan militants, this instance could look to many Afghans as a sort of ‘poetic justice’. But it would be a step in the direction of complicating the already chaotic puzzle of militancy, radicalisation and suffering in the frontier region, and it would not necessarily lead the two countries in the direction of a much-needed, long lasting season of peace. Hopefully, clarity about Faqir Mohammed’s detention and the judicial proceedings which are logically expected to follow against him will dispel doubts and rumours about political back room games over this security operation.
(1) Bajaur has been the militants’ foremost stronghold outside Waziristan for a long time, before being targeted by a sustained military effort by the Pakistani Frontier Corps in late 2008 and by further cleaning operations in 2010. Local tribes like the Salarzai have meanwhile been massively enrolled in government-sponsored programs to enhance self-defence forces against the militants, somewhat similar to the arbakiin Afghanistan. Despite this, a certain level of unrest due to TTP operations has continued.
(2) Shigal district is known as the main stronghold of Hezb-e Islami in Kunar, and Kashmir Khan, the prominent local commander who controls most of it, has not ceased his armed opposition to the government, although reportedly he allows for some development presence. According to locals, Pakistani militants shelter instead in the valley called Shiltan (the district’s official appellation is Shigal wa Shiltan), on the other bank of the Kunar river, bordering Bajaur.
(3) On a previous occasion, when still permanently based in Pakistan, Faqir Mohammed had declared a unilateral ceasefire with Pakistani troops after the first round of the military operations against the Taleban in Swat in 2009.
(4) Pakistani militants seem to understand well the different attitude regarding the tribal agencies and the more ‘organic’ parts of Pakistani territory that still exists in the government and in the public opinion of their country. The recent attacks coming from inside the Afghan border have often hit border areas of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province (like Dir or Chitral), raising an outcry in Pakistan. Bajaur has also been targeted, but mainly to punish specific tribal communities for their support of the government.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020