Washington has doubled down on fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) offshoot in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province. Experts have warned that the Islamic State threat remains secondary to a Taliban resurgence. Washington is repeating the mistake of obsessively routing al-Qaeda while ignoring the overall conditions that allowed al-Qaeda to thrive, this time with ISIS.
The Trump administration apparently intends to simultaneously fight the Taliban by increasing the number of US troops in Afghanistan. However, even as another horrific bombing killed scores in the Afghan capital, the US refuses to acknowledge that the war in Afghanistan is not confined within the country’s borders and contains a second front in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, which borders both Afghanistan and Iran. Until a proxy war between India and Pakistan in Balochistan is resolved, Afghanistan will serve as a de facto garrison for warring factions there. The only way to achieve peace inside Afghanistan is to foster regional peace through diplomacy that is inclusive of all relevant actors, but the Trump administration is doing just the opposite.
On April 26, 2017, eleven Iranian border guards were shot dead from Pakistani soil by Baloch militants using long-range rifles, prompting Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to fly to Islamabad to again demand that Pakistan control its border. Iran threatened to take matters into its own hands if Islamabad did not comply.
The lawlessness that is a product of the ongoing conflict in Balochistan not only emboldens Baloch separatists but creates a safe haven for the Taliban’s leaders and facilitates the drug trade on which their existence relies. During my 2012 deployment to Afghanistan as a Marine, I served in support of the Australian-led Special Operations Task Group that included detachments of Drug Enforcement Agency Foreign-Deployed Advisory and Support Teams. With few alternatives, Afghan farmers continue to grow poppy and the Taliban oversee its distribution. Baloch rebels traffic the narcotics into Iran. One fellow Marine involved in helicopter-assisted interdiction missions in Helmand province near the Pakistan border even expressed frustration to me that none of his translators could speak Balochi. It was also common for Taliban infiltrators into the Afghan National Army to escape to safe houses in Balochistan after conducting green-on-blue or insider attacks.
The war in Afghanistan (and northern Pakistan) has two interconnected fronts. As of 2017, at least 2,183 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan, primarily in the provinces along the Durand Line that serves as the border with Pakistan. Places like Peshawar, Waziristan and the Swat Valley, all inside Pakistan, have become common names when discussing war in Afghanistan. However, despite the best efforts of writers like Ahmed Rashid, who first put Balochistan on the geopolitical map for Western readers and strategists, it has been largely ignored. During that same period since the US entered Afghanistan, over 3,000 Iranian soldiers and border guards have also been killed in shoot-outs with drug runners and terrorist cells along the porous line-in-the-sand border that separates Iran from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Meanwhile in Pakistani Balochistan, there have been at least 3,580 recorded civilian deaths between 2004 and 2016.
Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan province, simultaneously serves as the home base of the Taliban’s senior leadership and the Baloch separatist movement. For Pakistan the value of Balochistan is that it contains the strategic Gwadar port as well as natural resources. For Iran, however, Sistan and Baluchistan province primarily exists as an inconvenient bastion of Sunni Islam and unrest in its southeast corner. Secession movements and terrorism have long plagued both countries, but particularly Pakistan, which perceives India to be the true puppet master behind Baloch separatists.
India’s premier intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), allegedly provides material support and training to Pakistani Baloch separatists in Afghanistan as a response to Pakistan’s power to do the same for Kashmiri separatists. While Islamabad often magnifies India’s role in the Baloch insurgency, the circumstantial evidence certainly points to some involvement. In March 2016, Indian naval officer Kulbhushan Jadhav was arrested by Pakistani authorities in Balochistan and accused of organizing Baloch terrorist cells. On April 10, 2017, in an unusually escalatory move, a special military tribunal sentenced Jadhav to death by hanging.
Meanwhile, prominent Baloch rebels have sought asylum in India, including Brahamdagh Khan Bugti, the grandson of Nawab Akbar Bugti, who was killed in 2006 while leading an insurgency against Pakistan. In his 2016 Indian Independence Day speech, Indian Prime Minister Nahendra Modi boasted that the “people of Balochistan, Gilgit, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir have thanked me, have expressed gratitude, and expressed good wishes for me.” India’s role in destabilizing Afghanistan and the region is often overlooked because unlike Pakistan, its policies have not directly led to Western civilian casualties.
Iran has learned to avoid unilateral opposition to the Taliban when other regional actors falter. As Ahmed Rashid noted in his book Taliban, “Iran and the CARs [Central Asian Republics] shared a deep suspicion of Afghan-Pashtun fundamentalism and the support it received from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.” Iran remains susceptible to the free-flow of fighters directly from Afghanistan and into Pakistani Balochistan. This exposes Iran’s border to a three-pronged attack by drug traffickers, Sunni extremists, and Baloch separatists, with some crossover between these last two groups. Tehran holds Pakistan responsible for taking a hands-off approach to Baloch separatists that target Iran while simultaneously conducting a campaign of extrajudicial killings against Baloch activists that threaten Islamabad. At the same time, Pakistan’s General Raheel Sharif also claimed that RAW uses Iran to launch operations against Pakistan in Balochistan and India uses Afghanistan as a base to train Baloch separatists.
For Pakistan’s military establishment, the best antidote to the Baloch insurgency remains a strong Taliban presence in southwest Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to Afghan officials in Helmand province, Pakistan and Iran are competing to maintain communications with the Taliban. Meanwhile Russia and Iran have been accused of increased support for the Taliban in an effort to undermine the US mission and the growing ISIS threat. At the same time, calls to engage with the Taliban came from Washington in 2008 and 2013 and remain a possibility, all the while the popularity inside Pakistan continues to grow for Imran Khan, ex-cricketer turned Pakistani politician and Governor of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, partly due to his pledge to exit America’s “War on Terror” altogether.
To achieve lasting peace in Afghanistan a settlement that is inclusive of the Taliban will likely have to be forged. As Barnett Rubin recently pointed out, a mere surge in troops will not achieve stability in Afghanistan and will not signal a US commitment to rebuilding the country. Regional dialogue must include India, Pakistan, Iran, the Afghan government and the Taliban. It may be untenable to openly host all relevant actors at the same table but backdoor channels can supplement where open talks fall short. If this is not achieved, Afghanistan will continue to barely function as a failed state in which the Taliban enjoy more authority than Kabul and the military defeat of groups such as ISIS will be short-lived until the next terrorist organization seizes on the opportunity that Afghanistan presents.
Adam Weinstein is a veteran of the Marine Corps where he served in Afghanistan. He is a policy associate at the National Iranian American Council and has contributed to Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, CNN, and regularly writes for the London School of Economics Middle East Centre and South Asia Centre blogs.