The escalating conflict between Pakistan and the Taliban could pose serious challenges to regional peace
In a sardonic twist of fate, Pakistan this week became the first country to formally accuse the terrorist Taliban regime that it had painstakingly nurtured and crowned of harbouring anti-Pakistan terrorist groups and allowing them the freedom to launch cross-border attacks against Pakistani forces and interests from within Afghan territory. The irony stems from more than one fact. To begin with, it was Pakistani assertions of the Taliban having matured into a reformed and chastened version of its former self that had led many in the international community to accede to giving the terrorist group a chance to prove its seriousness towards its pledge to not allow any other terrorist group to operate in Afghanistan or launch attacks on foreign targets from there. Also, it is Pakistan alone that has been selling engagement with the regressive and rights-suppressing Taliban regime to the rest of the world, using the threat of another 9/11 to boot, should the international community not heed Pakistan’s clarion calls. Moreover, it is widely acknowledged that the Taliban has been a long-standing terrorist proxy of Pakistan. The recent turn of events suggests that the Taliban may now be harnessing its own proxy, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), against Pakistan. Adding to Pakistan’s woes is the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) that was formed recently by several Baloch insurgent groups after deciding to bury the hatchet and put up a united fight against a Pakistani State that they all see as repressive and exploitative. The security situation around Afghanistan, therefore, is set to become increasingly complex in coming months, and many of the resulting challenges are likely to confront Pakistan before any other country.
Before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Pakistan was aided in its fight against the TTP, the Pakistani Taliban, by intelligence and drone strike assistance from the United States (US). This resulted in the killing of dozens of TTP militants over the years, including the group’s top leaders Hakimullah Mehsud in 2012 and his successor Maulana Fazlullah in 2018. Despite this, Pakistan often complained that the US was tardy in addressing its terrorism concerns in Afghanistan. When the Taliban swept into Kabul and seized power on 15 August 2021, there were exultations in Pakistan and Prime Minister Imran Khan said a day after the takeover that Afghans had “broken the shackles of slavery”. The Taliban’s return to power, the Pakistani military establishment believed, would spell the death knell of the TTP and other anti-Pakistan groups in Afghanistan and, at a broader level, enable Pakistan to regain influence over Afghanistan. Neither of these is proving to be a cakewalk. Pakistani security officials lament that following the withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan, TTP insurgents seem to enjoy greater operational freedom and mobility in the country.
In the second such attack by the TTP since the Taliban grabbed power, at least five Pakistani soldiers were killed last weekend at a border post by firing from neighbouring Afghanistan. The TTP took responsibility. The TTP has stepped up attacks since it unilaterally walked out of a month-long ceasefire agreement brokered by the Taliban in early December after accusing Islamabad of not fulfilling its promises. After the ceasefire between the TTP and the Pakistani government collapsed, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi had informed that Islamabad had told the Afghan Taliban leadership that it considered the TTP as a test case of its ability to control militants. Qureshi had asked, “If the Taliban can’t address concerns of Pakistan, then who would trust them and their promise of cutting ties to al-Qaida and other such groups?”
After the latest provocation of the killing of five Pakistani soldiers, a statement of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the Pakistani military’s media wing, on 6 February said that “Militants from inside Afghanistan across the international border opened fire on Pakistani troops in Kurram district. Pakistan strongly condemns the use of Afghan soil by terrorists for activities against Pakistan and expects that the interim Afghan government will not allow conduct of such activities against Pakistan, in future”. Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad added that “As per its promises, the Taliban government should stop such cross-border militant attacks”. Raoof Hasan, a special assistant to PM Imran Khan, pitched in by telling Voice of America that “Pakistan's principal concern at this juncture is terrorism emanating from Afghan soil, of which it has been a victim in the last many years. We are interacting closely with the Afghan authorities for formulating a coordinated and effective approach. We can’t afford to remain a hostage of these terrorist forces”.
The Taliban government, on its part, denied that the firing had come from within Afghan territory. Bilal Karimi, deputy spokesman for the Taliban government, told Reuters that “We assure other countries, especially our neighhours, that no one will be allowed to use Afghan land against them”. Despite these protestations, however, a United Nations (UN) terrorism monitoring report released last week said that the Taliban had failed to take “steps to limit the activities of foreign terrorist fighters in the country. On the contrary, terrorist groups enjoy greater freedom (in Afghanistan) than at any time in recent history”. The Taliban Foreign Ministry rejected these UN findings too, saying, “Afghanistan is witnessing exemplary security since the Islamic Emirate regained full sovereignty over the country”.
Clearly, the Taliban regime has thus fared poorly in the test set for it by Qureshi. Pakistani officials are convinced that the Taliban has turned a blind eye to TTP activities since returning to power. The Taliban’s reluctance to act against the TTP also does not bode well for its readiness to crack down on other groups like the Al Qaeda. Islamabad, after trying to downplay security threats and other challenges from Afghan soil for some time now, seems to be at a juncture where it is running out of patience with the Taliban. Attacks by Baloch groups based in Afghanistan against Pakistani and Chinese interests in Balochistan have also become more frequent, more sophisticated, and more lethal. In fact, the TTP attack last weekend came just a day after the BLA, which seeks self-determination for the Baloch people and separation of Balochistan province from Pakistan, claimed to have killed over 100 Pakistani soldiers in two separate attacks on Frontier Corps bases in Balochistan’s Panjgur and Noshki districts. Although the Pakistan Army only acknowledged a much smaller number of casualties in the BLA attacks, the figure of 9 soldiers was nonetheless substantial. A BLA statement of February 5 claimed that the BLA’s Majeed Brigade had held control of the army’s Panjgur camp for 60 hours, and had repelled an attempt by the Pakistan military’s Special Services Group when it tried to retake the camp.
The BLA attacks started on 2 February, symbolically coinciding with PM Imran Khan’s trip to Beijing. The BLA is strongly opposed to Chinese investment in Balochistan, including at the port of Gwadar. It believes that the Pakistan army, hand in glove with China, is colonizing and exploiting the region’s rich mineral and energy resources. Mushahid Hussain Syed, chairman of the Pakistani Senate’s Committee on Defense, told Asia Times that the timing of the BLA attacks deliberately coincided with Imran Khan’s visit to China, and was aimed at embarrassing Khan’s government while he tried to convince Beijing that terror threats had been contained or curbed. “What is worrying for Pakistani policymakers is the scale, size and sophistication of these attacks and the ability of the terrorists to sustain fighting pitched battles, discrediting the official claims of a victory over terrorism”, Mushahid said.
It is not just the Baloch groups that have been targeting Chinese interests in Pakistan. In 2021, as the Taliban advanced in Afghanistan, TTP fighters intensified their assaults in Pakistan and undertook at least two attacks targeting Chinese workers and the Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan. The Taliban and the TTP share strong historical, ideological, cultural, ethnic and linguistic linkages, which make it very difficult for Kabul to act against the TTP. The TTP provided safe havens and fresh recruits for the Afghan Taliban when almost the entire Taliban leadership fled to Pakistan and sheltered there after the arrival of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan. The Taliban, by refusing to evict TTP leaders from Afghan soil or crack down on their activities, is only repaying old dues. When the Taliban grabbed power last summer, they set free hundreds of TTP men, including some prominent leaders, incarcerated in Afghan jails. As Tahir Khan, a Pakistani journalist who has widely covered wars in Afghanistan put it, “The TTP was the first group to celebrate the Taliban victory in Afghanistan and pledged their oath of allegiance to Haibatullah Akhunzada, the Taliban’s supreme leader”. He added, “I think the TTP members are now relaxed in Afghanistan as there is neither a danger of US drone strikes nor any operation by the Taliban regime. Today’s TTP is a major threat and challenge for Pakistan”.
Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad, while discussing Kabul’s hands-off approach towards the TTP, informed Pakistani lawmakers that the Taliban had clearly told Pakistan that the TTP had fought alongside it for 20 years in Afghanistan. This long, symbiotic relationship is why Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal that tracks global militancy, is convinced that “The Afghan Taliban will not expel the TTP for the same reasons it won’t expel al-Qaida”. Roggio elaborated that “Both groups played a key role in the Afghan Taliban’s victory. They fought alongside the Afghan Taliban and sacrificed greatly over the past 20 years”. Hence, even if Pakistan were to ask the Taliban to hand over TTP leaders, it should not expect any results.
It is not the TTP alone that has had a long historical association and partnership with the Taliban. Pakistan’s powerful military, which shepherds the country’s Afghan policy, has ties to the Taliban leadership going back more than 40 years – to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. A couple of decades later, despite Islamabad’s repeated denials a Taliban victory remained the primary goal of the Pakistani military establishment during the 20-year US mission in Afghanistan. Today, both Pakistan and the Taliban need each other. The Taliban provides Pakistan with influence in Afghanistan and a bargaining chip to use with Western interlocutors. Pakistan also fears that a collapse of the Taliban regime would flood Pakistan with another massive wave of refugees. For the Taliban, Pakistan is its primary diplomatic backer.
Despite this, serious divergences in the positions of the two countries have begun to emerge on critical issues, including the 2,500-kilometer long Durand Line which has served as the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan since it was drawn by British colonial administrators in the 19th century. Afghanistan has never recognized the Durrand Line and has challenged the inclusion of Pashtun tribal areas within Pakistani borders. The ongoing Pakistani exercise of fencing the border has reignited tensions. The Taliban’s anger over construction of the border fence has led to violent incidents at several places. A public spat between the two countries also erupted, with Afghan Information Minister and Chief Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid saying in an interview that “The issue of the Durand Line is still an unresolved one, while the construction of fencing itself creates rifts within a nation spread across both sides of the border. It amounts to dividing a nation”. In response, Pakistan’s military spokesman Major General Babar Iftikhar said at a press conference that “The fence on the Pak-Afghan border is needed to regulate security, border crossing and trade. The purpose of this is not to divide the people, but to protect them. The blood of our martyrs was spilled in erecting this fence. It is a fence of peace. It will be completed and will remain”. Such were the mounting tensions on the border that Pakistan’s National Security Adviser (NSA) Moeed Yusuf was compelled to rush to Afghanistan for two days on 29 January to search for urgent solutions.
Abubakar Siddique, an author and expert on Pakistan and Afghanistan, believes that “The anti-Pakistan sentiments are high in Afghanistan because of Islamabad’s perceived role as a main driver of instability. In addition, no Afghan government has ever formally accepted the Durand Line as a permanent border, which remains a highly emotional issue. Their actions along the Durand Line aim at gaining domestic legitimacy. The Taliban also want to do away with the almost universal perception that they are a Pakistani proxy group”.
In the first Commentary of this year, EFSAS had argued that Pakistan may have succeeded in getting its proxy, the Taliban, back into power in Kabul in 2021, but 2022 may yet turn out to be the year of reckoning for Pakistan’s Afghan misadventures as the fallout of the crisis in Afghanistan spills over across the Durrand Line. Neither the unresolved issue of the Durrand Line nor the frequent and bloody attacks on Pakistan by insurgents based in Afghanistan has any easy solution.
Even if both Pakistan and the Taliban would be loath to actively pursue a path towards confrontation, all it may take for the present volatile situation to flare up is a gory incident at the border or a horrific terrorist attack, especially against a prominent Chinese target in Pakistan.