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EFSAS Commentary

As Pakistan’s pro-terror policies backfire, it opts to escalate tensions with the Taliban by carrying out air strikes in Afghanistan


Relations between Pakistan and its erstwhile proxy, the Afghan Taliban, have been spiraling downwards ever since the Taliban stormed back into power in Kabul in August 2021. The Taliban has made it a conscious policy to rebuff Pakistani attempts to control and direct it, and by extension Afghanistan, while Pakistan has found itself in the paradoxical position of have to fend off the very terrorism on export of which its external, and especially its neighbourhood, policy has depended for the past many decades. The encouraging environment that Islamabad had created for terrorist groups of all sorts in Pakistan, and across South Asia, has been well documented over the years. That policy has led the country to a situation in which, as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) confirmed on 20 March, Pakistan was forced to seek a 24th medium-term bailout package. It has also caused Islamabad to take the drastic action of violating Afghan sovereignty by launching air strikes there earlier this week, as it went after a terrorist leader who Islamabad once worked closely with, but who Pakistan now says launched deadly attacks against Pakistani targets last weekend from his alleged hideout in Afghanistan. Whether the air strikes lead to a military escalation with Taliban remains to be seen, but what is already clear is that the Pakistani military’s bonhomie with the Taliban has well nigh come to an end, and that the coming months are likely to witness a further increase in tensions between Islamabad and Kabul.

The present sequence of events began on 16 March, when a suicide bomber rammed his explosive-laden truck into a military post in the Pakistani town of Mir Ali in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that borders Afghanistan, killing seven Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan’s military said that its troops had responded and killed all six attackers in a subsequent shootout. A newly formed militant group, the Jaish-e-Fursan-e-Muhammad, claimed the Mir Ali attack. Pakistani officials believe the group is mainly made up of members of the Pakistani Taliban, the outlawed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP, which often targets Pakistani security forces. Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif visited the families of a Lieutenant Colonel and a Captain who had been killed in the Mir Ali attack, and he paid tribute to all the soldiers killed. President Asif Ali Zardari attended the funerals of the fallen soldiers and vowed to retaliate, saying “the blood of our martyred soldiers will not go in vain”. Zardari added, “Pakistan has decided that whoever enters our borders, homes or country to commit terror, we will respond to them strongly, regardless of their identity or country of origin”.

A day later, on 18 March, Pakistan carried out airstrikes inside Afghanistan in retaliation to the killing of the seven soldiers in the Mir Ali attack. The Pakistani airstrikes targeted multiple suspected hideouts of the TTP inside Afghanistan. The Foreign Office in Islamabad confirmed the strikes, describing them as “intelligence-based anti-terrorist operations in the border regions inside Afghanistan”, and saying they targeted a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban. The Associated Press quoted two Pakistani security and intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, as saying that the air strikes were carried out in Afghanistan’s Khost and Paktika provinces bordering Pakistan. It was not immediately clear how deep inside Afghanistan the Pakistani jets flew. Meanwhile, Afghan Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid informed that at “around 3 am, Pakistani aircraft bombarded civilian homes” and that three women and three children were killed in the airstrikes the district of Barmal in Paktika, while two other women were killed in the strike in Khost.

The Pakistani Foreign Office said in a press release that the prime targets of the air strikes were terrorists belonging to the Hafiz Gul Bahadur Group, adding that the outfit, along with the TTP, was responsible for multiple terrorist attacks inside Pakistan, resulting in “deaths of hundreds of civilians and law enforcement officials”. The release said that over the years, “Pakistan has repeatedly conveyed its serious concerns to the interim Afghan government over the presence of terror outfits, including TTP, inside Afghanistan. These terrorists pose a grave threat to Pakistan’s security and have consistently used Afghan territory to launch terror attacks inside Pakistani territory”.

The Foreign Office continued, “We have repeatedly urged the Afghan authorities to take concrete and effective action to ensure that the Afghan soil is not used as a staging ground for terrorism against Pakistan. We have also called on them to deny safe havens to TTP and to hand over its leadership to Pakistan. Pakistan has great respect for the people of Afghanistan. However, certain elements among those in power in Afghanistan are actively patronising TTP and using them as a proxy against Pakistan. Such an approach against a brotherly country, which stood with the people of Afghanistan through thick and thin, manifests shortsightedness. It ignores the support extended by Pakistan to the people of Afghanistan over the last several decades. We urge these elements in power to rethink the policy of siding with khwarij terrorists shedding the blood of innocent Pakistanis and to make a clear choice to stand with the people of Pakistan”.

The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the publicity arm of the Pakistani military, in a statement said that the “recent wave of terrorism in Pakistan has the full support and assistance of Afghanistan. The Afghan interim government is not only arming the terrorists but also providing a safe haven for other terrorist organisations as well as being involved in the incidents of terrorism in Pakistan. With the help of the Afghan Taliban and the supply of modern weapons, there has been an increase in the incidents of terrorism in Pakistan”. About the recent Mir Ali attack, the military’s media wing said the “fabric of loss of precious lives is also found with terrorists taking shelter in Afghanistan”. It added that there was “clear evidence of involvement of terrorists from Afghanistan” in the Zhob Garrison attack of July 2023, and that “TTP terrorists armed with the latest American weapons attacked two army check posts in Chitral” in September last year. The ISPR continued that the November 2023 attack on the Mianwali Air Base was “also planned by the terrorists taking refuge in Afghanistan”, and that “terrorists from Afghanistan used night vision goggles and foreign weapons” in the Dera Ismail Khan attacks in December. The statement also alleged that terrorists from Afghanistan were involved in the Peshawar Police Lines blast in January 2023, which had claimed more than 80 lives.

The Taliban, however, denounced the air strikes as a violation of Afghanistan’s territorial integrity and warned that such “reckless acts” could lead to dire consequences, which would take matters beyond Pakistan’s control. Zabihullah Mujahid asserted that “The Islamic Emirate strongly condemns the attacks and describes these as non-serious actions and violation of Afghanistan territory. Pakistan should not blame Afghanistan for their problems and failure to control violent incidents. There will be bad consequences for such acts”.  Mujahid also posted on his X account that “The Pakistani side is saying that Abdullah Shah was targeted in the strikes but he lives on the Pakistani side. Members of the same tribe live on both sides and routinely move across the border”. Mujahid denied that foreign armed groups are allowed to operate from Afghan soil, but he did concede that parts of the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan were hard to control. He elaborated, “In this regard, we have made our utmost effort and continue to do so; but one thing we must accept is that Afghanistan shares a very long border area with Pakistan, and there are places with rugged terrain including mountains and forests, and places that might be out of our control”.

A later statement from the Afghan Foreign Ministry informed that it had summoned Pakistan’s Charge d’Affaires and also sent him a letter of protest. The statement added that “Besides condemning the attacks, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs informs Pakistan that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has a long experience of fighting for freedom against the superpowers of the world and cannot tolerate aggression on its territory in any way. The new civilian government and the people of Pakistan should not allow some circles to complicate the relations between the two neighbouring Muslim countries with their irresponsible actions and wrong policies”.

Subsequently, the Afghan Defence Ministry said in a statement that its troops had targeted Pakistani security force bases across the border in response to the Pakistani air strikes. The statement read, “In response to that aggression, the border forces of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan targeted military bases of Pakistan’s army across the artificial Durand Line with heavy weapons. The country’s defence and security forces are ready to respond to any kind of aggression and will defend the country’s territorial integrity in any situation”. The two Pakistani security officials quoted by the Associated Press revealed that mortars fired by the Afghan Taliban in Monday’s return fire had wounded four civilians and forced some villagers in the Kurram district to move to safer areas. Three Pakistani soldiers were also reported to be injured.

In his article titled ‘Good Taliban, bad Taliban: The case of Hafiz Gul Bahadur’ in the well-read Pakistani daily Dawn, journalist and researcher Zia Ur Rehman pointed out on 21 March that “Once lauded as the ‘good Taliban’ for refraining from carrying out attacks against Pakistan’s security forces, Bahadur’s group seems to have joined hands with the TTP to launch attacks in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa”. Rehman observed that “This dramatic shift sparks a multitude of questions: What drove this transformation? Where does Bahadur’s group fit within Pakistan’s complex militant landscape, dominated by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)? And perhaps most crucially, what factors led the Bahadur-led group to engage in such a dramatic escalation?” He added that while Bahadur’s group had traditionally focused on Afghanistan, recent developments suggested a potential shift. Both Bahadur’s faction and the TTP, weakened in the past, have been emboldened by the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021. This seems to have paved the way for some form of collaboration between the two groups. The TTP for example, claimed responsibility for attacks in Bannu and North Waziristan in June 2023, crediting cooperation with Bahadur’s group. However, actual details about the operational collaboration remain unclear.

The TTP, aiming to become the leading jihadist force in Pakistan, has actively sought to incorporate other groups. Since mid-2021, it has claimed mergers with 47 Pakistani Taliban factions, sectarian groups, and even Al Qaeda affiliates, although most are lesser-known entities. Researcher Riccardo Valle, who specializes in militant groups in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region, reported on his website Militancy Chowk that talks between the TTP and Bahadur’s group regarding a unified platform had taken place. Valle expresses the view that a successful merger would “further jeopardise the situation in south Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, while expanding the TTP base in the province and posing new challenges to security forces”.

Christina Goldbaum and Zia ur-Rehman wrote in The New York Times on 18 March that the air strikes appeared to signal that Pakistan’s newly elected government would take a tough stance with the Taliban administration in Afghanistan over the militant violence. As Muhammad Amir Rana, head of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, noted, “The airstrikes sought to ‘dispel perceptions of a weak Pakistani state’ and ‘reflect a unified counterterrorism policy between the new civilian government and the military’”. Goldbaum and Rehman cautioned that “The violence has raised fears of a wider conflict breaking out along the historically contested border, known as the Durand Line, between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It has also fueled growing tensions between the Pakistani authorities and Taliban officials, who deny offering support to militant groups operating in Pakistan, including their ally, the Pakistani Taliban”.

Syed Akhtar Ali Shah, a former police chief of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, was of the view that regular terrorist attacks against security personnel affected the motivation of the forces, and hence Pakistan had little option but to retaliate strongly. He, however, cautioned that “When you take an aggressive stance like that, it helps to have a dialogue from a position of strength. But it could backfire, as well, and lead to a dilemma for the country because the Afghan government can retaliate”. Sami Yousafzai, a journalist and a longtime observer of Pakistan-Afghanistan ties, opined that one way in which the Afghan regime could show its ability to hit back was by allowing the Pakistani Taliban a freer rein in the border areas. He added that “There is a lot of resentment within Afghanistan for what Pakistan did, and they are unhappy with the situation so this could have consequences”.

What those consequences will be should become clearer with time, but what is already evident now is that Pakistan’s brash air strikes have further strained its already fragile relations with the Afghan Taliban, and that, in turn, has raised fears of sustained instability in the region.