Tensions between the Taliban and Islamabad mount as Pakistan gets a taste of its own distasteful medicine
Most Pakistanis, especially the Generals in Rawalpindi and the politicians and officials in Islamabad, had celebrated last year’s return of their long-time assets, the terrorist Taliban, to the seat of power in Kabul. The Pakistani belief then was that all its strategic goals in Afghanistan would finally be within reach with the Taliban regime expected to repay its debts to Rawalpinidi for decades of support with total subservience to the Pakistani establishment. It was precisely this line of thinking that had encouraged the chief of the Pakistani spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to rush to Kabul and meddle in the allocation of ministerial portfolios to select Taliban and Haqqani Network militants even before the dust from the last coalition aircraft that departed from Bagram airbase had settled. There were skeptics, though, with EFSAS being among them, who had reservations about whether Pakistan’s pursuit of its strategic goals even with the Taliban in power would be smooth sailing. EFSAS’ assessment that the first serious challenges from the Taliban’s ascension would be felt by Pakistan, not the West or others, appears to increasingly be coming true, with near-daily violent incidents along the contentious Durrand Line, as well as further inland, being reported. The relationship between the Taliban and Pakistan has deteriorated to the extent that Islamabad has felt it necessary and appropriate to launch unilateral airstrikes well within Afghan territory, and the Taliban has responded by warning of war between the two countries.
Ironically, it is terrorism, this time allegedly in reverse – from Afghanistan to Pakistan, as opposed to the usual other way around – that is contributing substantially to the fraying of ties. Pakistan has been at the receiving end of a spate of attacks by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Baloch militant groups, both of which Islamabad claims are sheltering in Afghanistan. Saying that the attacks have increased since the Taliban came to power last August, Pakistan has accused its own terrorist proxy, the Taliban, of doing little to stop these TTP attacks against Pakistani security forces. The hundreds of TTP militants who were released from Afghan jails after the return of the Afghan Taliban in August last year are also reported to be actively involved in launching attacks in Pakistan.
The TTP and the Taliban are believed to share ideological roots and have previously also participated together in attacks against the United States-backed Afghan government. Hence, while Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban have been allies for decades, with Islamabad providing safe havens to the Islamist militants in their aim to establish a friendly government in Kabul, the Pakistani Taliban, which analysts estimate has several thousand fighters in eastern Afghanistan, has also maintained ties with the Taliban for more than a decade and pledged allegiance to the Taliban leader. Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, believes that “It would be fair to describe the TTP as the ideological twin of the Afghan Taliban”. She pointed out that “When the Taliban took over Afghanistan last year, the TTP hailed the Taliban’s ‘victory’ and renewed its oath of allegiance”.
According to Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), the Pakistani Taliban was responsible for 87 attacks across Pakistan in 2021, with most targeting military personnel. Further, as per the Pakistani military, 97 Pakistani soldiers and officers have already been killed in terrorist attacks from January to March this year. Among recent incidents, a Pakistani military convoy was ambushed close to the border in North Waziristan last month. Seven soldiers and four TTP attackers were killed in the gun battle. A few days later, another four Pakistani soldiers were killed in firing from across the border.
In a move that could only be expected to escalate the brewing conflict with the Taliban regime in Kabul, Pakistan on 16 April launched unilateral airstrikes against alleged TTP targets in the eastern Afghan provinces of Khost and Kunar. As Umair Jamal, the Lahore-based correspondent for The Diplomat, surmised, “While the death toll of TTP fighters remains unclear, the attack caused significant civilian casualties, with some reports claiming that at least 47 people were killed in the attack. Pakistan’s decision to carry out military action inside Afghanistan is unprecedented and shows a significant change in Islamabad’s policy towards the TTP. Previously, Islamabad reportedly relied on targeting TTP commanders in Afghanistan through assassinations. However, this tactic has failed to hinder the group’s attacks inside Pakistan”. Jamal postulated that “In the coming days and weeks, we can expect more such strikes from Pakistan if the TTP continues its attacks on Pakistani forces. The change in policy carries the risk of undermining Pakistan-Taliban ties significantly with impact on trade links and bilateral diplomacy”.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said it was “deeply concerned” by the civilian deaths caused by the airstrikes, and that the mission was verifying the extent of casualties. The Pakistani airstrikes, unsurprisingly, sparked protests across Afghanistan, with hundreds of residents in provinces such as Khost and Kandahar taking to the streets chanting anti-Pakistan slogans and saying that those killed in the attacks were civilians. The Taliban had little option but to heed these protests.
Equally, the Taliban regime could not but remonstrate strongly against the blatant violation of the country’s sovereignty by none other than its own patron, Pakistan. The northern Afghanistan based National Resistance Front (NRF) led by Ahmad Massoud and Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan’s former vice-president, while condemning Pakistan’s airstrikes blamed the proxy status of the Taliban as having allowed Pakistan to carry out the strikes in the first place. A NRF statement highlighted that the “Taliban occupying regime is the main cause of foreign aggression in Afghanistan. We emphasize the dismantling of the occupiers and proxy groups in Afghanistan”.
Even if the Taliban’s statements in reaction to the airstrikes did betray some undertones of indebtedness and helplessness, they did also convey hurt, anger, and concern. Importantly, if Pakistan’s intention through the airstrikes was to send the message to the Taliban that it must act against the TTP or risk more such strikes, the Taliban’s response indicated that it was no longer fine with being dictated to in such a manner. For a start, the Taliban denied harbouring any Pakistani militants. As Faiz Zaland, a professor at Kabul University, explained, it is unlikely that the Taliban will act against the Pakistani Taliban considering that they fought together for the past 20 years against the US-led coalition forces. “The fighters have sacrificed their lives together like brothers against the US-led occupation in Kabul”, he told Al Jazeera.
In a speech on 24 April, the Taliban’s Defense Minister Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob said that the Taliban would not any longer tolerate “invasions” from neighboring Pakistan. He said, “We can’t tolerate the invasion. We have tolerated that attack. We tolerated that because of national interests; next time, we might not tolerate it”. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid called the airstrikes “a cruelty” that would pave the “way for enmity between Afghanistan and Pakistan”. He asserted that “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) condemns in the strongest possible terms the bombardment and attack that has taken place from the Pakistan side on the soil of Afghanistan. The IEA strongly condemns Pakistan’s attacks on refugees in Khost and Kunar. The IEA calls on the Pakistani side not to test the patience of Afghans on such issues and not repeat the same mistake again otherwise it will have bad consequences”. Mujahid added, “We are using all options to prevent repetitions of such attacks and calling for our sovereignty to be respected”. He warned that Islamabad “should know that if a war starts it will not be in the interest of any side. It will cause instability in the region”.
Commenting on these warnings, Pakistan’s Foreign Office said that “Pakistan and Afghanistan are brotherly countries. It is important that our two countries engage in a meaningful manner through relevant institutional channels to cooperate in countering cross-border terrorism and taking actions against terrorist groups on their soil”. However, as Obaidullah Baheer, a lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan, averred, “Pakistan’s administration expects the Taliban to have the same level of subservience the Taliban showed in the 90s, and as the group is trying to shed away the stamp of being Pakistan’s proxy, it leads to the Taliban taking a tough stance at times”. Meanwhile, Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace, underlined that “Pakistan sending in manned aircraft and killing so many people in different places, the Taliban’s defence minister threatening war if there are more attacks — this is a turning point”.
The airstrikes have actually added to the growing Taliban anger against Pakistan for building a 2,700km long fence along the countries’ contentious colonial-era border created in 1893, known as the Durand Line, which successive Afghan governments have not recognized. The Durand Line cuts directly through traditional Pashtun lands, and for decades meant little more to families divided on either side than a line drawn across the maps by British colonial officers. The Taliban, therefore, wants an open border for Pashtun tribesmen inhabiting the region. As Zahid Hussain, writing in the Pakistani daily Dawn, stressed, the growing tensions between the Taliban and Pakistan cannot solely be attributed to the TTP’s Afghan sanctuaries, as repeated border clashes were also souring relations between the two. A major concern of the Taliban was the border fences, which they had been removing at various places claiming that Pakistan did not have the authority to build barriers along the Durand Line. Previous Afghan governments had also objected to such fencing, but had rarely tried to use force to stop it. More Taliban efforts to disrupt the fencing could intensify regional tensions further. Abdul Basit, a Pakistani counterterrorism and security expert, believes that the border dispute explains why “irrespective of who rules Kabul, their relationship with Pakistan will not be really good”.
The main grouse that caused Pakistan to launch the airstrikes – terrorists using Afghan territory to target Pakistani and Chinese targets in Pakistan – comes across as misplaced and hypocritical if Pakistan’s colourful history in this very sphere is taken into consideration. While terrorism in any form cannot be condoned, no matter where it occurs, it is equally true that what groups such as the TTP and the Baloch organizations are accused of doing to Pakistan today is exactly what Pakistan has done for several decades to both its western and eastern neighbours, Afghanistan and India, respectively. In Afghanistan, Pakistani spy agencies have recruited, nurtured, funded, armed and unleashed generation after generation of terrorist fighters, including the Taliban, ever since the days of the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. To the east, Pakistan’s equally pervasive strategy has been to set up a succession of deadly terrorist groups under different names, only to re-christen these groups every time they came under the international radar. Hence, for Pakistan to claim any justification for violating the sovereignty of a neighbour and attacking it with fighter aircraft just because a few anti-Pakistan terrorist groups are sheltering there cannot by any stretch of the imagination be convincing or acceptable. As Sami Yousafzai, a veteran Afghan journalist and commentator who has tracked the Taliban since its emergence in the 1990s, aptly put it, “Pakistan is angry that the Taliban are copying its playbook by hosting a militant group hostile to a neighboring country”.
Also, it comes across as highly ironical that Pakistan should vociferously sell recognition of the Taliban to the international community even while it itself accuses the Taliban of harbouring terrorists inimical to it.