The Pakistan – Afghan Taliban rift widens after terror attack on Pakistani military base exposes the Army’s vulnerability
The Pakistani military establishment has reason to be shell-shocked at what is coming its way from neighbouring Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, and the corrosive consequences that this is having on the establishment’s hitherto vice-like hold over Pakistan. When the Taliban grabbed power in Kabul in August 2021, Pakistan’s political and military leadership had perceived the exit of the United States (US)-led coalition from Afghanistan and the takeover by the Afghan Taliban as a victory. After all, the Pakistani establishment had not only overseen and guided the founding of the Taliban several decades ago; it had also contributed majorly to the Taliban’s recent re-capture of Kabul. In the intervening decades Pakistan remained the primary benefactor of the Taliban. Wishing to carry that spirit of partnership further, Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, the then head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had made it a point to land in Kabul soon after the Taliban takeover to not only co-lift the victory trophy with the Taliban leaders but also influence their foreign and security policies.
Years of close contact with the ISI had wisened the Taliban to its self-serving ways, and the new Taliban soon realized that a demanding, unreliable, and flagging Pakistan could not serve its interests best. After months of disbelief, exasperation, and anger, Pakistan finally seems ready to accept the reality that today, the Pakistani Taliban (and all that it represents) is more important to Kabul than Pakistan is. Kabul’s response to Pakistan’s fury over last week’s attack on the Mianwali Training Air Base of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), which was carried out by 9 terrorists who Pakistan alleged had crossed over from Afghanistan, seems to have convinced the establishment. Pakistani media reports have suggested that in a major policy shift consequent to Kabul’s failure to neutralize the Pakistani Taliban – the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – Islamabad has decided not to support the Afghan Taliban’s case at the international level or to extend any other assistance to it.
The Taliban, meanwhile, is seething at Islamabad’s draconian decision to send back hundreds of thousands of poor Afghan refugees. The United Nations (UN) and partner aid agencies in Afghanistan, in their call for urgent funding to provide “post-arrival” assistance to thousands of returning Afghan families, informed that “More than 60% of arrivals are children. Their condition is desperate, with many having traveled for days, unclear of where to return to and stranded at the border”.
The terrorist attack that prompted Pakistan’s policy shift targeted the Mianwali Airbase in the early hours of 4 November. According to military officials, the attack on the air base, which is considered a highly secure facility, began around 3 a.m. when the assailants used a ladder to scale a wall. Three nonoperational aircraft were damaged. It was not clear if those defending the air base suffered any casualties. The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media arm of the Pakistan Army, claimed that “No damage has been done to any of the Pakistan Air Force’s functional operational assets, while only some damage was done to three already phased out non-operational aircraft during the attack”. It added that a fuel tanker had also been damaged.
The Tehreek-i-Jihad Pakistan (TJP), a relatively new militant group, claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement to the media. The TJP said its aim was to destroy fighter aircraft that had been used against civilians. The TJP has carried out a string of damaging attacks in Pakistan this year, including the killing of 12 soldiers at a Pakistani military base in the southwestern province of Balochistan in July.
The ISPR updated in a statement that “Due to the swift and effective response by the troops, (the attack) has been foiled and thwarted, ensuring the safety and security of personnel and assets… the combing and clearance operation at PAF Training Airbase Mianwali has been concluded and all nine terrorists have been sent to hell”. It added that the operation was launched to “eliminate any potential threat in the surrounding area following the cowardly and failed terrorist attack on the base this morning”. The ISPR warned that “The prompt and professional conclusion of the operation serves as a stark reminder to all enemies of peace that Pakistan’s armed forces remain vigilant and are fully capable of defending the homeland from any threat”.
India Today, after analyzing open-source satellite imagery, concluded on 9 November that more damage was inflicted on the air base by the terrorists than was admitted by the ISPR. India Today said, “Two sets of high-resolution satellite pictures sourced by India Today from the US-based space firm Planet Labs PBC, taken on October 24 and November 4, provide a comprehensive view of the extent of damage in the aftermath of the attacks. The imagery shows at least nine clear signs of damage to the operational sheds at the base on the day of the attack. Given the substantial size of these structures, it would require a significantly powerful explosion beneath them to cause such visible roof damage, thereby posing an increased risk to the aircraft stored inside. These visual indications do not align with the clarification issued by the military”.
India Today continued, “While the ISPR emphasized limited damage to what they referred to as unimportant assets, specifically stating, ‘only some damage was done to three already phased-out non-operational aircraft’, it is noteworthy that the designated area for such non-operational assets appears to be located approximately 1.5 kilometers southward from the impact site depicted in the imagery. Additionally, archival video footage of the base contradicts this claim, as it shows these sheds being used to house operational aircraft in the past. Designated as No. 37 for Combat Training, the base accommodates several of the PAF's trainer, fighter, and ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) aircraft. These include, but are not limited to, the K-8P (trainer), Chengdu J-7 (F-7), Alouette III helicopters, and others. The base also hosts the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) Wing Loong II. Shortly after the attack, PAF Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Zaheer Ahmed Baber Sidhu, visited the base”.
Last Saturday’s attack on the air force base came a day after insurgents ambushed a military convoy in Baluchistan province’s Gwadar district, killing 14 soldiers. The district hosts the China-run deep-water Arabian Sea port. The Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) claimed responsibility for this attack. Last Friday, the Pakistani military reported that bomb blasts and clashes with militants linked to the TTP had killed at least five civilians and three soldiers in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. On Monday, security forces raided a militant hideout in the northwestern Tirah area bordering Afghanistan, triggering a shootout that left four soldiers and three insurgents dead. In a statement, the military said the slain troops included Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Hassan Haider, who had led multiple operations against militants in the region.
Pakistani authorities have increased security at military and other sensitive installations based on intelligence reports about more possible attacks. The attacks, especially the one on the air base and other earlier brazen assaults on the military, have renewed concerns about the precarious security situation in the country. As Salman Masood wrote in The New York Times, “Defense analysts in Pakistan have noted a worrying trend of increased assaults on military targets. More broadly, extremist violence in the country has increased substantially since the 2021 Taliban takeover of neighboring Afghanistan. That has fed growing tensions between the Pakistani government and Taliban officials, who have rejected Pakistani accusations of providing shelter to militant groups, including their ally, the Pakistani Taliban… M. Ashfaque Arain, a retired (Pakistani) air marshal, called the attacks ‘a worrying development’ that could be linked to the activation of sleeper cells and a reaction to the recent deportation of Afghans living illegally in Pakistan”.
Arain underlined that the attack on the air base was significant because the facility is used for advanced fighter aircraft training. Its proximity to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, which has experienced a surge in Taliban-related violence in recent months and is a longstanding target of militant attacks, added to its strategic importance. Shafaat Shah, a retired Pakistani Lieutenant General, also noted that the timing of the attacks aligned with the deportation deadline set by Pakistan. He described a recent statement by the Taliban’s acting defense minister warning of consequences from the deportation move as “an open threat”.
Writing in the Pakistani daily Dawn, author and seasoned journalist Zahid Hussain argued pertinently on 8 November in ‘Forced Expulsion’ that “There have also been some reports of the involvement of Afghan Taliban factions in some of the terrorist attacks. All that has strained Islamabad’s relations with the regime in Kabul. But this does not provide a justification for the reckless and thoughtless decision to expel the entire Afghan refugee population. Even if we succeed in pushing all of them across the border, it will not make Pakistan any safer as is being claimed. In fact, it will create more problems. Indeed, the TTP leadership is still based in Afghanistan but the spurt in terrorist attacks is largely the result of our own flawed policy that allowed thousands of armed militants to return under a deal brokered by the Afghan Taliban. They may be getting help from across the border but the attacks are being carried out by the militants based inside the country. It is true that the increase in militancy poses a very serious security challenge and must be dealt with sternly. But the scapegoating of Afghan migrants won’t cover up our policy flaws. Expelling poor Afghan women and children will not resolve the problem. Moreover, the country doesn’t have the administrative capacity to expel such a large refugee population”.
Reactions in Pakistan to the air base attack were prompt and angry. Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar ul Haq Kakar wrote on X, “The valiant Pakistan Air Force has once again proven its mettle by thwarting a cowardly terrorist attack in Mianwali. Any attempt to undermine our security will meet with unwavering resistance. The nation stands with you and we salute your courage and resolve”. Later, in a nationally televised news conference Kakar bemoaned that his country had experienced “a 60% increase in terror incidents and a 500% rise in suicide bombings” since the Taliban returned to power in Kabul two years ago, killing nearly 2,300 Pakistanis. He claimed foreigners without legal status are linked to those “fueling terrorism and instability in Pakistan”, and that 15 Afghan nationals were among the suicide bombers, while 64 Afghans were killed fighting Pakistani security forces this year. He asserted the bloodshed was being carried out by “Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, terrorists” from their bases in Afghanistan.
The Prime Minister noted that despite repeated assurances, the Taliban authorities had failed to halt TTP-led cross-border attacks effectively. He claimed Pakistan has persistently shared details and lists of wanted militant leaders with Afghan authorities through multiple high-level official engagements and even asked them “bluntly to choose between Pakistan and the TTP”, but Kabul did not deliver on its counterterrorism pledges. Also, a day after the US clarified that it had not left behind any weapons following its withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, Kakar nevertheless alleged that American-made weapons were being sold in the black market not just in Pakistan but in other Gulf nations too. He termed the US clarification as “irrelevant”, and asserted that objective evidence showed otherwise.
Chief Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid rejected Kakar’s allegations, saying his government is neither responsible for maintaining peace in Pakistan, nor is it behind the insecurity in the neighboring country. He wrote on X, “They should address their domestic problems instead of blaming Afghanistan for their failure. The Islamic Emirate does not allow anyone to use the territory of Afghanistan against Pakistan”. Mujahid added that Kabul “seeks good relations” with Islamabad in line with its policy of “non-interference” in the affairs of other countries, and he advised Pakistan not to doubt the Taliban’s “sincere intentions”.
The Pakistani daily The Express Tribune reported that the Taliban’s lukewarm response had prompted Islamabad to take the decision to no longer extend “special privileges” to the Afghan Taliban government. The daily quoted official sources as lamenting that Pakistan’s goodwill gestures and assistance extended to the Taliban government after its return to power in August 2021 were taken for granted by Kabul. Pakistan had been the main backer and advocate for the Taliban, urging the international community and stakeholders, particularly Western countries, to stay engaged with the new rulers in Kabul. Islamabad made efforts with other regional players to ensure that sanctions against the Afghan Taliban government were lifted and Kabul obtained access to the funds frozen by the US soon after the fall of Kabul. But now, the official sources said, Pakistan would no longer extend any special favours to the Afghan Taliban as they were harbouring “our enemies. They were given a choice but it seems that they have opted for the TTP over Pakistan”.
What exactly Pakistan’s claimed ownership of the Afghan Taliban’s cause for over two years has yielded for Kabul, even as the Taliban remains internationally ostracized and Afghanistan’s funds frozen, is a legitimate question that many may have.