Pakistan-Afghan Taliban relations face mounting challenges

Tensions between Islamabad and Kabul continue to rise. While Pakistan has made efforts to smooth over the growing rift, reopening a key border crossing at Spin Boldak-Chaman closed following cross-border gunfire that killed a Pakistani security guard on Nov. 13 and sending its minister of state for foreign affairs on an official visit to the Afghan capital at the end of November, there are clear signs that Pakistan’s leverage with the Afghan Taliban seems to be slipping fast.                                                                 

Underlying tensions

Clashes along the disputed Afghanistan-Pakistan border have been a recurring problem. Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021, the frequency of such clashes has only increased. Until recently, Pakistan has downplayed the border clashes, calling for a diplomatic resolution to the problem, but the issue of unrest in Pakistan’s Pashtun belt has become too big to be brushed aside.

Following an incident between Taliban soldiers and Pakistani border guards on Nov. 19 near Dand Patan in the Afghan province of Paktia, Pakistan’s federal minister for overseas Pakistanis and human resource development, Sajid Hussain Turi, wrote on Twitter that, “Afghanistan’s violation of Pakistan’s Kurram border at Kharlachi and Borki and targeting the civilian population is condemnable.”

Even with a seemingly pro-Islamabad regime in Kabul led by the Afghan Taliban, the underlying issues between the two countries remain difficult to resolve. Kabul’s consistent refusal to accept the Durand Line as the international border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, which has triggered the recent clashes between their security forces, remains a key driver of tensions, undermining trust and provoking enmity. Moreover, the new Afghan rulers are grappling with numerous governance challenges in terms of international recognition, humanitarian aid, basic healthcare, women’s education, and infrastructure development, as well as countering the terrorism threat from ISIS-Khorasan Province (ISKP).

The Afghan Taliban’s military victory in Afghanistan has had an inspirational effect on those who seek to impose sharia law in Pakistan. The Pakistani state has ample reason to be concerned about blowback from the Afghan Taliban across the Durand Line. Pakistan’s practice of supporting jihadist forces is now coming back to haunt it by stirring up religious fervor among a large section of its own population. The ideological connection that has helped Pakistan control the Taliban in Afghanistan has also paved the way for growing Islamist radicalization in Pakistan itself. Islamist and jihadist forces are now invoking Islam not so much in opposition to India, as they have traditionally done, but more to pressure the Pakistani government to assert the country’s Islamic character.

A changing relationship

The Taliban were groomed to be a valuable strategic asset for Pakistan’s security establishment in its anti-India policies. But now that they are in control of Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban gain little from keeping India at bay, especially as the latter can provide much-needed financing for reconstruction and development. In other words, India-Taliban relations are, if not improving, at least becoming less overtly hostile in terms of both rhetoric and action. While Pakistan is the major beneficiary of a Taliban-led regime in Kabul, it should not be forgotten that the Taliban were brought to the negotiating table by regional powers including Russia, China, and Qatar as well. The Taliban are now sending signals that they may be less amenable to receiving instructions from Pakistan.

Pakistan’s unpopularity in Afghanistan has made the Taliban cautious about avoiding being seen as Islamabad’s puppet. Afghanistan’s loss in a cricket match held in September 2022 exposed deep-rooted animosity between the two peoples, leading to ugly scenes on the ground as disappointed Afghan fans threw plastic chairs at their Pakistani counterparts, as well as heated fights on social media. Pakistani supporters termed the whole Afghan nation as namak haram (“traitor”), implying that Afghans living in Pakistan for decades as refugees are thankless and ungrateful, while many Afghans countered by lambasting all Pakistanis as “terrorists.”

Predominantly Pashtun, the Taliban movements in both Afghanistan and Pakistan have some roots in Pashtun nationalism that are often overlooked by those who attempt to situate the Afghan Taliban’s success with reference to Islamist extremism rather than ethnicity. Though it suits Pakistan’s security establishment to instrumentalize the Islamic factor in the Taliban’s worldview since Pashtun nationalism has been a chronic headache for Islamabad, the Taliban movement has used both of these identities to advance its aims depending upon the situation.

The Pakistani Taliban

Greatly emboldened by the Afghan Taliban’s rise to power, the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), have declared the former as their role model and launched an escalating terror campaign inside Pakistan from its base in North Waziristan. On Nov. 28, the group ended its five-month-long ceasefire with the government, and on Nov. 30 a suicide bomber from the TTP blew himself up near a police truck in the restive Balochistan Province, killing at least three and injuring 28 others, including 20 security personnel. Claiming responsibility for the attack, the TTP justified it as retaliation for the killing of one of its senior commanders, Abdul Wali, also known as Omar Khalid Khorasani, in Afghanistan in August. Now that the TTP has officially ended its ceasefire, it is expected to carry out lethal attacks in areas where it has maintained networks. The end of the controversial ceasefire also comes at a time of transition for Pakistan’s military, with Gen. Asim Munir Ahmed succeeding Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa as Army chief of staff. It remains to be seen what Munir’s policy will be regarding peace talks with the TTP.

Following the upsurge in Islamist militancy in tribal areas, Pakistan’s security forces are facing direct attacks from the TTP, leading the government to complain about terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan. Indeed, the alliance between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban seems stronger than ever and there are signs of integration across the Durand Line. Not ready to accept Pakistan’s border-fencing activities, which are viewed as “one-sided,” “illegitimate,” and an attempt to change the status quo ante, Taliban fighters are reportedly removing the barbed-wire fence at many places along the Durand Line. According to one Pakistani think-tank, the county has seen a 50% spike in terrorist attacks since the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, underlining the fast-deteriorating security situation. Pakistan’s borderlands are witnessing an alarming increase in the number of extortions, kidnappings for ransom, and other forms of racketeering. Wealthy residents and local lawmakers alike are being blackmailed to pay extortion money to the TTP, which enjoy freedom of action in Afghanistan. There has been a significant rise in the TTP’s extortion activities in Karachi in the past few months.

While the Pakistani leadership was confident that the Afghan Taliban would help it to control the TTP, the latter have not acted against their ideological counterparts in Pakistan. In his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2022, Pakistan’s prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, noted that Pakistan shared global concerns about “the threat posed by the major terrorist groups operating from Afghanistan, especially Islamic State, ISIL-K and TTP, as well as al-Qaeda, ETIM, and IMU.” Pakistan’s foreign minister, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, also echoed Shehbaz’s words recently when he supported international calls for the Taliban to demonstrate practical progress in preventing global terrorist groups from threatening Pakistan from their Afghan sanctuaries.

Washington’s role

Since American dependence on Pakistan has almost disappeared after the U.S. military exit from Afghanistan, Pakistan now faces multiple challenges in protecting its strategic interests in Afghanistan. Pakistan is no longer a front-line state in the U.S. fight against terrorism. Although Islamabad has made energetic diplomatic efforts to minimize the dissonance and incongruities in its relationship with the United States since August 2021, the task is not an easy one given Washington’s historical difficulties deciding whether Pakistan is an indispensable partner or an avoidable hindrance in the search for solutions to Western security dilemmas in Afghanistan. The U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, Thomas West, has ruled out any possibility of Pakistan playing a role in facilitating dialogue between Washington and Kabul, and stated American resolve to engage pragmatically with the Afghan Taliban on its own. When asked about the need to use Pakistani airspace for conducting special operations inside Afghanistan, he stressed America’s intent to reorganize its “capabilities.”

It makes sense for the U.S. to continue to engage directly with the Taliban regime given Pakistan’s long history of manipulating Afghan political and ethnic fault-lines. Islamabad’s unwavering support of the Haqqani Network within the Afghan Taliban needs to be seen in this context as the latter is notorious for its Islamist extremism. That is why there are voices calling for the Western world to “focus on empowering the nationalist elements of the Taliban to outmaneuver the extremists backed by Pakistan.” This is clearly a call to revive Pashtun nationalism in Afghanistan, which has steadily given way to the language of militant Islam with the Taliban’s rise.

Islamabad and Kabul

Though Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders now claim that they have given up the notion of “strategic depth” — whereby Pakistan sought to establish indirect control over Afghanistan in the event of a military offensive by India — there are many doubts about Islamabad’s ultimate aims in Afghanistan. More than a year after the Taliban’s takeover, a former Pakistani diplomat has argued that Pakistan should “assure the Afghans that we have no strategic depth designs in their country or any intention of interfering in their internal affairs.” A Pakistani analyst has also urged his government to “realize that the Taliban in government is not the same Taliban that they dealt with in the past. The relationship cannot continue to be one of a patron and client as forceful and coercive measures taken by Pakistan against the Taliban have failed to generate the impacts Pakistan desired.”

Regardless of how serious one thinks the crisis in bilateral ties is, it is clear is that despite multiple friction points, both sides are aware of the consequences of a further deterioration in relations. Although Pakistan has avoided granting diplomatic recognition to the Taliban — as Foreign Minister Bhutto put it, his country does “not want to take a solo flight” and defy the global consensus on the issue — Islamabad is in favor of giving the Afghan regime more political space. Pakistan’s ambitious plans to create a transcontinental trade network with Central Asian republics cannot materialize without the Afghan Taliban’s support. On the other side, the spokesperson for the Taliban has expressed “sorrow” over the cross-border firing incident while reassuring Pakistan that Afghan soil would not be used for militant attacks in Pakistan. The issue once again returned to the fore on Dec. 1, however, following a suicide bombing in southwestern Pakistan. Islamabad pinned responsibility for the attack on Pakistani Taliban fighters based in Afghanistan, with Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan saying that, if proven, the TTP’s involvement “should be a matter of concern for the Taliban.”

Outlook

Pakistan remains ambivalent about Islamist extremists, and its misguided Afghan policies will continue to stoke Islamist radicalism at home and challenge the state’s authority. Pakistan cannot make lasting peace with Afghanistan, even under the Afghan Taliban, as long as it continues to focus on a utopian Islamic vision by pursuing military adventures in Afghanistan and Kashmir predicated on jihad. Therefore, a sweeping restructuring of Pakistan’s two mutually conflicting identities — as a revisionist state on Kashmir and a status-quo country in relation to Afghanistan — becomes less of a radical idea and more of a blueprint for how to stave off further crises.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Ghani government in Kabul last year, there was widespread jubilation in Pakistan. Both the security establishment and conservative segments of the population were pleased to see Western forces leave Afghanistan. But recent events have laid bare the unpleasant spillover effects of a Taliban-led regime. Reeling from multiple crises at home, including a sharp economic downturn, political instability over the confrontation between the powerful army and former Prime Minister Imran Khan, and the continuing impact of massive flooding earlier this year, Islamabad’s shaky relationship with the Afghan Taliban makes the situation tremendously perilous for Pakistan.

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