The intensifying conflict between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban is a volatile case of souring patron–client relationship. The Taliban, once seen as ISI’s proxy for controlling Afghanistan and having given Pakistan great ‘strategic depth’, has now turned into a classic example of a strategic blowback. Border clashes, the recent closure of the Chaman-Spin Boldak crossing for a week, the emerging debates on Afghan sovereignty, and Taliban’s unwillingness or incapability to crack down on Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) indicate that the tension between the two countries has escalated in the last few months.
The Taliban Takeover and Pakistan
After the Taliban took over Kabul in August 2021, Islamabad might have felt that it had achieved its desired policy objectives by bringing an allied militia to power in Kabul. It was natural for Pakistan to expect that it would now be able to address the TTP conundrum more effectively.
Decades of violent insurgency, reaching its pinnacle with the massacre at the army school in Peshawar in December 2014 by TTP fighters, is a loss that remains entrenched in the Pakistanis’ memory. Since its emergence in 2007, the TTP has carried out more than 3,000 attacks, killing at least 7,500 individuals, including 2,500 police and armed forces personnel.1 The TTP’s alleged trafficking of weapons left behind after the international coalition’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has been another significant challenge.2
After coming to power, the Taliban reportedly started resisting Pakistani intervention in its domestic affairs. Clashes intensified along the Durand Line— which has never gained legitimacy from any Afghan authority, including the current regime— every time efforts to construct fences at the border were undertaken.3
However, the biggest blowback occurred at the Chaman-Spin Boldak border or the Friendship Gate when an unidentified man killed a Pakistani officer in November 2022.4 The Friendship Gate is the second-busiest trading route after the Torkham crossing.5 Although the Pakistani media accused the perpetrator of being a member of the Afghan Taliban, it was denied by the latter. Nonetheless, an unverified confession was obtained with a Taliban fighter stating that the officer’s killing was retribution for ‘disrespect’ faced by the Afghans in Pakistan.6
The situation has reached a stage where it is not difficult to draw the conclusion that, the Friendship gate, the Torkham border, or even trade routes via the sea, might be closed off for a longer duration to pressurise the economically weak and isolated regime in Kabul to meet Pakistan’s demands concerning its security.
Pakistan has accused the Taliban of providing refuge to hostile elements and allowing the use of Afghan territory as a launch pad for terror strikes.7 In his address to the United Nations General Assembly, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif outlined the threats posed by Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), al-Qaeda, and TTP and remarked on the need to address these security challenges ‘comprehensively…with the support and cooperation of the interim Afghan authorities’. The Taliban meanwhile claimed that these were ‘unsubstantiated concerns and allegations’.8
The TTP–Afghan Taliban–Pakistan Dynamics
There has been more than 50 per cent increase in terrorist attacks across Pakistan within a year since 15 August 2021. There have been more than 400 deaths due to violent acts committed by the TTP during this period.9 With a porous border considered illegitimate by Pashtuns on both sides and the unwillingness of the Afghan Taliban leadership to restrain and betray their jihadist brethren has emboldened the TTP fighters to undertake violent attacks against Pakistan using Afghan soil.
Reports note that nearly 1,000 TTP militants, even those involved in an attack on a school van in October 2022 in the Swat valley, have infiltrated into Pakistan since last year via Afghanistan.10 The United Nations estimates that approximately 5,000 TTP militants and their kin reside on Afghan soil under the Taliban’s protection. Peace talks mediated by Afghanistan’s Minister of Interior Sirajuddin Haqqani between the TTP and Pakistan in the recent past have failed. While there have been no official reactions to border clashes, some of the Afghan Taliban’s foot soldiers have aided the TTP in carrying out attacks against Pakistani armed forces and police personnel. For example, on 30 March 2022, six soldiers had died after an army camp came under attack in the Dera Ismail Khan District.11
Reportedly, following the seizure of Kabul, the Afghan Taliban ensured the release of several imprisoned TTP fighters.12 This shows that despite Islamabad’s pleas, the Afghan Taliban have stood steadfast with the TTP allies, despite the decades-long devastation caused by their Pakistani offshoot and its potential to do worse, possibly as leverage.
Moreover, the American drone strike that neutralised Ayman al-Zawahiri in suburban Kabul, allegedly using Pakistani airspace, and airstrikes carried out by Islamabad in Khost and Kunar provinces, killing at least 47 civilians, raised widespread condemnation of the violation of Afghan sovereignty and territorial integrity.13 In fact, Afghan Interim Defence Minister, Mullah Yaqoob even called for retaliation.14 The pro-Taliban factions took to the streets, protesting against the airstrikes.
Such sentiments have hardened over the past year, prominently visible in Mullah Yaqoob’s refusal to meet Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, during her recent visit.15 Additionally, glowing praises of high-quality wheat supplied by India vis-à-vis deplorable quality delivered by Pakistan in March 2022 signalled widening cracks in their ties.16
Incidents like the verbal sparring between spectators after Afghanistan’s loss to Pakistan in a cricket match in September 2022 reiterate the dismal nature of ties between them. Chants of ‘traitors’ for the Afghans and ‘terrorists’ for the Pakistanis resonated throughout the stadium.17 Overall, such issues might have accelerated the parting of ways between the Taliban and their erstwhile patron and rejuvenated their agenda to chart out an independent path for themselves.
The reported assassination attempt on Pakistan’s Head of Mission in Afghanistan, Ubaid ur Rehman Nizamani in Kabul on 2 December, even as the Taliban assured that no actor would use Afghan soil to harm other countries’ interest, has further vitiated bilateral ties. If Pakistan withdraws or curtails its diplomatic presence due to continued threats to its security and personnel, the Taliban’s isolation could worsen, pushing Afghanistan under greater security and humanitarian strain. A prolonged conflictual situation with the Taliban complicates Pakistan’s internal security situation, at a time when it is already facing the Baloch insurgency, TTP’s resurgence, a plummeting economy, and increasing pressure from the Chinese to secure their investments.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON IDSA.IN. Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.