Growing attacks on Pakistani security forces by terrorists operating from Afghan soil and frequent border clashes between Pakistan and Afghanistan are testing Islamabad’s ties with the Afghan Taliban.
In a recent visit to Washington, Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said he would like the Afghan Taliban to demonstrate the will and capacity to curb terror groups operating from its territory, signaling that Pakistan would not hesitate to act against terrorists inside Afghanistan.
Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021, attacks by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, also known as the Pakistani Taliban or TTP, an offshoot and ally of the Afghan Taliban, have killed more than 500 people, mostly security personnel.
“As far as the TTP is concerned, it’s absolutely our red line, it is something that we will not tolerate, and without going further diplomatically on the record I would have to say that, absolutely, we would be willing to consider each and every single option to ensure the safety and security of our own people,” Bhutto Zardari said.
In April, Pakistan struck what it claimed was a TTP outpost in eastern Afghanistan. However, a large number of civilian deaths in the operation led to a strong reaction by the Afghan Taliban.
Wave of terror
Attacks inside Pakistan have increased since intermittent talks between the TTP and Pakistan, mediated by the Afghan Taliban, broke down and the terror group ended a roughly five-month cease-fire in late November.
The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for a recent incident in which several detainees at a counterterrorism detention center in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan, held security personnel hostage for hours, demanding safe passage to Afghanistan.
At least seven Pakistani security personnel died, including three from the elite Special Services Group that was called in to storm the compound once negotiations to free the hostages failed. Authorities reported killing 24 terrorists and arresting 10.
Crackdown on TTP
During the siege, the TTP chief issued a statement supporting the terrorists from his shelter inside Afghanistan.
Expressing frustration with the Afghan Taliban for allowing the TTP to operate in Afghanistan with impunity, Bhutto Zardari told an audience at Washington’s Atlantic Council that no Pakistani military operation against the TTP could succeed if the group’s fighters find safety across the border.
“Unless we have that sort of pincer effect on both sides of the border, no CT [counterterrorism] policy will be effective,” he said.
Analysts say Pakistan cannot expect the Afghan Taliban to crack down on the thousands of TTP fighters and leaders pushed into Afghan territory in past Pakistani military operations.
“The Afghan Taliban cannot tell the TTP that it’s OK for them [the Afghan Taliban] to have an emirate [Islamic state] on their [the Afghan] side of the border but it’s not OK for TTP to have one on the Pakistani side of the border. That will create problems for the Afghan Taliban. It undermines their credibility,” said Kamran Bokhari, security affairs expert at the Washington-based Newlines Institute.
The Afghan Taliban claim they are not providing safe space to any terrorist group in line with their pledge to the international community.
Confrontation is already happening between the two along the British-era border, which Pakistan formalized in recent years with fencing, but the Taliban refuse to recognize.
The Taliban also want less border control and free movement of locals on both sides.
Incidents of local Afghan fighters removing parts of the border fence began soon after the Taliban took control. Clashes turned particularly deadly in December when two attacks near the busy Chaman-Spinboldak crossing killed at least eight, mostly Pakistani civilians, and wounded more than 40.
Speaking to VOA in Washington, Bhutto Zardari said cooperation is the easier path to resolve the border conflict, “but obviously that is not the only route to deal with the problem.” He did not specify what other paths Pakistan could take.
Pakistan’s eastern border with archrival India is already heavily militarized.
“Recent border clashes have removed any illusion which Pakistani security establishment had that after the Taliban takeover, Pakistan’s western border will be secure,” Islamabad-based security affairs analyst Zahid Hussain told VOA.
Experts say that as Pakistan’s internal and border security suffer under the Taliban, Islamabad is signaling its displeasure by calling out the hardline regime’s lack of inclusivity and its repression of women.
Bhutto Zardari has not visited Afghanistan since becoming foreign minister in April. In November, Pakistan sent the junior foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, compelling the Taliban to meet with a woman.
No high-profile Taliban delegation has come to Pakistan in months.
But even as some Taliban factions view Islamabad with suspicion, and some see the TTP as an asset, Amir Rana, director of Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies believes the regime will not risk its economic and political interests with Pakistan as “no other country, except Pakistan, is trying to make their regime recognized by the international community.”
Despite the diplomatic leverage, strengthening the Taliban’s hand over the years has weakened Pakistan, said Bokhari, noting that “Pakistan is worse off” as it is facing an insurgency.
For years, Pakistan supported various Taliban factions, particularly the lethal Haqqani Network, in an attempt to gain influence in Afghanistan. Islamabad hoped a friendly regime in Kabul would safeguard its interests against New Delhi.
Today, it is the Taliban that have that influence in Pakistan, said Hussain, as the hardline regime holds sway over religious and extremist groups present inside its neighbor.
Addressing the blowback of Pakistan’s past policy of supporting the Afghan Taliban, Bhutto Zardari told an audience in Washington: “I think everybody’s Afghanistan policy, whether it’s our Afghan policy or this country’s [the U.S.] Afghan policy, to put it diplomatically, has room for improvement.”