New Government, Same Tensions: Pakistan And Afghanistan Exchange Fire – OpEd


After Shehbaz Sharif was elected earlier this month to another term as the Pakistani Prime Minister, he knew his new government didn’t have any time to hesitate since the country faced maybe its worst economicpoliticalsecurity crisis. Putting aside the growing inflation and the urgent need for a new, costly agreement with the IMF, Sharif needed to find a proper solution where the last two PMs have failed since August 2021, stabilize the relations with the neighboring Taliban-led Afghanistan, mainly in order to stop the TTP (Pakistani Taliban) attacks from the Afghan soil.

On the 18 of March 2024, it seems Sharif made the first step in doing so after the Pakistani air force bombed targets in Afghanistan’s provinces of Khost and Paktika without any coordination or approval from the Afghan de-facto authorities. The strikes attempt to hit members of the “Hafiz Gul Network,” a terror wing allied with the TTP, which holds close relations with the Taliban. According to some sources, Pakistan targeted several high-profile commanders days after the group killed seven Pakistani soldiers and wounded 17 in a complex attack on an army post in the North Waziristan district. In response to the Pakistani attack, the Taliban summoned the Pakistani ambassador in Kabul and handed him the Taliban’s protest letter regarding the attacks. Furthermore, the Taliban condemned the attack in an official issue, accusing Pakistan of killing children and women, but also responded with its own attack, leaving a few Pakistani soldiers dead. From this perspective, it seems that the new government in Islamabad wanted to make a change in its dynamics with Afghanistan, deterring the Taliban from continuing assistance and harboring the TTP. 

The TTP, which emerged from the Afghan Taliban in 2007, has been conducting terror attacks in Pakistan, targeting Pakistan’s officials, security personnel, and civilians, mainly in areas near the Af-Pak border (The Durand Line). The group aims to replace the government in Pakistan with an ‘Islamic’ regime in a similar way to their Afghan parallels. Since the Taliban took over in 2021, TTP has increased its attacks in Pakistan dramatically while enjoying assistance from the Taliban. Conversely, the Taliban government, again and again, refrained from any connection with the TTP, arguing that Pakistan was trying to accuse its own problems in Afghanistan.

Previously, Pakistan chose different policies in order to deal with the TTP, which didn’t seem to work, as it expanded its ranks and attacks in the last two and half years. Islamabad tried and still tries to tackle this problem on the diplomatic level, arranging neuromas talks with the Taliban and trying to convince the group to tire up its TTP conceptions. At the same time, Pakistan is diplomatically active on international forms and with other countries in the region in order to increase external pressure on the Taliban from different actors. Some other countries bordering Afghanistan, like China and Uzbekistan, also face security risks from Afghan soil and, therefore, tend to cooperate at some level in the regional security field with Pakistan.

 In addition, Pakistan also tried to negotiate with the TTP in talks the Taliban mediated between November 2021 and June 2022. The talks led to a timely ceasefire, which eventually didn’t last, as the violence continued. After the diplomatic failure, Pakistan’s caretaker government took some stiffer steps regarding the TTP issue, deciding to deport about 1.4 million undocumented Afghan refugees from Pakistan back to Afghanistan. This decision was not welcomed well in Kabul, as the unstable government faced a new challenge to handle. 

Moreover, it is notable that Islamabad has already attacked targets in Afghanistan in a similar way before to counter the TTP. On April 16, 2022, A Pakistani military air raid targeted “Terrorists [that] are using Afghan soil with impunity to carry out activities inside Pakistan” in Khost and Kunar, leaving 47 dead, including Afghan civilians. The attacks marked a negative milestone in Af-Pak relations after the Taliban strongly condemned the attack while accusing Islamabad of trying to start war with its neighbor. Since this “violation of the Afghan sovereignty,” border tensions increased as Taliban commanders had more motivation to help the TTP with their cross-border actions against Pakistan. It seems that Pakistan’s different tactics didn’t manage to help them with the Taliban-TTP problem, so why will this time be different?   

Analysts in Pakistan argue Islamabad’s main problem is not having a core, written strategy doctrine and policy regarding the TTP. However, it only responds after terror attacks and other developments in order to “achieve” quiet. The TTP and the Taliban don’t feel deterred or threatened by a single counterattack or political move; instead, they see that their actions’ consequences are minor, encouraging to continue toward their goals. After the latest attack, for example, Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said in a statement that “Such incidents can have very bad consequences which will not be in Pakistan’s control.” Islamabad’s strong army hasn’t prepared itself for this asymmetric conflict and still counted on translating its military dominance into diplomatic power, balancing the Taliban. In order to balance the Taliban and the TTP, Sharif has to make some brave decisions and use the economic and military leverage he still has in Afghanistan. Of course, every decision has cost on both sides of the Durand line, but sticking to a long-term policy will likely signal the Taliban is not worthy to keep aiding the TTP. In addition, TTP fighters will think twice before attacking a military post or conducting a cross-border fire. 

From the Afghan perspective, it seems the focus has shifted from historic traditional economic ties with Pakistan toward new or advanced trade partners: India, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, China, Iran, etc. In February, for example, the Taliban made a substantial investment of $35 million in Iran’s Chabahar Port, which seems like a strategic move to unlock “alternative pathways to international markets” in order to have less dependency on the Pakistani ports. The Taliban has its own political goals, which don’t match with being Pakistan’s proxy or ‘little sister’ regime, as some Pakistanis observed when it came back in power in August 2021. The Taliban will continue to support jihadi groups with the same ideology as the TTP and Al-Qaida, and will not fear a little resistance. After all, dying for Jihad (holy war), in its vision, is sometimes better than living. 

Ido Gadi Raz

Ido Gadi Raz is a researcher of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region focusing on Terrorism and Geopolitics. He is interning at the Institute for Contemporary Chinese Studies - ICCS at Mahatma Gandhi University.

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