Expect a Recalibration in the Pakistan- Taliban Relationship
Dr Anwesha Ghosh

The picture of former ISI chief Lt Gen Faiz Hameed and Pakistani Ambassador to Afghanistan, Mansour Ahmed Khan enjoying tea at Kabul’s Serena Hotel in a relaxed mood just before the announcement of Taliban’s ‘interim’ government in September 2021 sparked debates about Pakistan’s control over the Afghan Taliban. By then, it was widely known how many in Islamabad had cheered when the Taliban seized Kabul on August 15. The collapse of the Western-backed Afghan Republic was seen as an opportunity for Pakistan to reset its strained relations with Kabul by installing a proxy regime. Subsequently, Islamabad became one of the principal supporters and extensively lobbied for the formal recognition of Taliban’s ‘government’ and financial assistance from the International community.

However, over the past few months signs of cracks could be seen in the otherwise friendly relations between the two. Differences over the demarcation of the Durand Line- the Afghanistan-Pakistan international land border (that Afghanistan has never recognised) and Afghan Taliban support for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or Pakistan Taliban – the largest militant organization fighting against the Pakistani state - are the two principal factors that have caused tensions in Pakistan’s relation with the Taliban. Additionally, Pakistan’s interference during the formation of the Taliban’s interim government is believed to have caused disgruntlement among certain circles within the leadership of the group.

Intensification of TTP attacks in the recent past has been a matter of grave concern for Pakistan. Over the years, Islamabad had maintained that the presence of the West in Afghanistan has fostered TTP insurgency. With the Taliban back in power, it was hoped that the armed group would rein in TTP fighters, but the contrary happened. The TTP brought about a sharp increase in jihadi violence in Pakistan. In 2021, there were 294 attacks – a 56 percent increase since 2020 and 45 of those in December alone.[1] Most of the attacks were carried out mostly in the tribal belt in northwestern Pakistan and in the restive southwestern province of Balochistan; targeting both security personnel and civilians. Pakistan’s utter frustration with Afghan Taliban’s response to these challenges burst into the open last month when Pakistan carried out airstrikes in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces of Khost and Kunar.[2]

Although Islamabad maintained its silence on the incident, media reports suggested the raid targeted the TTP operating across the Durand Line.[3] The alleged Pakistani air raids sparked protests, with residents in Afghanistan’s Khost and Kandahar provinces taking to the streets saying those killed in the attacks were civilians. The Taliban responded by summoning the Pakistani Ambassador andwarning Islamabad of “consequences” saying it would not tolerate “invasions” from its neighbours.[4]

Pakistan claims its security forces are being targeted from across the border in Afghanistan. TTP and along with al-Qaeda and some affiliated groups, who operate along the porous border between the two countries have carried out numerous attacks inside Pakistan since it was founded 2007. After a deadly attack by TTP on an Army run school in Peshwar in 2014 that killed 141 people[5], the Pakistani army launched a major offensive against the militant group, forcing many of its members to flee to Afghanistan. After a period of lull in violence, the TTP was seen escalating its attacks since the time of US-Taliban Peace Deal in 2020. With the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the Pakistan Taliban intensified its assaults in Pakistan - at least two of those targeted Chinese nationals, which unsettled Pakistan’s “all weather friend” China and put further pressure on Pakistan to act upon TTP.

Scholars[6]argue, the TTP claimed to be an extension of the Afghan Taliban during its inception. It declared that the then leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, was its spiritual leader and offered to support the Afghan Taliban’s war against the United States and its allies. Senior TTP commanders—including the group’s first supreme leader, Baitullah Mehsud fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan before the TTP’s founding in 2007. TTP has sent fighters to Afghanistan from Pakistan and staged joint attacks with the Taliban. However, over time a shift in TTP’s approach was visible. In 2018, TTP formally excluded calls for global jihadi agenda or “greater jihad” in Afghanistan and decided to focus only on Pakistan.[7] Like the Afghan Taliban, TTP aims to establish an emirate in Pakistan based on their interpretation of Sharia. Among all the radical Islamist groups operating from Afghanistan, the TTP is believed to be the close to the Taliban because of their shared Pashtun ethnicity and kinship. Immediately after taking over Afghanistan, the Taliban set free hundreds of TTP prisoners, including some prominent leaders, incarcerated in Afghan jails. Therefore, it is very unlikely that Taliban will act against its long-standing ideological and operational ally and loyal Pashtun brothers on Islamabad’s behest in the near future.

Islamabad has a strong incentive to push the Taliban to act against the TTP. But the Taliban in power seems less beholden to Pakistan than earlier and have less interest to act on Islamabad’s request. While Islamabad would want to have a cordial relations with Taliban ruled Afghanistan, both domestic pressure and Chinese concerns may push it to reset its strategy. That might entail halting its international campaign to garner support for the regime. Pakistan may also start backing the anti-Taliban groups in order to destabilize the regime. The coming months are going to be crucial and will give an idea about the direction of the Taliban-Pakistan relationship. Now that the Taliban are in control of power in Kabul, a recalibration of the relationship by both sides can be expected.

Endnotes :

[1]DaudKhattak, “ Taliban Takeover In Afghanistan Bolsters Pakistan's Insurgency.”Gandhara.org, Jan 13, 2014. Available at: Taliban Takeover In Afghanistan Bolsters Pakistan's Insurgency (rferl.org)
[2] “At least 47 dead in Afghanistan after Pakistan attacks: Officials.” Al Jazeera, April 17, 2022. Available at:https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/4/17/afghanistan-death-toll-in-pakistan-strikes-rises-to-47-official
[4] “Taliban summons Pakistan's ambassador over airstrikes in Afghanistan.” The Times of India, April 17, 2022. Available at:https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/south-asia/taliban-summons-pakistans-ambassador-over-airstrikes-in-afghanistan/articleshow/90890842.cms
[5] “Pakistan Taliban: Peshawar school attack leaves 141 dead.” The Time of India, December 16, 2014. Available at:https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-30491435
[6]Abdul Sayed, “The Evolution and Future of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 21, 2021. Available: The Evolution and Future of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan - Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
[7] “Course of Action- Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan 1440-2018”. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan Official website. Available at:Our Plan of Action - Umar Media-Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan

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