Far from being a strategic victory for Pakistan, the comeback of the Taliban has presented Islamabad with security, political and economic challenges.
Since the Taliban came to power last August, she has ignored Pakistan’s demands to rein in the Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
Not only that, but the Taliban have also turned a blind eye to TTP’s unabated attacks on Pakistan. For example, on January 6, TTP militants ambushed and killed five Pakistani soldiers on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border along the tribal district of Khurram.
Following this attack, the statement by the Pakistan Army’s media wing, Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), underscored Islamabad’s growing frustration at the Taliban’s unwillingness to prevent TTP from using Afghan soil for terrorism against Pakistan, despite oral statements to the contrary Accept.
Likewise, in late December and early January, the Taliban disrupted the fencing of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, also known as the Durand Line, along eastern Nangarhar and northeastern Nimroz provinces. In one case, Pakistani troops and Taliban fighters also faced each other.
Since 2017, Islamabad has fenced off 90 percent of its 1,600-mile porous border with Afghanistan to stop terrorist infiltration and smuggling. Like all previous Afghan governments, the Taliban do not recognize the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. From the Taliban’s point of view, the Durand Line is a relic of the British colonial era, which divided the ethnic Pashtun community in the border region.
Although many saw the revival of the Taliban’s self-proclaimed theocratic rule in Afghanistan as a strategic win for Pakistan, it has created serious security, political and economic challenges for the country. The Taliban victory in Afghanistan rejuvenated TTP and gave the militant group greater operational freedom and mobility.
The Taliban have been non-committal on the TTP issue, aside from giving Islamabad general assurances that Afghanistan’s soil will not be used against any other country and urging it to resolve its disputes with TTP through negotiations.
After the revival of Taliban rule, Pakistan gave the Taliban a list of wanted TTP leaders. Although the Taliban formed a three-man committee to investigate the veracity of Pakistan’s security concerns, their response was tame. Last August, Taliban Information and Culture Minister Zabiullah Mujahid told a Pakistani news channel that “Pakistan, not the Taliban, must decide whether or not the TTP’s war is legitimate and formulate a strategy in response.”
It is likely that the Taliban’s unwillingness to crush, expel or disarm TTP from their Afghan safe havens has forced Pakistan to secretly retaliate. The recent assassination attempts on various TTP leaders in Afghanistan should be seen in this context. For example, on December 17, TTP deputy leader Faqir Muhammad narrowly escaped a drone strike because the missiles failed to explode. Also in January two TTP leaders Khalid Balti and Mufti Burjan were eliminated in Kunar in two separate incidents.
From November 9 to December 9, the Taliban brokered a ceasefire between Pakistan and the TTP as a confidence-building measure to pave the way for a broader peace deal. However, the negotiations failed due to the inherent lack of trust and the different positions of both conflicting parties. The TTP called for the imposition of Taliban-style Sharia rule in the former FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) region, the release of 100 Taliban prisoners and permission to open a political office in a third country as preconditions.
In contrast, Islamabad wanted TTP to renounce violence, publicly apologize for its past violence, respect Pakistan’s constitution and live like ordinary citizens in order to seek redress. After the collapse of peace talks, TTP attacks against Pakistan increased dramatically. For example, TTP carried out up to 45 terrorist attacks in December, the most in any month in 2020.
On the one hand, the Taliban’s reluctance to take action against TTP underscores their long-standing and deep-rooted ties to the militant group. On the other hand, the Taliban’s open defiance and opposition to fencing off the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and ignoring TTP-centric Islamabad demands underscores the changing nature of their relationship with Pakistan. It is believed that Taliban fighters deliberately provoked Pakistan by flaring up at the border to divert attention from Pakistani demands for action against TTP.
Since 2018, the Taliban’s reliance on Pakistan has steadily decreased amid the movement’s rapid territorial gains in Afghanistan, diversified diplomatic ties with other countries through its Doha office, and direct negotiations with the US.
However, the Taliban still depended on Pakistan for safe havens, medical aid and arms. This dependency ended last August when the Taliban took over Kabul, giving the group more autonomy and freedom of action.
It is important to note that the Taliban still rely on Islamabad as a bridge to access international humanitarian aid. For example, Pakistan hosted a special summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to draw the attention of the Muslim world to avert the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
reluctance to take action
The Taliban’s reluctance to crack down on TTP at Pakistan’s urging stems from the following three reasons.
First, the Taliban have longstanding historical, ethnic, and ideological ties to the TTP. Their leaders and fighters regard the Supreme Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada as their Emir and swear their allegiance to him. TTP was one of the first groups to congratulate the Taliban on their victory in Afghanistan and renewed their oath of allegiance to the Taliban Emir.
The TTP believes the revival of the Taliban’s so-called Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan is a goal worth emulating in Pakistan.
The TTP, like al Qaeda, was instrumental in helping the Taliban revive their insurgency and eventually achieve victory in Afghanistan. Having restored their power in Afghanistan, the Taliban are returning the favor by providing protection to TTP and are unlikely to betray their ideological brethren.
If the Taliban cracked down on TTP, it would push the latter towards the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK), the former’s ideological nemesis. Any such action is likely to widen the Taliban’s factional divisions and undermine their internal unity and cohesion, which they desperately need to remain in power.
Importantly, the Taliban’s reluctance to act against TTP is instructive about the group’s counter-terrorism commitments to the US under the Doha Accords. If the Taliban ignore the demands of Pakistan, their greatest benefactor over the past two decades, then the Taliban’s guarantees to other states that have less leverage over them are unreliable.
Second, no country has so far diplomatically recognized the Taliban regime in action. This forces the Taliban to maintain their ideological legitimacy and credibility within the brotherhood of ideologically linked movements. Turning against other groups that have protected the Taliban in difficult times and helped them win will amount to a great betrayal.
Islamabad’s reluctance to recognize the Taliban’s acting regime also partly explains the growing tensions between Pakistan and the Taliban. The Taliban seem frustrated at not being given diplomatic recognition. The Taliban believe they have met the demands of the international community and that they have a right to be recognized, which will also pave the way for the unlocking of $9.5 billion in frozen Afghan assets. On January 19, the Taliban called on the Muslim world to take the lead in recognizing their regime.
Third, in the absence of international diplomatic recognition, the Taliban are desperate to win local sympathy, particularly among Afghanistan’s Pashtun community. By not recognizing the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and physically obstructing its perimeter fence, the Taliban are positioning themselves as self-proclaimed champions of Pashtun rights.
In this regard, the January 6 statement by Taliban Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai is worth mentioning. He asserted: “The Durand Line is a matter for the whole nation, not the government. It doesn’t belong to the government. We will give responsibility to the nation so that the nation will make the decision.”
Against this background, the TTP is an important negotiating tool for the Taliban – it gives the Taliban enormous strategic leverage over Pakistan.
In 2022, TTP will remain a major threat to Pakistan’s internal security, which will negatively impact the already strained Taliban-Pakistan relations. Apart from token calls for action against TTP, however, Islamabad cannot afford to alienate the Taliban.
A weakened and fragmented Taliban regime would bolster anti-Taliban resistance in Afghanistan, like the National Resistance Force led by exiled Ahmed Massoud, son of legendary Afghan commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, which is a recipe for civil war . Such a development would send a massive wave of Afghan refugees to Pakistan.
Pakistan will continue to urge the Taliban to take action against the TTP without taking dramatic steps or alienating the Taliban’s acting regime. The trade-off between dealing with TTP terrorist attacks from their Afghan safe havens and the prospect of a weakened Taliban regime makes it clear that Pakistan must live with the existing status quo.
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