Pakistan and the Taliban’s relationship has entered a difficult phase as both sides struggle to meet each other’s expectations over the issue of cross-border attacks.
The cracks which began to emerge in their relationship soon after the Taliban captured power in Kabul on August 15, 2021, have transformed into an open conflict now.
Over the last few months, border tensions between the two sides have risen exponentially as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) ramped up its attacks on the Pakistani security forces from its sanctuaries in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s attempts to convince the Taliban to expel the TTP leadership from Afghanistan have failed to yield any results. Islamabad’s efforts to involve the Taliban in negotiating a peace agreement with the TTP have also failed. In fact, the Taliban have not made any substantial efforts to contain the TTP or prevent it from attacking Pakistan.
With casualties and attacks on its security forces rising, Pakistan finally adopted the option that remained long in the works: taking the fight against the TTP into Afghanistan. Last week, the Pakistan Air Force carried out strikes in the eastern Afghanistan provinces of Khost and Kunar, targeting TTP hideouts. While the death toll of TTP fighters remains unclear, the attack caused significant civilian casualties, with some reports claiming that at least 47 people were killed in the attack.
The Taliban has warned Pakistan of “bad consequences” if Islamabad carried out another airstrike inside Afghanistan. “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) strongly condemns Pakistan’s attacks on refugees in Khost and Kunar,” Taliban’s government spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement.
“The IEA calls on the Pakistani side not to test the patience of Afghans on such issues and not repeat the same mistake again otherwise it will have bad consequences.”
Soon after the Taliban’s warning, Pakistan called on the Taliban to take “stern action” against militants operating from Afghan soil.
Pakistan’s decision to carry out military action inside Afghanistan is unprecedented and shows a significant change in Islamabad’s policy towards the TTP. Previously, Islamabad reportedly relied on targeting TTP commanders in Afghanistan through assassinations. However, this tactic has failed to hinder the group’s attacks inside Pakistan.
Arguably, while Taliban have been unable to stop TTP from targeting Pakistan, the group may have also considered that Islamabad will not go as far as unilaterally taking military action inside Afghan territory. However, the recent airstrikes not only nullify this assumption but also demonstrate that the conflict has entered a new phase whereby Pakistan will not shy away from carrying out military action inside Afghanistan.
This action is meant to achieve a number of objectives. One, Islamabad wants to convey to the Taliban that TTP’s cross-border attacks will have serious implications. Two, policymakers in Islamabad want TTP to fear that they can be targeted by airstrikes, including drones, if they continue to stay near the Pakistani border regions. The unilateral military action by Pakistan will to some extent, induce the old fear of drone strikes that was prevalent during the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
Pakistan wants to make it clear to the Taliban and the TTP that military action can take place anytime and that TTP’s fighters are not safe anywhere.
For now, it is unclear if this policy change will work, but what is clear is that Islamabad will no longer sit on the sidelines and allow its forces to be butchered by TTP fighters.
It is possible that the new approach may force the Taliban into putting pressure on the TTP to reconsider its activities. Moreover, the Taliban may ask the TTP to start the stalled peace talks with the Pakistan government again.
In the coming days and weeks, we can expect more such strikes from Pakistan if the TTP continues its attacks on Pakistani forces. The change in policy carries the risk of undermining Pakistan-Taliban’s ties significantly with impact on trade links and bilateral diplomacy.
However, for now, Pakistan wants to stem the tide of attacks on its forces, even if it comes at the cost of undermining its relations with the Taliban.