Days ahead of Pakistan’s crucial, though highly controversial, national and provincial elections on February 8, over 30 terrorists stormed the Chodwan police station in Dera Ismail Khan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) in the early hours of February 5, killing 10 security forces. Terror attacks in Pakistan have increased both in number and intensity since the return of the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan. 2023 recorded a 69 percent increase in terror attacks, killing 974 people and wounding 1,351.
The latest attacks came against the backdrop of the Pakistan chief of army staff’s recent statement, in which he warned that the Pakistani forces were prepared to protect every citizen against enemies of Pakistan. Speaking to students gathered from across the country on January 24, General Asim Munir made it clear who those enemies are: “When it comes to the safety and security of every single Pakistani, the whole of Afghanistan can be damned.” Bringing up the history of the rather strained relations between the two countries, Munir highlighted the fact that Afghanistan had opposed Pakistan’s United Nations membership after its formation in the late 1940s.
Pakistan and Afghanistan have generally had unfriendly relations, barring the brief period when the Afghan Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001. One of the main disputes has been the border between two countries, the Durand Line, leading to other issues like smuggling due to the free movement of the people living across the border and meddling in each other’s internal affairs. The porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan remains pertinent today, as, according to Pakistan, terrorists use the border to enter Pakistan to carry out subversive activities.
The issue of terrorism has sown the seeds of mistrust and anger between the two countries. After the return of the Taliban to Afghanistan in August 2021, Islamabad had expected that security in Pakistan would improve; that has not happened. The Taliban, who were seen as puppets of the Pakistan Army, have denied the allegation that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), often called the Pakistani Taliban, is operating from Afghan territory and said that Pakistan’s security was “not our responsibility.”
Following their removal from power in 2001, the Afghan Taliban were supported by Islamabad in their fight against U.S.-led foreign and local troops in Afghanistan. Apart from the view that a pro-Pakistan Afghan Taliban regime in Kabul would be helpful in containing security threats emerging from the eastern border, Pakistani officials hoped that the Afghan Taliban might be flexible about accepting the Durand Line as a permanent border. However, since the Afghan Taliban’s return to Afghanistan, not only have the Taliban refused to accept the Durand Line, but terror attacks have increased in Pakistan.
The upsurge in terror attacks in Pakistan is linked with the space that anti-Pakistan forces, like the TTP and others, have in Afghanistan after the Taliban’s return to power in the country. Pakistan has raised the issue with the Taliban, but the latter do not appear to be willing to act against the TTP. Finally, in October 2023 Islamabad decided to expel “illegal Afghan nationals” staying in Pakistan. The authorities claimed that some of these “illegal migrants” were found involved in the recent terror attacks.
The decision was controversial as well as miscalculated. It damaged the goodwill that some Afghans had for Pakistan and is unlikely to resolve the problem of terrorism. It is possible that some Afghan refugees might have been involved in terror attacks, as Pakistan provided some evidence for that. But it seems impossible to address the issue by acting against over a million Afghan refugees, as the continuation of terror attacks has underlined. This is more problematic given the stated claim of Islamabad that terrorists enter Pakistan by crossing the porous Durand Line. It appears that the decision to expel the Afghan refugees was a tactic to pressure the Taliban to be mindful of Pakistan’s security concerns.
On their side, however, the Taliban are dealing with food scarcity and the economic crisis under international sanctions. Taking care of the Afghans returning from Pakistan would increase the challenge. The Taliban reacted strongly, therefore, by calling Pakistan’s decision “unacceptable.”
The Taliban have maintained the position that under their watch no one is allowed to use Afghan territory against any other country. At the same time, they also said that they had arrested some TTP members. Furthermore, when the chief of the Jamaat Ulema-e-Islami (JUI-F) Maulana Fazlur Rehman visited Afghanistan on the Taliban’s invitation, to find a possible common ground to mitigate the tension between the two countries, apart from meeting the Taliban officials, Rehman also met the TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud and Hafiz Gul Bahadur. This validated Islamabad’s claim that the TTP is present in Afghanistan, and, more importantly, proved the TPP leadership is in contact with the Afghan Taliban, the meeting was possible only because of that.
In addition to the long-standing problem of cross-border terrorism, new issues are cropping up as both countries try to secure their national interests. One recent example is the rhetorical attacks the two countries lodged against each other over the issue of water sharing of their common rivers. In December 2023, the interim interior minister of Balochistan, Jan Achakzai, called Kabul’s proposal to construct the Gambiri Dam on the Kunar River a “hostile act against Pakistan.”
Dam construction on common rivers like the Kabul River has also invoked skepticism in the past. Islamabad claims that these projects would decrease water flow to the lower riparian areas in Pakistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province particularly. Furthermore, any external investment in dam construction, from India particularly, is likely to be seen with skepticism, like the Shahtoot Dam on the Kabul River, which invoked a reaction from Islamabad.
In this situation, two neighboring countries are continuing to pursue their national interests with a “zero-sum” mindset amid the existing environment of mistrust. Pakistan, along with China, Iran, and Russia, was planning to convey concerns over the issue of terrorism to the Taliban. Islamabad hoped that presenting a united front with key neighbors would convince the Taliban to take action on these shared concerns.
However, the Taliban artfully convened a multinational conference, titled “Afghanistan’s Regional Cooperation Initiative,” in Kabul on January 29 and invited other countries, including India, Turkey, Indonesia and the Central Asian countries. The Taliban’s goal was reportedly to “counter the move” from Pakistan, China, Russia, and Iran to pressure the Taliban on terrorism.
The Taliban are likely to expand their options by inviting other countries to invest in Afghanistan, guaranteeing them, in return, that the Afghan territory would not be used against the interests of these countries. In this way, they can to a great extent defuse the pressure coming from Pakistan.
Islamabad has been left frustrated because of the Taliban’s change in the approach toward Pakistan’s concerns. From their side, Afghanistan may not be able to act against the TTP – or may even want them as leverage against Pakistan to force the latter to be mindful of their concerns.
The tensions between Islamabad and Kabul will rise if the TTP continues to carry out attacks inside Pakistan, leading to more complications. The recent upsurge in attacks has created serious threats in Pakistan, even forcing the caretaker government in Balochistan to ban public gatherings and rallies ahead of the country’s elections on February 8.