April 28, 2022
ISLAMABAD – THE simmering tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan’s Taliban regime seems to be fast spilling over into an open conflict as border clashes mount. There has been an exponential rise in cross-border militant attacks on Pakistani security forces over the past few months. The situation has now taken a more serious turn with alleged Pakistani air strikes conducted inside Afghanistan and reported civilian casualties heightening tensions.
In a strongly worded statement, Pakistan warned the Taliban regime against militants using Afghan soil to carry out attacks on its security forces. Describing the alleged air strikes as an act of “cruelty”, an Afghan Taliban spokesman is reported to have said that the incident would “pave the way for enmity” between the two countries. These harsh exchanges are ominous.
Reports, which have neither been confirmed nor denied by the Foreign Office here, say that drone strikes were launched over eastern Afghanistan on April 16, targeting militant sanctuaries after several Pakistani soldiers’ lives were lost in a terrorist ambush in North Waziristan.
The border region has become a safe haven for the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Despite Pakistan’s repeated warnings, the Afghan Taliban administration has refused to take action against them.
In fact, militant raids have escalated inside North and South Waziristan since the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan last August. Over 100 Pakistani military fatalities have occurred in such attacks. The reported air strike, undertaken to target militant sanctuaries inside Afghanistan, indicates that the authorities here may be losing their patience with the Afghan Taliban’s inaction.
The harsh exchanges between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan are a sign of worsening ties.
Cross-border operations to take out TTP leaders based in Afghanistan have reportedly been undertaken before, when some months ago, a couple of TTP leaders died in a strike on a militant sanctuary in Kunar province, a region often used by the terrorists to conduct their cross-border attacks. In another incident, the group’s former spokesman-leader Khalid Balti was killed in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar in what many believed was a covert operation.
But such a situation can widen the conflict. Civilian casualties have provoked much public anger. It is also questionable whether such alleged retaliatory raids against the TTP can force the Afghan administration to take action against militant sanctuaries. In fact, it appears that the Afghan Taliban have toughened their position and are threatening to retaliate.
Clearly, the return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan has emboldened the TTP. Once split into several factions, the terrorists in Afghanistan, said to number around 5,000 to 6,000, are reuniting and appear to be better equipped. Their leadership took refuge in Afghanistan after fleeing the military operations in Pakistan’s former tribal areas — apparently with the support of the Afghan Taliban. Many TTP militants, who were released from Afghan jails with the return of the Afghan Taliban after the American exit, are said to be actively involved in launching terrorist attacks in Pakistan.
A tenuous ceasefire was called off by the TTP, that stepped up its attacks on Pakistani security forces across the border in the now tribal districts after refusing to lay down its arms.
Pakistan had begun peace talks with the outlawed TTP network on the insistence of the Afghan Taliban regime late last year, something that had led to massive public outrage within this country. This was hardly surprising, as the move was seen as ceding to the TTP, which is recognised globally as a terrorist group.
Had the militants’ demands — that the army exit former Fata and the semi-autonomous status of the area be restored — been met, it would have meant handing over territory to the terrorists in an area where the latter suffered many losses and had to flee during military operations.
The majority of the recent attacks in North Waziristan are said to have been carried out by the most dangerous Hafiz Gul Bahadur group. The hard-line cleric was known for harbouring close links with Al Qaeda and the Haqqani Network. He used to run a madressah in a village outside Miramshah in North Waziristan, which hosted Arab and Uzbek fighters.
Gul Bahadur left the TTP soon after it was formed in 2007 because his entire focus was on fighting the Western coalition forces in Afghanistan. This position brought him much closer to the Afghan Taliban. He fled to Afghanistan when Pakistan conducted a military operation in North Waziristan to flush out the terrorists in 2014. Now, with the triumph of the Afghan Taliban, his energies are concentrated on fighting Pakistani security forces.
The growing tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot be solely attributed to the TTP sanctuaries as border clashes are also souring relations between the two administrations. A main concern of the Taliban are the border fences which they have been removing at various places, claiming that Pakistan did not have the authority to build barriers along the Durand Line.
Pakistan has been strengthening and constructing fences along the 2,400-kilometre border it shares with Afghanistan in order to curb illegal crossings. Before the fencing, border movement had been fluid and hassle-free for the tribes that straddle the frontier. The Afghan Taliban want an open border for Pakhtun tribesmen inhabiting the region. TTP militants have reportedly also been involved in breaking border fences alongside the Afghan Taliban within months of the latter returning to power in Kabul. Previous Afghan governments had also objected to such fencing but had never tried to use force to stop it. More efforts by the TTP and Afghan Taliban to disrupt the fencing could intensify regional tensions further.
Ironically, the clashes escalated at a time when Pakistan was actively campaigning for international humanitarian support for Afghanistan and calling for the lifting of sanctions against the regime next door. And yet, there are no signs that the Taliban authorities will stop the terrorists from using Afghan soil to launch attacks on Pakistani soldiers.