In September 2021, immediately after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the then Inter-Services Intelligence director general had said that with Pakistan’s western border taken care of, Islamabad could entirely focus on the eastern border with India.
In retrospect, it seems that Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed may have rejoiced a little too early about his victory in firmly establishing the Taliban in Afghanistan, primarily to counter India’s growing influence there.
Since 2021, after coming into power, the Taliban has defied Pakistan, its principal state benefactor during the insurgency against the US military and the deposed Afghan government.
All indications highlight that Pakistan has miserably failed to persuade the Taliban government to toe its line on various international issues and the perennial issues of the legitimacy of the “Durand Line.”
A major contentious issue often highlighted by Pakistan authorities is the covert support by Afghan agencies to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) carrying out attacks inside Pakistan.
This is in stark contrast to what Pakistan, notably the Pakistan Army, had expected from the Taliban after lending their unflinching support to it for years. To oblige the Taliban government, post the “fall of Kabul,” the Pakistan government and Pakistan Army were seen as more than forthcoming in supporting the Taliban government post-withdrawal of US and coalition forces.
No wonder the Pakistan Army had expected that the Taliban would be beholden to the establishment out of gratitude. However, with rising causalities of Pakistani Security Forces at the hand of TTP since last year, the relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have soured enough to a “point of no return” that many experts feel would soon lead to increasing border clashes between the neighboring nations.
Genesis Of Tehreek-e-Pakistan
To put things in perspective, TTP (or casually Pakistan Taliban) is not a standalone organization but an umbrella organization of approximately 40 Islamist armed militant groups vowing allegiance to Taliban Ideology along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
It has been lending its support to the Afghan Taliban since 2001 in its operations against Allied Forces in Afghanistan. However, it officially came into the foreground in 2007 under its leader, Baitullah Mehsud.
Among the stated objectives of TTP is resistance against the Pakistani state. The TTP aims to overthrow the civilian Pakistan government by waging a terrorist campaign or war against the Pakistan armed forces and the state. The TTP depends on the tribal belt along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, from which it draws its recruits.
In 2020, after years of factionalism and infighting, the TTP underwent reorganization and reunification under the leadership of Noor Wali Mehsud. Mehsud has essentially steered the TTP in a new direction, sparing civilians and ordering assaults only on security and law enforcement personnel in an attempt to rehabilitate the group’s image and distance them from the Islamic State militant group’s extremism.
As per the Pakistan Army, around 220 soldiers and officers of the Pakistani forces have been killed by TTP in 2023 alone.
The TTP’s escalating campaign of violence is a function of its growing political and material strength, reflected in its political cohesion, expanding cadre of trained fighters, suicide bombers, weapons, and equipment.
Much of the TTP’s political leadership and capability is based in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, the TTP has regained some territorial influence in southern districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, like South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Tank, Bannu, and Lakki Marwat.
Dilemma Of Afghan Taliban
As the Afghan Taliban came to power, its government started facing teething issues in running the country. The fighters waging war against the USSR and later against Allied Forces were finding it difficult to adjust to the nuances of polity and diplomacy.
But, the Afghan Taliban, like any other ruling government of a nation, does recognize Afghanistan’s strategic interests, especially those related to territorial integrity, internal security, and economy.
It is because of its geopolitical and domestic political compulsions that the Taliban government seeks to maintain a balance between TTP and Pakistan’s interests.
Some argue that at the heart of the Taliban-TTP relationship is an ideological alignment on a jihadist project seeking to implement a Shariah-compliant political order through force in Pakistan. The TTP subordinating themselves to the Taliban by pledging allegiance to the Taliban chief adds to the alignment.
Others point to history; namely, many in the TTP supported the Taliban in its nascence, including by providing suicide bombers.
Further, there are interpersonal solid, war-time bonds between the influential Haqqani family and the TTP and between some southern Taliban leaders and TTP’s political leadership.
Also, there is abundant ethnic amity built around tribal ties and disdain of the Pakistani State, at least in the rank-and-file and middle tier of the Taliban.
Given this history and context, one explanation for the Taliban’s post-takeover position is that they want to use the TTP as bargaining leverage with Pakistan.
A competing perspective is that the Taliban wants a like-minded political actor, such as the TTP, to rise to power in Islamabad ultimately.
Finally, some Afghan opposition leaders see the Taliban’s position and the TTP violence as an elaborate ruse by Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency, the ISI, to absolve itself of supporting the Taliban over the last many years.
Dilemma Of Pakistan
As brought out earlier, the Pakistan Army’s plan to tame TTP through the Taliban government in Kabul has failed miserably and is unlikely to succeed in the future.
It was probably sensing the futility of such an arrangement that the Pakistan government had agreed to a ceasefire with TTP, but that too failed.
It is evident from TTP stances that it will continue to pursue its aim of establishing a Shariah-compliant political order in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan and is unlikely to stop targeting Pakistan forces.
Given the solid ethnic affinity of Pashtuns in the region, TTP is likely to continue to enjoy support from the locals on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan borders.
Talking to think tanks and experts in the field of geopolitics, what has emerged is that under the given scenario and rising Pakistani forces causalities, the most likely option available to Pakistan — under pressure from the Army — would be to undertake cross-border operations inside Afghanistan to deter TTP leadership.
It is important to note that the rising Pakistani forces’ causalities constitute a significant cause of embarrassment to the Pakistan Army, ‘The Deep State.’
In the given scenario, the Pakistan Army would likely be able to convince the interim government to undertake offensive actions against the TTP across Afghan borders.
It will be interesting to see to what extent the interim Pakistan government can resist the powerful Army.
The recent statements from Pakistan’s former defense minister Asif Khwaja, Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto, and DG ISPR suggested a similar operation scheme is likely and is under the Pakistan government’s consideration.
It is believed that targets for the same have been carefully chosen and are at the final stages of planning and execution, given the lack of support from the Taliban dispensation in Afghanistan. There is a growing resentment among the security forces and the people (Awam) because the general elections are scheduled.
The think tanks also highlighted that it would not be the first of its kind if the Pakistan Army undertook such a cross-border operation. On April 21, 2022, in a significant escalation, Pakistan Airforce carried out coordinated airstrikes inside Afghanistan at suspected TTP locations but ended up killing civilians.
In response, the Taliban had summoned Islamabad’s envoy in Kabul, and the group’s defense minister, Mullah Yaqub, threatened retaliation in case of more attacks, albeit without naming Pakistan.
With the rhetoric of more cross-border strikes gaining in Pakistan, there may be a case where it again resorts to such action, which is undoubtedly likely to draw the ire of the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Limited attacks through helicopters and drones are also often reported in Zhob, Afghanistan.
Given the deteriorating relations between the Taliban-led Afghanistan government and the Pakistan government, backed by the Army, the security agencies are under pressure to deliver conclusively against TTP’s continued attacks inside Pakistan. That is because all-out efforts to reign the TTP fighters by the Taliban Afghanistan government have remained futile till now.
Therefore, it’s only a matter of time before Pakistan security forces do a quick cross-border surgical strike akin to the Indian strike in revenge for the Uri or the Pathankot terror attacks against the Jaish-e-Mohamed terrorists.
Such a strike by Pakistan would be to save its face against rising causalities at the hands of TTP. Pertinently, some media have already covered aspects of Pakistan targeting TTP camps deep inside Afghanistan.
This action would, however, be at the risk of drawing the ire of the Taliban government since such strikes will undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan.
That’s the only reason such Pakistan actions have been deferred repeatedly despite complete readiness for such deliberate acts by the Pakistan Army.
In case the Pakistan Army decides otherwise and remains defensive, it is going to suffer further causalities at the hands of TTP, which again is likely to further damage already bitter relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The Pakistan Army’s credibility as such is at an all-time low. All in all, Pakistan is presently facing a ‘Catch 22’ situation where the Pakistani-Afghan clashes along the border seem inevitable.
If at all, going by the media statement that “Pakistan would henceforth not advocate the Afghan Taliban’s case at the international level or extend any other assistance following the failure of Afghanistan authorities to neutralize the banned TTP,” it’s a drawn conclusion that the Pakistani-Afghan (Taliban) relationship has hit a new low. The future seems bleak for Pakistan and especially its Army.
- NC Bipindra is a 30-year veteran in journalism specializing in strategic affairs, geopolitics, aerospace, defense, and diplomacy. He has written extensively for the Times of India, New Indian Express, Press Trust of India, and Bloomberg News. He can be reached ncbipindra (at) gmail.com
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