Thursday, February 22, 2024

Pakistan-Taliban Relationship on the Rocks

Washington, DC – The honeymoon between Islamabad and the Taliban-led Afghanistan seems to be over. The bilateral relations are now turning hostile, as evident from the recent confrontation over the Durand Line and the Taliban’s inability to stop cross-border “terror activities” of groups like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) against the Pakistani state. The TTP claimed responsibility for a recent attack launched from Afghanistan, which killed five Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan’s National Security Advisor, Moeed Yusuf, warned the Taliban government that Islamabad would strike inside Afghanistan unless the TTP stops cross-border attacks.

Initially scheduled to visit Afghanistan on January 18, Yusuf’s visit got postponed due to anti-Islamabad protests in Kabul. The Taliban has not accepted the Durand Line as the ‘official’ boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan. There have been frequent skirmishes between Taliban and Pak security forces along the border after the fall of Kabul in August 2021. Pakistan has tried to downplay border altercations as “local-level issues.” However, the Taliban defense ministry spokesman Enayatullah Khwarazmi stated that the Taliban forces had stopped the Pakistani military from erecting an “illegal” border fence along the eastern Nangarhar province in Afghanistan.

Several videos of the local Taliban commanders threatening Pakistani border forces have surfaced on social media websites, questioning Islamabad’s attempts to downplay the matter. These incidents have pressured the civilian leadership and Pakistan’s military establishment to issue statements defending the border fencing and openly condemning the use of the “Afghan soil” against Pakistan, creating further tensions between the two nations.

Pakistan is voicing frustration with what it calls the Taliban’s “half-hearted attempts” to control the TTP’s activities in Afghanistan and its failure to press the TTP for a permanent ceasefire. After a month-long ‘ceasefire’ in November 2021 following the Afghan Taliban’s mediation, the TTP has renewed attacks against Pakistani security forces, blaming Islamabad for failing to fulfill the group’s demands, which were initially part of the “six-point agreement.” In the last two months, there has not been a forward movement on the TTP-Islamabad negotiations.

Although Pakistan continues to back its proxy ally in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s military takeover and subsequent diplomatic and economic isolation have led to some perceiving it as a burden rather than an asset for Islamabad in the long term. With the inability of Islamabad to convince the other nations to recognize the Taliban regime and lift sanctions, frustration is also mounting in Kabul over Pakistan’s convening power. Moreover, given its closeness to the Taliban, Islamabad could itself face Western pressure.

However, Pakistan continues to press its proxy ally to fulfill Rawalpindi’s objectives. This includes targeting anti-Pakistan militant groups, providing a safe trade corridor to the Central Asian Republics, and using Afghan soil against India by harboring terror groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. Pakistan fears that the Taliban’s inaction against anti-Pakistan militants in Afghanistan could prove fatal to the country’s internal security and may also fuel the fire to secessionist sentiments among the Pashtun population.

Islamabad is also concerned about the cross-border implications of Afghanistan’s economic and diplomatic crises. Afghanistan’s economic collapse under the interim Taliban government deprives Pakistan of opportunities to revive trade ties with the Central Asian countries. Prime Minister Imran Khan recently released Pakistan’s National Security Policy, which describes the country’s policy shift from geopolitics to geo-economics. According to the document, regional connectivity is an integral part of Pakistan’s geo-economic vision, which is difficult to achieve until Afghanistan remains unstable. It is not surprising that NSA Yusuf visited Kabul after the release of the NSP document in an attempt to persuade the Taliban to focus on economic relations, especially trade and transit issues with the neighboring countries.

However, growing insecurity and economic hardship are leading to a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan that may force thousands of impoverished Afghans to seek shelter in Pakistan. Islamabad has been citing economic and security reasons to prevent the entry of Afghan refugees into the country. As a result, the Imran Khan government has been calling for the involvement of international organizations, particularly the UN and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), to share the Afghan burden and avoid an impending humanitarian disaster. This could be a part of Pakistan’s ploy to convince/force the international community to recognize the Taliban government. Islamabad even hosted the OIC Foreign Ministers’ special session on December 19, where the group decided to establish an OIC Trust Fund as well as appoint a special envoy on Afghanistan to oversee humanitarian and economic engagement.

Such multilateral groupings on the Afghan situation give an advantage to Pakistan on all matters related to Afghanistan. However, there are signs of growing uneasiness among the Afghan population and the interim Taliban cabinet over Pakistan’s high-handedness. Recently, the Taliban administration turned down PM Imran Khan’s offer to send skilled human resources to Afghanistan, saying there are already enough well educated Afghans.

Pakistan wants to remain in the driver’s seat on all matters related to Afghanistan. However, all the unresolved issues such as the border fencing, reconciliation process with TTP, and alleged cross-border terror attacks against Pakistan will negatively impact their relationship in the foreseeable future.

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