Monday, July 15, 2024

Where are Pakistan-Taliban Relations Headed?

Pakistan’s National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf had to cancel his visit to Afghanistan in view of a planned anti-Pakistan protest in Kabul. Yusuf was scheduled to lead an inter-ministerial Pakistani delegation to Afghanistan on January 18 to discuss the issue of border fencing along the Durand Line, a 2,670-kilometer international land border between the countries. NSA Yusuf had to scrap his scheduled two-day visit as a massive protest against Pakistan was planned at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. The developments come amid Afghanistan’s ambassador to Islamabad calling the Durand Line a national issue, saying that the decision over its fate should be referred to the nation. Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesman for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) or Taliban, has, in fact, turned down Pakistan’s offer to send manpower to Afghanistan after PM Imran Khan told senior officials at the 3rd Apex Committee meeting on Afghanistan to stave off a crisis in their neighboring country by exporting qualified and trained manpower to Afghanistan. Mujahid provided the statement via an audiotaped interview with the BBC on January 15, 2022. “There are enough educated young people to work in the ministries, and there is no need for outside manpower.”

Islamabad has a big challenge to cope with – exacerbating tensions with the Taliban. After Kabul fell to the Taliban last August, Pakistan had expected the Durand Line, separating it from Afghanistan, to be less relevant. Despite warnings from the international community about a terrorist blowback, Pakistani leadership rejoiced and backed the Afghan Taliban to the hilt. Within months of the Taliban takeover of Kabul, Pakistan is now facing the consequences. The Pakistani security forces and Afghan Taliban have been exchanging fire across the Durand Line in the Bajaur area for several weeks now. Skirmishes between the Taliban and Pakistani troops escalated in December 2021, when the Taliban discovered that the Pakistanis were trying to fence the Durand Line with barbed wire. Taliban soldiers stationed at the border in the Nangarhar province dismantled the fence on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border (Durand Line), literally uprooting the poles on the fence line. They warned Pakistan against fencing the border along the Durand Line.

As a result, Pakistan has begun strengthening the defenses along Durand Line, the Pak-Afghan border, with additional forces. Given the volatile situation, it may move an infantry brigade (about 3,000 troops) from its 31 Corps in Bahawalpur to the Pak-Afghan border. And this is not the first brigade that has been pushed towards the Afghan border. A brigade from the 14 Infantry division in Okara has also been sent towards the Durand Line.

Hardly five months into the Taliban takeover of Kabul, and the Pakistan-Taliban bonhomie has begun to sour. Afghans of all denominations, faith, sect, ethnicity, ideology, language, and lifestyle are united in opposing the implementation of the Durand Line in the way it has been drawn. Against this, Pakistan is dead set to ensure that the Durand Line remains in place.

Pakistan has been fencing the 2600-kilometer-long border with Afghanistan since 2017 to end terrorist infiltration and smuggling despite very intense Afghan opposition. Besides the erection of a fence, the project also includes constructing border posts and forts and raising new wings of Frontier Corps, the paramilitary force that guards the border. According to reports, nearly 90 percent of the fencing has been completed. Fencing has been a contentious issue in Pak-Afghan ties because the Afghans dispute the border demarcation done during the colonial period. Intense differences regarding the border status have have resulted in several fatal clashes between the two countries’ troops in the past. Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, rejected the fencing and the border itself, “We do not want it at all … We want to create a secure and peaceful environment on the border so there is no need to create barriers.”

Historically no Afghanistan government, including the previous (1995-2001) and the current Taliban regime, has recognized the Durand Line as Kabul’s international border with Pakistan. The Durand Line separates Pashtun families, placing the resource-rich province of Balochistan in Pakistan, thereby depriving Kabul of its historical access to the Arabian Sea. When Pakistan was created in 1947 and inherited the Durand Line, Afghanistan questioned the legality of the Durand Line Agreement as it had been signed with the British Crown and ought to have lapsed at independence. At the time of Partition, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Pashtun leader popularly know as Frontier Gandhi, demanded an independent country called ‘Pashtunistan.’ Afghanistan even voted against Pakistan joining the United Nations, arguing that Islamabad should not be recognized until the ‘Pashtunistan’ issue was resolved. Since then, any attempt by Islamabad to legitimize the line has been quickly shot down by Afghanistan, and countless skirmishes have broken out in the area since 1947.

On the other hand, Islamabad has been desperately trying to establish the Durand Line to stem Pashtun nationalism. It has also built scores of madrassas in the western territories. These schools emphasize Islam over ethnic identity, which Islamabad hopes will dilute the movement for a unified territory for Pashtuns.

The current Pakistan -Taliban tensions are happening even as PM Imran Khan has been highlighting the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and urging the world to offer assistance. As Pakistan enabled the Taliban invasion and takeover of Afghanistan, this raises a pertinent question. When Pakistan has its own border problems with Afghanistan, even when it is now being ruled by the Taliban, how can it assure the world that the Taliban would not allow the export of terrorism from its soil? Questions are being raised within Pakistan about this issue. Former Senate chairman Raza Rabbani asked, “The Afghan Taliban is not ready to recognize the border, so why are we moving forward?’ Pakistan has no answers. Alongside, a related question assumes more criticality; why did the– Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP ), a terror group with which Imran Khan’s government negotiated a ceasefire, walk out of the agreement? The crucial part is that the Afghan Taliban facilitated the ceasefire agreement between TTP and the Pakistan government. These developments have not been lost on the world.

A recent discussion at the Washington-based think tank US Institute of Peace (an American federal institution established by the US Congress) anticipated the likelihood that the current border incidents on the Durand Line can potentially lead to a rupture in the relations between Kabul and Islamabad. Taking part in the discussion, Ambassador Richard Olson (former US envoy to Islamabad) said that there is an inevitability about the Taliban’s “break” with Islamabad over the question of the Durand Line “despite the Taliban’s historical reliance on Pakistan for support.” The Taliban has a position consistent with the stance of all previous Afghan governments since 1947, asserting the right to free movement of Pashtuns across the colonial-era frontier and not recognizing the line as an international boundary. “For Islamabad, the question of unrest in its Pashtun territories looms much larger now than it did three decades ago. Kabul’s allowing a de facto safe haven for the Pakistani Taliban is already a large irritant in the bilateral relationship. If Islamabad perceives that the Afghan Taliban has moved beyond asserting a traditional position on the Durand Line to actually supporting a revanchist movement to reclaim lost Pashtun lands, the relationship may well break. Already Islamabad is ascribing the TTP’s renewed strength to Indian machinations, so the regional implications of this conflict are potentially large.”

An open letter to OIC written by the Afghan Civil Society Coordination Centre has heavily criticized Pakistani policies toward Afghanistan. The letter states that Pakistani ISI is solely responsible for the breakdown and misery of present-day Afghanistan; “Pakistan does not want to have a strong and democratic government in ‎Afghanistan to have strong brotherhood relationship with other Muslim nations and rest of the country. They have always had this plan that there ‎should be a weak and needy Afghan government and Society, so that any nation of the world to have relation and assists that ‎government and Afghan nation would resort to help through Pakistan. This has been a big source of income for Pakistan for the last ‎four decades.‎”

Islamabad is yet to understand that the Taliban does not feel beholden to the ISI for its takeover of Kabul in August 2021. The Taliban’s main challenge comes on the financial and economic front, and Pakistan doesn’t have the capacity to be of any meaningful help. As hunger and famine seem imminent in Afghanistan, Taliban foreign minister Muttaqi personally visited Islamabad to implore Pakistani authorities to allow the Indian trucks carrying fifty thousand metric tons of wheat to Afghanistan to pass on humanitarian grounds, but Pakistani leadership did not budge. India airlifted large consignments of the Covid vaccine to Kabul. The Taliban have expressed their thanks to India for this humanitarian aid.

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