Deteriorating Pak-Afghan relations

Border fencing is causing problems

On 5 February 2022, from inside Afghanistan, certain militants opened fire on Pakistani troops wh6 were on patrol along the Pak-Afghan border in Kurram district. The attack took the lives of five soldiers. Similarly, on 14 April 2022, militants ambushed a military vehicle in Dattakel area and took the lives of seven soldiers of Pakistan. These were the second and third attacks respectively since the Afghan Taliban took control over Kabul on 15 August 2021. The Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Immediately after its formation in 2007, the TTP made Kurram its known stranglehold. The former Kurram Agency also remained notorious for sectarian (Sunni-Shia) conflicts. From 2008 to 2011, however, the Pakistan Army launched a military operation in the Agency and expelled the TTP activists, who sought refuge in the Paktia province of Afghanistan. On 16 December 2014, the TTP retaliated by attacking the Army Public School Peshawar.

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The Agency remained identified for the presence of a section of the Haqqani network, Afghanistan’s Paktia province remained known for being the stronghold of the Afghan Taliban, who launched their Summer Offensive on 1 May 2021 to regain control over Kabul. The offensive coincided with the withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan. The extraction that finished in August 2021 emboldened the Afghan Taliban immensely. The Haqqani network also derived strength from the triumph, and so was the case with the TTP.

Apparently, the Afghan Taliban and the TTP are two distinct groups with separate hierarchies, identities and goals. Nevertheless, both share the same ideology: the implementation of the Islamic Shariah whether in Afghanistan or in Pakistan. Similarly, the Haqqanis are divided: some support the Afghan Taliban in consolidating their hold on Kabul and some support the TTP to dictate to Pakistan its terms. The challenge before Pakistan is where it should draw a line between the Afghan Taliban and the TTP, and between the pro-Pakistan Haqqani network and the anti-Pakistan Haqqani network.

Generally speaking, the factious state of the militants, who are overwhelmingly Pashtuns, is owing to Pakistan’s joining the War on Terror in 2001. The war is over, the foreign forces have been withdrawn from Afghanistan, but Pakistan has been left to deal with the fall out.

One of the consequences for Pakistan has been earning the ire of both the TTP and the anti-Pakistan Haqqanis, who are antipathetic to fencing the Pak-Afghan border. In March 2017, Pakistan initiated the project of fencing off its 2,600 km long border (the Durand Line) with Afghanistan. The primary objective was to deter the to-and-fro free movement of the TTP and the dissident Haqqanis to prevent any attack on civilians, akin to the one that took place in Peshawar in December 2014.

In Kabul, the Afghan Taliban might be pleased with Pakistan for its all-out support to get the Kabul government recognized and viable financially, but it is highly unlikely that the Kabul government remains shorn of the influence of the TTP and the dissident Haqqanis. There may be presently a state of silence: the Afghan Taliban might express their antagonism by not supporting Pakistan against the TTP, the dissident Haqqanis and the Baloch separatists. The leftover weapons and ammunition of the withdrawing foreign forces has been adding to the strength of anti-Pakistan militant groups.

The situation along the border remained under control till August 2021 but it spiraled out of control afterwards, thereby indicating that with the change of leadership in Kabul the change of strategy on the border is inevitable. Whereas Pakistan yearns to keep the Durand Line fenced to offer a major stumbling block to the incursion of peace spoilers from across the western border, the TTP and the dissident Haqqanis are bent upon targeting the fence to flout Pakistan’s resolve. In a way, the fence has become Pakistan’s Achilles’ heel, crystallizing Pakistan’s doggedness to stave off both the TTP and the dissident Haqqanis.  The same point indicates that Pakistan would be challenged on this account time and again.

In November 2021, the Afghan Taliban brokered a peace deal between the TTP and Pakistan. The deal, however, could not sustain for a month, as Pakistan’s government came under pressure from social activists, who lambasted the government for its acquiescence to the TTP.

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It is not sure if there is a direct relation between the TTP and the Baloch separatists who attacked the camps of the Frontier Constabulary in Nushki and Panjgur (in South West of Balochistan) on 2 February 2022, but it is clear however that the Baloch separatists (together under the banner of the Balochistan Liberation Army) would seek the advantage of Pakistan’s engagement with the TTP and the dissident Haqqanis and vice versa. That is, while Pakistan’s government was busy in Balochistan to quell the rebel, security forces came under attack in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

This aspect may be adding more troubles to Pakistan’s security standing. The reason is that Pakistan has deployed its main chunk of army along its eastern border to defend against India. The emerging situation in the West calls for the relocation of the army to be deployed along the western border. The mere movement of the army is quite expensive, especially given the economic crisis Pakistan has been plodding through.

Hitherto, the Afghan Taliban have not jumped into the fray. Kabul yearns for refining ties with Islamabad. Moreover, Islamabad has been convincing the world to lift the ban on the Kabul regime, provide food and money to the Afghans, and recognize the Kabul government quickly. The world is still reluctant to recognize the sway of the Afghan Taliban over Kabul. The world is in no mood to offer legitimacy to the Afghan Taliban, as they stop listening to the world once they achieve their target.

Regional powers such as Russia and China dare not offend the Western countries which want to keep their pressure on the Afghan Taliban to comply with the Doha Agreement (the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan) signed between the USA and the Afghan Taliban on 29 February 2020 in Qatar. Though the agreement concluded the war, the Afghan Taliban did not start the promised intra-Afghan dialogue.

In Kabul, the Afghan Taliban might be pleased with Pakistan for its all-out support to get the Kabul government recognized and viable financially, but it is highly unlikely that the Kabul government remains shorn of the influence of the TTP and the dissident Haqqanis. There may be presently a state of silence: the Afghan Taliban might express their antagonism by not supporting Pakistan against the TTP, the dissident Haqqanis and the Baloch separatists. The leftover weapons and ammunition of the withdrawing foreign forces has been adding to the strength of anti-Pakistan militant groups.

Dr Qaisar Rashid
The writer is a freelance journalist and can be reached at [email protected]

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