For a regime as isolated as the Afghan Taliban with weak resources at its disposal, acting against the Pakistan-based TTP is like giving up on the little leverage it enjoys so far. Furthermore, there is little indication of the group’s willingness so far to transform itself into an internationally accepted ruling regime by weakening its links with ideological fellow travellers
On 15 August last year, when the Afghan Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, toppling the US-backed Afghan government, there was a general sense of jubilation in Pakistan as their long-sought quest for 'strategic depth' had finally looked within their reach. There was the assumption of reining in "anti-Pakistan militants" operating from Afghan soil for which Islamabad had been blaming India and the erstwhile Afghan government.
In less than a year, things have changed, but not as Islamabad had expected. On Sunday, Pakistan’s Foreign Office “strongly condemned” the “use of Afghan soil” by terrorists for carrying out activities in Pakistan. “Terrorists are using Afghan soil with impunity to carry out activities inside Pakistan," the statement said.
The statement, the strongest since the Afghan Taliban's return to power, came after mounting casualties among Pakistani security forces in a spree of attacks by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistan Taliban. Over a hundred soldiers have died so this year in these attacks.
Although distinct from the Afghan Taliban, the TTP shares fraternal and ideological ties with the former. The attacks by the TTP, which now enjoys sanctuaries in Afghanistan, have increased since the Taliban’s return to Afghanistan. In March alone, Pakistan saw 52 attacks
With growing attacks and no indication of concrete measures from the Afghan Taliban against the TTP, Pakistani forces last week reportedly conducted several airstrikes on suspected TTP sites in border provinces in Afghanistan, prompting strong reactions from the Afghan Taliban.
Reports indicated the strikes killed over 40 civilians, including children and women. The Afghan Taliban said they were refugees from Pakistan’s northwestern region.
In a strong statement, Zabiullah Mujahid, the spokesperson of the Afghan Taliban, said, “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan strongly condemns Pakistan's attacks on refugees in Khost and Kunar.”
Furthermore, the Afghan Taliban warned Pakistan “not to test the patience of Afghans on such issues and not repeat the same mistake again otherwise it will have bad consequences.”
In Sunday's statement, Pakistan didn’t deny airstrikes. “In the last few days, incidents along the Pak-Afghan Border have significantly increased, wherein, Pakistani security forces are being targeted from across the border.”
It then added, “Elements of banned terrorist groups in the border region, including proscribed TTP, have continued to attack Pakistan's border security posts, resulting in the martyrdom of several Pakistani troops.”
Pakistan’s quest for strategic depth by placing its bets on the Afghan Taliban seems to be proving little effective in reining in militants' activities inside Pakistan. Contrary to initial assumptions, the TTP has only grown in strength and become more lethal and ambitious since the Afghan Taliban victory.
Commenting on Pakistan’s Afghan policy, Barnett Rubin, an American social scientist and expert on Afghanistan, said, “With the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, Pakistan has finally established strategic depth — for the Pakistani Taliban.”
In public discourse last year, the Pakistan establishment pr9jected the Afghan Taliban as a favorable regime, which would be helpful in tackling its internal security challenges.
However, the truth is that anti-Pakistan militants, mainly from TTP, have never enjoyed such operational freedom in Afghanistan as they are enjoying right now under the Afghan Taliban regime. Last week's airstrikes show Islamabad’s patience is running thin with the Afghan Taliban.
Furthermore, the Afghan Taliban is unlikely to take coercive measures against the TTP for mainly two reasons.
First, thousands of the TTP cadre fought along with the Afghan Taliban fighters in the last two decades and sacrificed their lives for the victory of the group. The TTP owes its allegiance to Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, the supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban, and enjoys immense sympathy within the Taliban’s rank and file. Going against the TTP could threaten its own future, something it has always valued. It may also expose the group's cadre to its rival and more radical group, the ISIS-K, which has continuously questioned the Taliban's jihadi credentiasl since its has signed the Doha deal with the United States on February 2o20.
Secondly, the 2670 km long Durand Line, the internationally recognized boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan, has never been recognized by any Afghan government, including the Afghan Taliban. The Afghan Taliban has repeatedly objected to what it calls the illegal fencing of the border by Pakistan.
Importantly, for the Afghan Taliban, the TTP acts as leverage against Pakistan as the group operates in the northwestern region of Pakistan, an area Afghanistan historically claims as its own.
During its years in the insurgency in the last two decades, the Afghan Taliban leaders and fighters enjoyed a safe haven in these areas and developed close contacts with local tribal and jihadi leaders, thus gaining strategic depth inside Pakistan, through the TTP.
For a regime as isolated as the Afghan Taliban with weak resources at its disposal, acting against the Pakistan-based TTP is like giving up on the little leverage it enjoys so far. Furthermore, there is little indication of the group’s willingness so far to transform itself into an internationally accepted ruling regime by weakening its links with ideological fellow travellers.