Pak-Afghan border skirmishes
Despite Pakistan’s unconditional support to Afghanistan, both as a facilitator and a mentor, the relations between the two have been at best rocky, with Pakistan continuously exercising strategic restraint and quiet, behind the door diplomacy for addressal of issues. The support has never been held hostage to hostile Afghan behaviour. Hiccups are addressed with an attitude of generous accommodation and facilitation is restored. The latest example being despite border tensions in which Pakistani soldiers were martyred, Pakistan actually granted a two month extension to India for the transportation of wheat and life-saving medicines to Afghanistan via the Wagah border. The Foreign Office spokesperson said that Islamabad has granted two months extension to facilitate the transportation “as a manifestation” of its “sincere efforts towards addressing the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan”. The gesture was given on an “exceptional basis for humanitarian purposes”. Overall, Pakistan’s support to the young Taliban government is beyond the call of duty.
Since the Taliban seized power in August 2021, border tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan have risen, with Islamabad claiming armed groups are carrying out regular attacks from Afghan soil. Pakistan military has reported that 128 armed fighters have been killed in the region bordering Afghanistan since January 2022. The Pakistan army also lost 100 soldiers in such attacks during the same period. The Taliban deny harbouring Pakistani armed fighters, but are infuriated by a fence Islamabad is erecting along the two countries’ 2,700km (1,680-mile) shared border.
Pakistan has consistently pitched the case of the Afghan government to the international community, to the extent that it was sometimes seen as an apologist for the Taliban. The recent incidents have been a source of worry for Pakistan, where many see its patience with the Taliban government running thin. The Foreign Office recently issued a very harsh statement, saying that the “terrorists are using Afghan soil with impunity to carry out activities inside Pakistan.” The statement did not soft paddle the issue as was the case in recent past, and it came against the backdrop of 14 April 2022 incident at the Pak-Afghan border that left seven Pakistani soldiers martyred. The attacks were carried out from across the border. More focused attacks against the Pakistan Army started when the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) launched the Al-Badr offensive with the beginning of Ramadan (2nd April)—in Bajaur and North Waziristan.
As per DG ISPR, on 14th April the terrorists had ambushed a military convoy near the Pak-Afghan border in the area of Isham in North Waziristan District. “Pakistan Army is determined to eliminate the menace of terrorism and such sacrifices of our brave soldiers further strengthen our resolve,” the statement added.
As a result of the incident, Pakistan carried out air strikes targeting terrorist sanctuaries in Kunar and Khost provinces. The targeted areas were occupied by the TTP, which were no-go areas for the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan (IEA) itself; the drones successfully hit targets and the TTP suffered heavy losses. The step was taken in self-defense and the drone strikes were carried out from inside the Pakistani territory and there was no violation of the Afghan airspace. Taliban authorities had issued a warning to Pakistan for the air strikes by the Pakistani forces along the border. “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan condemns in the strongest possible terms the bombardment and attack that has taken place from the Pakistan side on the soil of Afghanistan” said Afghan government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, without any mention of the blatant provocation.
Initially there were reports of only six casualties, but the death toll from the alleged Pakistani military air raids in the eastern Afghanistan provinces of Khost and Kunar has risen to at least 47, according to Afghan officials. Afghanistan’s largest news channel, TOLO News, showed images of civilian bodies it said were killed in the air attack. It also showed protests by hundreds of residents in Khost condemning Pakistan and shouting anti-Pakistan slogans. The Afghan interim government had summoned Pakistan’s Ambassador in Kabul in a rare move to lodge a protest over the air strikes and warned of serious consequences if such attacks did not stop.
In the wake of recent cross-border attacks, FO Spokesperson Asim Iftikhar has issued a statement saying that the terrorist attacks along the Pak-Afghan border have significantly increased in the last few days. “Unfortunately, elements of banned terrorist groups in the border region, including TTP, have continued to attack Pakistan’s border security posts, resulting into martyrdom of several Pakistani troops”. He also maintained that Pakistan has frequently requested the Afghan government in the last few months to take notice of the attacks in the interest of peace and progress of the two brotherly countries, with no action on the ground taking place.
Pakistan witnessed a 42 percent increase in terrorist attacks in 2021 compared to the previous year, according to the Islamabad-based Pak Institute of Peace Studies, with a significant surge after Kabul fell. The institute documented that the Pakistani Taliban, or TTP, a banned militant group responsible for some of the country’s worst terrorist attacks, alone was responsible for 87 attacks that killed 158 people, an increase of 84 percent relative to 2020. In the first quarter of 2022, there have been six major terrorist attacks in Pakistan from Afghan soil.
The Pak-Afghan border, Durand Line, is a centre of the increasing tensions between Islamabad and the Taliban. As a response, the Pakistan military has also stepped up operations along the Afghan border in recent months. There were hopes in Pakistan that given the country’s close relationship with the Taliban, the new Afghan government would take care of its security concerns. Taliban initially had tried to broker a peace deal between Pakistan and the TTP, but those efforts made little to no impact. It appears that after several months of failed efforts to deal with TTP, Islamabad’s relationship with the Taliban government is now on the edge. Many observers had already predicated this scenario, given Taliban’s close affiliation with TTP. The Afghan Taliban interim government, despite giving verbal assurances of not allowing Afghanistan to be used against any other country, have failed to curtail the activities of TTP and others.
This is a recipe for trouble, Pakistan is one of those few countries who continue to provide unwavering support to the interim government, plead their case to the international community both on the fronts of humanitarian assistance, legitimacy, and recognition. This brewing ill-will will harm the Afghan Taliban far more than Pakistan. Pakistan remains committed to supporting and helping them, but can’t tolerate this blatant violation of commitment.
The writer is an Associate Professor of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts, IBA Karachi