Snakes in the backyard: The developing relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan

Despite Pakistan's attempt to erase the Pashtun identity, the linkages on the two sides of the Durand Line remain strong

Last year August’s Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was viewed mainly as a strategic victory for Pakistan as it managed to establish a friendly government in Kabul after nearly two decades. Imran Khan, the then prime minister of Pakistan, observed, rather euphorically, that Afghans have “broken the shackles of slavery”. Islamabad had been one of the principal backers of the Taliban’s ‘interim’ government and lobbied for its recognition and urgent financial assistance from the international community.

However, tension and friction in the otherwise cordial relationship have started appearing over the months. Issues such as the demarcation of the Durand line (the 2,670 km Afghanistan-Pakistan international land border that Afghanistan has never accepted) and the Afghan Taliban’s support for the Pashtun Islamist Militant group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (also known as Pakistan Taliban and TTP), Pakistan’s biggest terrorist threat, have caused strains in the relations.

Pakistan suspects the TTP leadership is operating from across the Durand Line. Islamabad’s growing frustration about the inaction of Kabul’s new rulers against the TTP was manifested in the Pakistani airstrikes in the eastern provinces of Kunar and Khost, recently killing about forty-seven civilians, mostly women, and children.

Artillery shelling and cross-border operations between the two sides have intensified in the recent past, but airstrikes within Afghanistan indicated a significant escalation. Coinciding with six weeks of acute political turmoil in Pakistan, the timing of the Pakistan army’s air raid was crucial and carried a message about who has the ‘real’ authority in the country. Although Islamabad has maintained silence about the attacks, media reports suggested that the Pakistani bombings targeted the TTP groups in the province.

The blatant violation of Afghanistan’s sovereignty sparked anti-Pakistan protests in the country. The Taliban responded by summoning the Pakistani envoy in Kabul and issuing a strongly-worded statement by the Taliban spokesperson warning Islamabad of “bad consequences” if Afghan “territory and freedom” was “disrespected” again. The Taliban has maintained that it wants to address the issue of the TTP through political means, but the rise in border attacks from Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover escalated tensions between the two sides.

The Afghan Taliban and the TTP are part of the same phenomenon that Pakistan has fermented as an ideological project – the TTP fought along with the Afghan Taliban against the US and its allies for decades. Linked by the shared Pashtun ethnicity and kinship – it is believed to be the closest to the Afghan Taliban (among all the radical Islamist groups operating in the country). Immediately after taking control of Kabul on August 15, the Taliban set free hundreds of TTP prisoners, including prominent leaders, from Afghan jails.

But, the Pakistani deep state views the two groups very differently. While the Afghan Taliban are seen as freedom fighters, who fought to break away from the shackles of Western dominance and defeated the mighty United States, the Pakistani Taliban, on the other hand, is a heinous terrorist outfit with an agenda to destabilise Pakistan. Over the years, Islamabad had consistently argued that the presence of the US and its allies in Afghanistan fostered the TTP insurgency. Since its inception in 2007, TTP has been responsible for deadly attacks targeting Pakistan. In 2014, the Pakistani military launched a major offensive against the TTP and led many of its members to flee to Afghanistan.

In 2021, with the advancement of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the TTP fighters increased their attacks in Pakistan. Hell broke loose in Pakistan when at least two of their assaults targeted Chinese workers and the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan, making Pakistan’s principal ally China extremely anxious. With the mediation of the Afghan Taliban, a ceasefire between the TTP and the Pakistani military was reached in November 2021, but that did not yield much result. Pakistan Taliban resumed attacks against Pakistani security forces and civilians even while covert negotiations with Islamabad continued.

The Afghan Taliban and the TTP share a vision of using violence to establish an emirate with their narrow interpretations of sharia. Although the Taliban have repeatedly assured that no one will use the Afghan soil to destroy the peace of another country, it is aware that pushing the TTP too hard could make it inch toward its enemy, the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP). The TTP, on the other hand, is apprehensive about losing its support base if it abandons its hardline approach to the Pakistan government. Then, with an escalation of attacks, there will be greater resentment and public pressure within Pakistan to take decisive action against the TTP and its main backer – the Afghan Taliban – making any hope for stability a distant possibility.

It is also important to remember that the Taliban did not give away their “guest” Osama bin Laden amidst acute international pressure twenty years ago as that would have entailed violating a sacred principle of the ‘Pashtunwali’ – the Pashtun code of life. It is unlikely that the Taliban will hand over the TTP to Pakistan since maintaining the Pashtun unity rhetoric would be far more important for the new rulers of Afghanistan. Despite Pakistan’s attempt to erase the Pashtun identity (that links the people of Pashtun ethnicity on both sides of the Durand Line) and divert the Pashtun question towards other causes, the linkages between the Pashtuns on the two sides of the Durand Line remain strong, and that won’t change anytime soon.

As a result, it is quite likely that these issues will continue to fester and pave the way for tensions between the neighbours. It was known that radical elements in the region would be emboldened by the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, and the escalation of border tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan only reiterated that. About a decade ago, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had warned Pakistan stating, “You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbour. Eventually, those snakes are going to turn on whoever has them in the backyard.” It would have helped if Pakistan had taken the warning seriously then.

27 Apr 22/Wednesday                                                                             Source: deccanherald