The Borders of Conflict – Journal

THE simmering tension between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban regime appears to be rapidly turning into open conflict as border clashes escalate. There has been an exponential increase in cross-border militant attacks against Pakistani security forces in recent months. The situation has now taken a more serious turn with suspected Pakistani airstrikes being carried out inside Afghanistan and reported civilian casualties heightening tensions.

In a strong statement, Pakistan warned the Taliban regime against militants using Afghan soil to carry out attacks against its security forces. Describing the alleged airstrikes as an act of “cruelty”, an Afghan Taliban spokesman reportedly said the incident would “open the door to enmity” between the two countries. These harsh exchanges are a bad omen.

Reports, which have neither been confirmed nor denied by the Foreign Ministry here, indicate that drone strikes were launched over eastern Afghanistan on April 16, targeting militant sanctuaries after the death of several Pakistani soldiers in a terrorist ambush in North Waziristan. The border region has become a haven for the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Despite repeated warnings from Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban administration refused to take action against them.

In fact, militant raids have intensified inside North and South Waziristan since the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan last August. More than 100 Pakistani servicemen lost their lives in such attacks. The reported airstrike, undertaken to target militant sanctuaries inside Afghanistan, indicates authorities here may be losing patience with the Afghan Taliban’s inaction.

The bitter exchanges between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan are a sign of deteriorating ties.

Cross-border operations aimed at eliminating Afghanistan-based TTP leaders were reportedly undertaken earlier, when a few months ago two TTP leaders died in an attack on a militant sanctuary in Kunar province, an area often used by terrorists to carry out their cross-border attacks. In a separate incident, the group’s former spokesman, Khalid Balti, was killed in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan in what many believed was a covert operation.

But such a situation can aggravate the conflict. The civilian casualties caused a lot of public anger. It is also debatable whether such alleged retaliatory raids against the TTP can force the Afghan administration to take action against militant sanctuaries. In fact, it appears the Afghan Taliban have hardened their stance and are threatening to retaliate.

Clearly, the return of the Taliban regime to Afghanistan has emboldened the TTP. Once split into several factions, the terrorists in Afghanistan, numbering around 5,000 to 6,000, are regrouping and seem better equipped. Their leaders have taken refuge in Afghanistan after fleeing military operations in the former tribal areas of Pakistan, apparently with the support of the Afghan Taliban. Many TTP militants, who were released from Afghan prisons with the return of the Afghan Taliban after the US exit, are believed to be actively involved in launching terrorist attacks in Pakistan.

A tenuous ceasefire was called off by the TTP, which stepped up attacks on Pakistani security forces across the border in now-tribal districts after they refused to lay down their arms. Pakistan had started peace talks with the banned TTP network at the insistence of the Afghan Taliban regime late last year, sparking massive public outrage there. This was hardly surprising, as the move was seen as a surrender to the TTP, which is globally recognized as a terrorist group.

If the demands of the militants – that the army leave the ex-Fata and that the semi-autonomous status of the area be restored – had been met, it would have meant ceding territory to the terrorists in an area where the latter suffered numerous losses and had to flee during military operations.

The majority of recent attacks in North Waziristan are believed to have been carried out by the most dangerous group Hafiz Gul Bahadur. The hardline cleric was known to have close ties to Al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network. He ran a madressah in a village outside Miramshah in North Waziristan that hosted Arab and Uzbek fighters.

Gul Bahadur left the TTP shortly after its formation in 2007 because it was entirely focused on fighting Western coalition forces in Afghanistan. This position brought him very close to the Afghan Taliban. He fled to Afghanistan when Pakistan conducted a military operation in North Waziristan to root out terrorists in 2014. Now, with the triumph of the Afghan Taliban, his energies are focused on fighting the security forces Pakistani.

Growing tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot be solely attributed to TTP sanctuaries, as border clashes are also souring relations between the two administrations. One of the main concerns of the Taliban is the border fences which they have removed in various places, claiming that Pakistan does not have the power to build barriers along the Durand line.

Pakistan has reinforced and built fences along the 2,400 kilometer border it shares with Afghanistan to limit illegal crossings. Prior to the fence, border movement was smooth and hassle-free for the tribes that straddled the border. The Afghan Taliban want an open border for members of the Pakhtun tribe living in the area. TTP militants were also reportedly involved in breaking border fences alongside the Afghan Taliban months after the latter returned to power in Kabul. Previous Afghan governments had also opposed these fences but never tried to use force to stop them. More efforts by the TTP and the Afghan Taliban to disrupt the fence could further heighten regional tensions.

Ironically, the clashes intensified at a time when Pakistan was actively campaigning for international humanitarian support for Afghanistan and calling for the lifting of sanctions against the neighboring regime. And yet, there is no indication that the Taliban authorities will prevent terrorists from using Afghan soil to launch attacks against Pakistani soldiers.

The writer is an author and journalist.

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Twitter: @hidhussain

Posted in Dawn, April 27, 2022