Will Pakistan Attack Afghanistan? Taliban’s Rise Limits Islamabad’s Options

2022 ended as deadliest month for Pak’s security personnel for over a decade with emergence of a new terror triad.

6 min read
Hindi Female

It's sheer irony. Pakistani media is seeing a flood of comments by Pakistani officials and analysts, all fulminating about ‘cross-border terrorism’. They’re naturally talking about the attacks from Afghanistan which are growing daily, but it certainly reeks of double standards of staggering proportions.

Hit by multiple strikes by the Tehrik-e Taliban, including in Islamabad, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan is now warning of a pre-emptive response, which in military terms, means that there is a threat of strikes or even a military operation into Afghanistan.

And here’s the cherry on top. US State Department Spokesman Ned Price gave Pakistan the go-ahead, saying Islamabad had every right to defend itself against terrorism. Things have just gotten interesting.

In a latest development, reports emerged on how Pakistani forces allegedly retaliated by launching an airstrike on Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) stronghold areas in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province, which were later dismissed by the Foreign Office.


‘Deadly’ Terror Situation in Pakistan

Terrorism against Pakistan has certainly gotten more complicated. Data indicates that 2022 ended as the deadliest month for Pakistan’s security personnel for over a decade with the emergence of a new terror triad comprising Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and Daesh-Afghanistan.

The Security forces lost about 282 personnel with 40 fatalities just in December in a total of 376 terror attacks. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) was the worst hit with fatalities rising by 108pc.

Data from the Centre for Research and Security Studies also notes that 62 percent of those killed were civilians, government officials and security personnel while the ‘militants, insurgents and other outlaws’ counted for just 38pc of fatalities. In simple words, the ‘outlaws’ are getting the better deal.

It's an excellent piece of work by the centre, except that they were equally vocal about Kashmir, regularly recording alleged deaths there in a day. Therein, lies the root of the problem, if only they realised it.


Pakistan’s Warnings Against the TTP

Given such a dire situation, it was inevitable that squabbling politicians including the Imran Khan chorus from the sidelines, sat down at a meeting of the National Security Committee(NSC) where it (equally ironically) resolved that “militants are the enemies of Pakistan” and that “the entire nation is united on one narrative against terrorism and terrorists”.

Clearly, this doesn’t include Kashmir since those violent people are classified as ‘freedom fighters’ though they kill with the same guns. More significantly, the NSC also noted that “those who challenge Pakistan will get a full-force response”.

In other words, these are the civilians giving the military a go-ahead for whatever adventure it might try. Remember, that earlier the latter had undertaken quiet negotiations with the ‘outlaws’— the Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan which led to a truce, completely independent of the Parliament.

It was only when the then Prime Minister Imran Khan revealed this in an interview with a Turkish channel that the cat was out the bag, and the Parliament was up in arms demanding – quite rightly – to be taken into confidence on such an important issue.

In the end, the ‘truce’ negotiated came to nothing, and those hard-core militants released as a goodwill gesture, went back to what they were best at ie, killing people. This time, the military is guarding its back. After all, any foray into the sovereign territory of another country is not something to be undertaken lightly.


The Afghans and the Other ‘Friendlies’

Now threats are flying around again. After Defence Minister Khwaja Asif declared, clearly completely unconscious of the irony that “no country will be allowed to provide sanctuaries and facilitation to terrorists”, the Taliban declared themselves 'disappointed'. Rather a mild reaction in the face of such noisy threats.

Former President Hamid Karzai echoed the earlier Taliban policy, saying that TTP violence was due to policies of the Pakistani government, and called for a "deep review" and avoid excessive force.

Kabul however, also tried to mollify Rawalpindi. Days later, it revealed that a group of Daesh militants responsible for an attack on the Pakistani embassy had been killed. Clearly, Kabul is not keen to see a military attack.

The TTP responded with a warning where it vowed to target top leaders of the PML(N) or Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the PPP ( Pakistan People’s Party). Notably, it spared not only the religious parties but also Imran Khan’s party.

Recently, PTI leader Fawad Choudhry declared that Imran Khan “was the only respected Pakistani leader in Afghanistan”, because “his hands were not tainted with the blood of Afghans”. The implication was clear. So much for national unity in countering terrorism.


Will a Military Attack Ensue?

The chances of a military operation are certainly high. After all, Pakistan has resorted to force before. Shortly after India’s own ‘surgical strike’ , Pakistan launched its own air strikes into Afghanistan in April 2022 when its aircraft launched attacks in Kunar and Khost killing at least 40 Afghan civilians including children.

Kabul reacted with rage, summoning the Pakistani Ambassador Mansoor Ahmed Khan with Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs Amir Khan Muttaqi and the Acting Deputy Defence Minister Alhaj Mullah Shirin Akhund present in the meeting.

That air strike was surprising, since the Taliban had already confirmed in November 2021 that they were mediating between Islamabad and the TTP. Apparently, that effort was simply not good enough. The strike did little to dampen TTP enthusiasm. So, whatever action is taken now has to be able to up the ante.

That would probably mean a helicopter-borne assault on camps close to the border, with special forces. Islamabad could also work through a massive operation on the ground, but this is likely to prove difficult in heavily mountainous areas unless Islamabad has a limited objective of occupying certain tactical positions.

It seems the much-touted fence with its triple layer of defences is not working with over a hundred crossing points on the border, some little more than mountain tracks.


US’ Counter-Terrorism Co-Operation to Pakistan

The US is an encouragement itself. Its own drone attacks against the TTP leaders – which virtually decimated an entire level of its leaders in 2017 – contributed heavily to the relative peace Pakistan enjoyed, thereafter. That, however, pointed to a level of intelligence on the ground that it may not have now.

Apart from that, Pakistan has been clearly operating with the US in counter-terrorism. Acting Defence Minister Mullah Yaqoob accused Pakistan of allowing US drones into Afghanistan still, particularly after the strike that killed Ayman al Zawahari in July.

The Defence Department’s notification to Congress on a new F-16 sustainment package which stated ‘the proposed sale will support the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States by allowing Pakistan to retain interoperability with the U.S. and partner forces in ongoing counterterrorism efforts and in preparation for future contingency operations”.

Clearly, as it has pulled out, its dependency on Islamabad continues, and it is prepared to back Islamabad to get its CT objectives through. A terrorist nest in Afghanistan, even if now directed against Pakistan, is not in line with US objectives to drain the entire swamp.

The bottom line, however is, what the attack will serve. If the much-feared Sirajuddin Haqqani and his cohorts have not been able to deal with the TTP or the Daesh, it is unlikely that a Pakistani push will do much other than helping ‘seal’ specific areas of the border, or bomb to smithereens any camps that are active.

Indeed, the latter move is only likely to infuriate the TTP further not to mention Afghans on the border, already enraged at years of Pakistani covert operations and threats.

Rawalpindi is between a rock and a hard place. To do nothing is not an option; to launch a full-fledged operation is likely to make it worse. Besides, there is a dismal economic situation getting worse by the day.

(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)


Military operations are expensive. Terrorist operations, as Islamabad knows only too well, are not. While the TTP will live to fight another day, the Pakistani Army may find itself out on a limb. The obvious choice, of actually ending terrorist operations in its entirety within the country itself will never occur to Rawalpindi, nor that this is actually the first step it should take. A massive operation against its own terror camps and sympathisers will serve it far better than turning its guns on a neighbour.

(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Imran Khan   Taliban    United States 

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