Pak-Afghanistan Border Conflict: How An Age-Old Political Tactic Repeats Itself

The Pak-Taliban fallout is a selective approach, aimed at self- victimising even as it draws all possible advantage

4 min read
Hindi Female

The whole thing is rather like a particularly bad soap opera. Neighbours bound together for decades, fight and berate the other in public, even as parts of each remains heavily dependent on the other, and quietly co-operate.

That is Pakistan-Afghanistan relations in recent times, all bad language and barbs on one hand and trading heavily, on the other. As the bad vibes mount, there is a tendency to forget that Pakistan has had virtually controlled Afghanistan for more than thirty years, through every praxis.


Pak-Taliban Border Tensions Intensify

It is true that things have changed a bit since that fateful day when the then DG ISI Lt Gen Faiz Hameed was seen sipping tea in Kabul’s Serena Hotel just after the Taliban took over the country on 15 August 2021 while India was celebrating its 74th year of independence.

Trouble started almost immediately with the Taliban objecting to setting up posts to complete a formidable double chain link fences that straddles much of the 2640km ‘border’. The work of building some 1000 forts together with surveillance cameras and sensor began in March 2017.

Oddly, armed objection to the fence began only after the Taliban came to power, and was largely to one section opposite the Bajaur district. The rest of the border seems peaceful, since trade is being carried on with perfect amity across five operational border crossings and 44 more planned.

Simply put, whoever rules, Kabul has always objected strongly to the Durand Line as a border, and there is no reason why the Taliban should (or could) change that policy. But what is notable is that violent objections to it seemed to just one part of it. More on that.

Bilateral Spat Over Terrorism Blame Games

The present season of discontent, however, began with Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif's speech at the United Nations where apart from the usual diatribe on Kashmir, he chose to talk of "the threat posed by the major terrorist groups operating from Afghanistan, especially ISIL-K (Islamic State Khorasan) and TTP (Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan) as well as Al-Qaida, ETIM (East Turkestan Movement) and IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan)".

That's sheer irony, given that for the last few decades, it's been Pakistan, all of these were actually residing in Pakistan, or were led by Pakistanis. The ISIL-K for instance, was lead by Aslam Farooqui from Orakzai, and formerly part of the Lashkar e Tayyba (LeT)

Not unnaturally, the Taliban government took umbrage, and Foreign Minister Stanekzai, declared that Pakistan was receiving millions of dollars from the Americans to allow the use of its air space against Afghanistan. That this has been true for years hardly helped Pakistan’s case. Besides, there was the targeting of Ayman Al Zawahiri to prove it, since the attack could hardly have come from Iran for obvious reasons, or from Central Asian countries given the Russians closely watch on their air space.

The Pakistani Foreign Office retorted that this was ‘unacceptable’ and against the norm for ‘friendly countries’. This was however far from all, though it was the most unusual in terms of being a public spat.

Protests Swell Over Violence in Swat Valley

The main problem for the Pakistanis is that the TTP has certainly increased its attacks after the Taliban came to power. Till then, most of these cadres fighting alongside the Taliban – mainly the Haqqanis, created a bond of brotherhood. Now it seems, the worm has turned, after years of being at the receiving end of years of the Pakistan army’s ‘counter terrorism’ operations.

According to the Islamabad-based think-tank, Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS), there has been a 400 per cent increase in militant attacks compared to June 2022 despite an on-off ceasefire and negotiations between the two sides.

Meanwhile, massive protests have broken out in the Swat district as children are again being targeted allegedly by the TTP. The protests have since taken on a Pashtun identity, with anger as much against counter-terror operations that have hit residents.

The danger, which the Pakistanis are well aware of, could spiral into a separatist wave that will merge with the existing entirely peaceful Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) led by the charismatic Manzoor Pashteen who incidentally has also been opposed to the ‘resettlement’ of TTP cadres in Swat.

All in all, there is a suspicion that this is a move by the Pakistan army to ensure that the Pashtun-dominated area remains under their control.

It would seem to be an inexplicable situation. On the one hand, the Taliban have arranged talks and tried mediation between the TTP and the Pakistanis. For this purpose several TTP notables were brought to Kunar, leading to the killing of four top commanders, including Omar Khalid Khorasani, who had a USD 3 million bounty on his head.

That would have put to rest any trust placed in the Pakistanis, especially since the manner of their death still remains something of a mystery. It is difficult to see what else the Taliban could possibly do, given their own serious internal troubles. Further down the border, trade is increasing by the day, as Islamabad turns to Kabul ( rather than India) for much needed food supplies as flood waters destroyed standing crops.

Given all this, it seems that Shahbaz Sharif’s calling out of the Taliban is rather convenient. On the one hand, it allows Islamabad to ally itself with China, who has been declaring friendship with the Taliban, and thereby calling out terrorism in Afghanistan, even while it cooperates with the US in picking off those terror groups that it finds inconvenient.

This is not a tactic that the present Taliban leaders are unfamiliar with. It seems, therefore, that this falling out with the Taliban is a selective approach, aimed at painting itself as the victim ( as always) even while it continues to take all possible advantage from everyone, including the terrorists. In short, there’s no great Pakistan -Afghanistan falling out. This is the usual Af-Pak soap being played out.

(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:  Swat Valley   Taliban (tag) 

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