Exactly after sixteen months to the day of Pakistan celebrating the Taliban capture of Kabul on 15 August 2021, it accused the group-led Afghan government of opening “indiscriminate” firing from Afghan territory on civilian areas of the city of Chaman. Pakistani authorities claimed that the attack led to one death and injuries to fifteen.
Four days earlier, on 11 December, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Press Relations (ISPR) issued a press release stating that on that day “Afghan Border Forces opened unprovoked and indiscriminate fire of heavy weapons including artillery/mortar onto the Civilian population of Chaman”. The press release went on to mention that six civilians were killed while seventeen were injured. Significantly, ISPR asserted “Pakistan border troops have given befitting albeit measured response against the uncalled-for aggression…”.
Taliban is accusing Pakistan, and vice versa, of initiating the cross-border firing in the past few days.
Pakistan’s frustration with the Taliban is growing. This is demonstrated in its diplomatic actions.
Pakistan won’t give up attempts of getting formal Afghan acceptance of the Durand Line as the border and that will remain a problem between the countries.
The real point of difference between Pakistan and the Taliban is the continuing presence of the TTP in Afghanistan.
Pakistan cannot attribute its difficulties with the Taliban to India.
Why Pakistan Closed Its Border Crossing With Afghanistan
On 13 November, the Pakistani authorities closed their country's border crossing with Afghanistan at Chaman-Spin Boldak. This, too, was a result of the Pakistani claim of firing from the Afghan side which resulted in the death of a Pakistani soldier.
This border crossing is between Balochistan—on the Pakistani side—and Kandahar, the main Taliban base and a principal centre of Pashtoon power. Its closure means an interruption of the flow of people and goods. It causes great suffering, especially for the Afghans. It was, therefore, a Pakistani act to chasten the Taliban. It was reopened only after a week.
If the object of the closure of the border crossing was a signal to the Taliban to show greater sensitivity to Pakistani concerns it made no impact on the group. This was demonstrated not only by the Taliban continuing to fire from Afghan territory at Chaman but also because it is maintaining its firm relationship with the Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP) despite all the warnings given to it.
Taliban’s Counter Attack On Pakistan
On its part, the Taliban is accusing Pakistan of initiating the cross-border firing in all instances; thereby the group is signalling to all the Afghan people and the international community that it is not its southern neighbour’s puppet.
Indeed, that was the point that Taliban representatives always made in informal meetings with the Indians they met when the group was undertaking an insurgency against the US-supported Afghan Republic. They always emphasised that the group should not be considered as bound to Pakistan; that it was only the force of circumstance which was compelling them to rely on that country.
Pakistan’s frustration with the Taliban is growing. This is demonstrated in its diplomatic actions. On December 16 the Pakistani Foreign Ministry summoned the Afghan Charge-d-Affaires to convey “Pakistan’s strong condemnation over recent incidents of unprovoked cross-border shelling by Afghan Border Security Forces in the Chaman-Spin Boldak area, resulting in loss of life, injuries and damage to property”. Pakistan warned the Taliban that “Peace along the Pak-Afghan border” is necessary to “maintaining fraternal relations” between the two countries.
Pakistan And Afghanistan Continue To Fight Over ‘Border'
The use of the term “border” is noteworthy. For Pakistan, the border demarcated in 1893 by the British with the then Afghan authorities is a settled issue. Not so, though, for any Afghan authority, including the Taliban. No one in power in Kabul or any Afghan Pashtoon, has ever accepted the Durand Line as a formal border with Pakistan. It is inconceivable that the Taliban would do so. Indeed, in the 1990s too, the group then led by Mullah Omar refused to do so.
Writing in Pakistan’s most reputed daily Dawn on 17 December, Riaz Mohammad Khan, former Pakistan foreign secretary and one of its ablest diplomats ever, noted “We should be content with the de-facto Afghan acquiescence in treating the Durand Line as the border and allow it to remain soft”.
It is unlikely that either Rawalpindi or Islamabad will give up the holy grail of getting formal Afghan acceptance of the Durand Line as the border and that will remain a problem between the countries. The fencing of the Durand Line by Pakistan has impeded centuries-old patterns of movements of the Pashtoon tribes straddling it and that has further complicated issues between the neighbours.
Pakistan’s Real Issue Is TTP Presence In Afghanistan
The real point of difference between Pakistan and the Taliban is the continuing presence of the TTP in Afghanistan. Both are, as Riaz Khan writes “in some measure” the “product of our policy preferences”. Both are not willing to do their creators' bidding. In fact, Khan also correctly mentions that the Taliban “In an ideological sense, do not see themselves aligned to Pakistan but to their brothers in faith in Pakistan, which partly explains their empathy with the TTP”. In addition to faith, there is also the bond of ethnicity. The contradictions between the Pushtoons/Pathans and the Punjabis have persisted throughout history and will not die down.
Ironically, there was greater sensitivity shown by the Afghan Republic towards Pakistan’s TTP predicament than is being done so by the Taliban. The group has attempted to mediate between the Pakistani army and the TTP but this has not yielded results. On the other hand, the Taliban are in sympathy with the TTP's desire to dominate the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) which were fully amalgamated with the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. In fact, the changes in FATA have not been entirely accepted by the Pashtoon tribes or Afghanistan. Former President Ashraf Ghani had complained about not being consulted. If that was with Ghani then clearly the Taliban would have been angered too by the step. Therefore, its support to the TTP in FATA with the object of turning the clock back will not diminish anytime soon.
Who Will Pakistan Blame Now?
Pakistani leaders, too, have begun to openly speak out against the Taliban. Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said in New York recently “I can’t wish the Taliban away or Afghanistan away. They are a reality and they are on my border”. But he went on to say that the modes and strategies of Pakistan’s engagement with it, in the context of the TTP, could be “reconsidered”. Naturally, in all this, he trained his guns on the TTP and indirectly accused India of supporting it.
There is no doubt that the Taliban is dependent to a large degree on Pakistan on several counts, including logistics. Taliban leaders have families and properties in Pakistan. What is significant, therefore, in the game underway is that by keeping the TTP going the Taliban leadership is ensuring that it has a counterweight with Pakistan. This the Taliban will not abandon.
Pakistan cannot attribute its difficulties with the Taliban to India. It would have, therefore, greatly stung the country’s decision-makers when former senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar—who has only recently left the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)—tweeted on 16 December “Our establishment is too embarrassed to even admit that their Afghan policy has been a catastrophic failure. A friendly government in Kabul harbours TTP which kills our security personnel & bombs border posts. Who are we going to blame now? RAW or the Talibs that we cheered for”?
(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is a personal blog, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)