Author : Sushant Sareen

Published on Mar 22, 2024

If Pakistan plans to continue its war of attrition against Afghan extremists, it will have to do so on two fronts —inside its own territory as well as inside Afghanistan

Afghan vortex: Pakistan’s turn to reap what it sowed

Source Image: Courtesy

If bombing by fighter aircraft and drones, covert targeted killing operations, and hit-and-run raids on jihadist bases in Afghanistan worked, the United States (US) wouldn’t have been defeated. Similarly, if the Pakistan Army top brass and the nominal civilian regime think that they will be able to control, or deter, the huge uptick in terror attacks inside Pakistan by striking at suspected militant camps/bases inside Afghanistan, they really need to rethink their policy on tackling the terrorism threat that is becoming more menacing with every passing day. But a national security strategy run by high-school pass generals who either think a lot and don’t act enough, or are heavy on action but don’t think things through, will always swing between masterly inactivity and an aggressive forward policy towards Afghanistan. Even so, to be fair to Pakistan, it doesn’t have too many options—all of them bad—to choose from. Worse, no matter what option it exercises—aggressively taking the fight into Afghanistan, adopting a defensive approach by fighting a war of attrition within its borders, making peace with the Pakistani Taliban, or some combination of these three options—there is no stopping Pakistan's inexorable slide into the Afghan vortex, which ironically is of Pakistan's own making.

Strikes & counterattacks

In the wee hours of March 18, Pakistan carried out airstrikes in Paktika and Khost provinces of Afghanistan against targets linked to one of the most formidable and dreaded jihadist groups led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur. The air attack was in retaliation to a complex terror attack two days earlier on a Pakistan Army camp in Mir Ali in which seven soldiers, including two officers, were killed. Hafiz Gul Bahadur’s group had claimed responsibility for that attack. This wasn’t the first time that Pakistan had struck inside Afghanistan. In April 2022, after a series of devastating attacks on the Pakistan Army, the Pakistanis launched drone strikes against Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) targets in Khost and Kunar provinces. The Pakistanis are also believed to have carried out covert operations targeting TTP and other jihadist commanders based in Afghanistan. There have been suspected drone strikes, mysterious IED blasts, and targeted assassinations. But far from deterring the terror attacks, or making the Taliban act against the TTP and other allied groups, it has led to a relentless ratcheting up of attacks inside Pakistan. The only thing that changed has been that, instead of the TTP, many of the big attacks inside Pakistan have been claimed by front organisations like Tehrik-e-Jihad Pakistan. Often times, after the Pakistanis showed anger, the Taliban would hold out assurances to Pakistan but never really put any fetters on the TTP. 

When Pakistan first decided to strike inside Afghanistan in 2022, it did not officially admit to the strikes even though the Afghans publicly protested against the violation of their airspace. The Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid had even warned Pakistan to not test the patience of Afghans. But the latest strikes have been owned up to by Pakistan. The Pakistan foreign ministry while defending the action, left open a window by calling for “finding joint solutions in countering terrorism and to prevent any terrorist organisation from sabotaging bilateral relations with Afghanistan”. The Pakistan Army, however, took a more strident line. It squarely blamed the Taliban for being hand in glove with the terrorists, signalling a hard-line approach based on kinetic retaliation in the future as well. For their part, the Taliban reacted with fury, both verbally through strong statements and militarily by targeting Pakistani border posts with artillery and mortars.

Pro-Taliban social media handles started taunting and daring Pakistan, threatening them with a Dhaka-like surrender.

Breaking shackles of dependence 

Clearly, relations between the Taliban and Pakistan are seriously damaged. There is a total trust deficit on both sides, and a lot of mutual recriminations and hostility, which will only increase with mounting attacks from both sides. While chances of any kind of open war breaking out are extremely low, the Af-Pak region is likely to remain disturbed for the foreseeable future. The Taliban are not going to forsake the TTP, though they may try and calibrate their operations for tactical reasons. The TTP gives the Taliban leverage over the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani state, which the Pashtuns see as treacherous and unreliable. There are also ethnic and ideological affinities that bind them together; a bond further strengthened by the fact that the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban have been brothers in arms for nearly three decades. Add to this Afghan claims on the Pashtun territories of Pakistan and their refusal to accept the Durand line as the border between the two countries. 

Politically, also, it is an imperative for the Taliban to demonstrate that they are not Pakistani proxies; that they have agency of their own. They need to prove this not only to their own people who abhor the Pakistanis, but to other potential partners (India, for example) who have no love lost for Pakistan, or to those who feel that they need to deal with Taliban through Pakistan. The Taliban strategy is clear: They will blow hot and cold; they will make tactical retreats to assuage the Pakistanis, but will not give in to any big Pakistani ask; and they will keep stringing the Pakistanis along, denying Pakistani accusations—they claim TTP operations are all conducted from inside Pakistan, and even the latest UN Monitoring Team report seems to partially endorse this. At the same time, the Taliban are quick to mouth sweet nothings to the Pakistanis—basically doing to Pakistan what Pakistan did to the US. Meanwhile, they are actively exploring and operationalising options and alternatives to “break the shackles” of dependence on Pakistan. Already, there are reports of the Taliban investing in the Chabahar port in Iran to shift their trade from Pakistan. There is also a railway link that is being developed with Uzbekistan, which connects Afghanistan to Central Asia and beyond. 

Pakistan's predicament

The Pakistanis have clearly run out of patience. Within weeks of the Taliban capturing power in Afghanistan, the Pakistani euphoria over the Taliban victory started to evaporate. Far from the Taliban securing Pakistan's western flank, the Pakistanis now face the prospect of a long, grinding war of attrition on their western front. Over the last two and a half years, the Pakistanis have tried everything from dialogue and diplomacy to theological influence and kinetic operations to control the situation. It has all come a cropper. The latest airstrikes suggest that Pakistan has now decided to rely more on hard power to raise the costs for Taliban (sounds so familiar to analysts in India). The new template is to use kinetic operations—ground and air—to force compellence on the Taliban. This is going to be the new normal going forward, at least under the current Pakistan Army leadership, which has rejected any dialogue with TTP. It has also pulled no punches in getting its loyalists, like the former caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, to label the Taliban “enablers of terrorism”.

If the initial public and media reaction inside Pakistan to the airstrikes against the militants is anything to go by, the Pakistanis are quite gung-ho about this new aggressive policy to rein in the Islamist insurgents. Politically, it works rather well for the Pakistan Army because it has rallied the people, even if temporarily, behind the otherwise quite unpopular military. The civilian leadership is doing its own grandstanding on this issue, hoping to burnish its credentials not just with the Army brass but also with the jingoistic Punjabi public opinion. The Pakistanis are also now lobbying at the international level to portray TTP as a global threat. The aim is to win the support of the international community in its fight against TTP, with the hope that some financial benefits also flow Pakistan's way. 

Fuzzy strategy

But have the Pakistanis thought through the long-term implications of what appears to be their new policy? This question is critical given the country's precarious financial situation, and very disturbed, even unstable, political environment. Unlike the Americans who could afford to cut and run, the Pakistanis do not have that luxury, living as they are next door to Afghanistan. And while they definitely have much better ground level intelligence than the Americans, they have certain leverages with Taliban whose families stay in Pakistan, and they enjoy a level of military superiority over the Taliban. This will be a very, very long war that will sap whatever strength remains in the Pakistani state. That Pakistan remains engaged on its eastern front, where it is hell bent on keeping alive its hostility with India, only adds to the complexity of the challenge and threat it confronts.  

The Americans could bring enormous economic and diplomatic resources and military capabilities into play in Afghanistan. They also managed to eliminate many terror targets. And yet, after 20 years of endless fighting, they had to make an ignominious withdrawal. The Pakistanis have a fraction of US resources and their capabilities—military, economic and technological—are nowhere close to that of the Americans, or even the Russians before them. If, still, the Pakistanis think they can force compellence on the Taliban using the tactics of the Americans, then they might well be becoming victims of their own hubris. Perhaps, if the military high command in Rawalpindi had thought things through, they might have desisted from carrying out airstrikes inside Afghanistan against suspected Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) bases. But the Pakistan Army has an unenviable track record of being tactically smart but strategically stupid. It tends to trap itself in situations of its own making.

Extrication becomes difficult, even impossible, in large part because the default approach is to use military strength to break out of the trap. The use of military against Afghanistan will however invite devastating retaliation from the Islamists. 

Unless the Taliban stop being Taliban, Pakistan will have to fight on two contiguous fronts: Inside its own territory as well as inside Afghanistan. In such a fight, there are generally only two possible outcomes: A pyrrhic victory, or a crippling defeat. Neither of these Pakistan can afford.

Sushant Sareen is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

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Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. His published works include: Balochistan: Forgotten War, Forsaken People (Monograph, 2017) Corridor Calculus: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor & China’s comprador   ...

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