Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on May 09, 2022 Updated 7 Days ago
Pakistan’s strategic calculations in Afghanistan have backfired, leaving it entangled in the complexities of the South Asian geopolitics.
Pakistan’s Afghan dilemma haunts the Islamabad-Rawalpindi nexus Once brothers in arms, the Afghan Taliban and the state of Pakistan have now found their relationship hitting rock bottom. While the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 was celebrated widely in Pakistan, recent developments suggest a paradigm shift in their relationship. Since the fall of Kabul, targeted attacks by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)—a terror outfit that finds its roots in the Afghan Taliban—on Pakistani military establishments have increased. Experts maintain that the Taliban’s takeover of the Afghan capital has given other terror groups such as the TTP scope to regain their position across the Durand Line. Stretched approximately 2,700 Kms, the Durand Line issue has been the bone of contention between the Pashtun nationalists across the region. Moreover, Pakistan maintains a fresh threat assessment from the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISKP), the Afghan offshoot of the Islamic State which has now ramped up its activities by targeting the civilian population in the region. Pakistan now finds itself in a dilemma with strategic choices of its own from the past.

Terror in its backyard

Pakistan over the past months has been continuously stressing the Taliban to take stern actions against the TTP operating from the Afghan soil. In a very unprecedented manner, Pakistan launched airstrikes in Eastern Afghanistan that claimed more than 47 lives, including women and children. According to the Pakistani officials, these strikes were in response to the growing threat from the TTP and the Taliban’s inability to deal with the same. This came as a huge shock and surprise to the Taliban which then, summoned Islamabad’s envoy to Kabul and escalated the matter to the United Nations. Such a response from Pakistan underlines a drastic change in its nature of dealing with its most trusted ally in the region, the Taliban. On the other hand, TTP which aims at a similar takeover of Pakistan condemned these strikes and rallied its cadres to ramp up its military offensive in Pakistan. The TTP problem was largely controlled in Pakistan since Operation Zarb-e-Azb broke the backbone of this terror outfit, driving them deep into Afghanistan. The equation now seems to have changed, the TTP finds itself in a position to carry out large-scale coordinated attacks on Pakistan’s military establishments. The TTP cadres remain embedded deeply in the tribal areas of Waziristan, while the leadership appears to command with complete impunity in the region.

Experts maintain that the Taliban’s takeover of the Afghan capital has given other terror groups such as the TTP scope to regain their position across the Durand Line.

Another contributing factor is the Durand Line issue, for many years Pashtun nationalists have long advocated for free movement of lives on the both sides and strongly rejected the concealment of the 2,700 kms-long border. The TTP, which is ideologically and fundamentally linked to the Afghan Taliban uses the Durand Line issue as a political tool to gather public sentiments across the tribal regions which benefits its cadres en masse. Pakistan, at this point, is confronted with a major security challenge as these regions contain various militant training camps and launch pads, posing a direct threat to Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty.  This has prompted Pakistan to upscale its counter-offensive on TTP hideouts. Overnight raids in South and North Waziristan have increased, carrying out targeted operations on the leadership, Pakistan aims at regaining the status quo in the region.

Miscalculated Strategic Victory

Rawalpindi GHQ didn’t hesitate to send a top-level delegation to Kabul, led by a former ISI chief right after the fall of Kabul. This also served the purpose to send out a louder message to other actors in the region such as India that the way to Kabul goes through Islamabad. Pakistan celebrated the events of August 2021 as a strategic victory after a two-decade-long struggle. However, the Islamabad-Rawalpindi nexus failed to consider the scenarios of the aftermath. These fault lines of Islamabad’s Afghan policy are now reflected in the ongoing border skirmishes. Moreover, the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul has now emboldened many other terror organisations to regroup and reposition themselves to carry full-scale attacks. The Taliban’s reassurances of breaking ties with al-Qaeda still remain questionable, and the ungoverned spaces in the tribal region account for countless militant sanctuaries. These terror outfits have now achieved maximum operational ease with reduced mobility challenges.

The Taliban’s reassurances of breaking ties with al-Qaeda still remain questionable, and the ungoverned spaces in the tribal region account for countless militant sanctuaries.

A new player in the region, the ISKP which found its roots in North-western Pakistan and Eastern Afghanistan, also continues to strike Pakistan. Constant strikes on Pakistan’s civilian population, particularly on the ethnic and religious minorities are at an all-time high. While drafting the handbook for Kabul, Pakistan failed to take into account how its own strategic choices will backfire in the long run. The tide is now turning against Pakistan, as the military cover from the West is long gone, and Pakistan finds itself isolated, caught in the complexities of the geopolitics of the greatest game in the whole of South Asia.

Future implications

The airstrikes in Khost and Kunar have attracted much needed public sentiment across the Durand Line, Pakistani officials have neither accepted nor denied the damage caused by the strikes. In this attempt, Pakistan wants to send a message to the Taliban that Rawalpindi still controls Kabul. The Taliban, which now wants to break free from the shackles of Pakistan, will try to make every possible attempt to keep the Pakistanis engaged within themselves and TTP is the best medium to serve this purpose. A destabilised Pakistan is in the best interest for the Taliban as its keep Islamabad’s eyes off them and lets the governing shuras take leadership initiatives. These developments, however, come at the junction of Afghanistan’s ongoing economic crisis and humanitarian catastrophe which has now entered its ninth month. The border conflict with Pakistan has made the situation even worse. Trade routes and supply chain management remains disturbed because of constant clashes and disagreement amongst the stakeholders. Islamabad, which is still recovering from the recent political crisis, wants to reaffirm to the Taliban that they shouldn’t get carried away with events in Pakistan or acquire full autonomy in decisions. With the West out of sight, Pakistan seems to have an upper hand in the conflict regardless of the risk it faces on its own soil.
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Siddhant Kishore

Siddhant Kishore

Siddhant Kishore is a national security and foreign policy analyst. He focuses on strategic affairs pertaining to South Asia and Central and Eastern Europe. Siddhant ...

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