NationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 19

The implications of continued terrorism from Afghan soil

Following the terrorist attacks in Mir Ali district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province on March 16, during which six Pakistan Army soldiers were martyred in clashes with an Afghanistan-based Pakistani terrorist group, Pakistan initiated air strikes inside Afghanistan. These strikes were purportedly aimed at targeting the terrorists responsible for the Mir Ali attacks. However, this action has further strained relations between the Afghan Taliban, who currently govern Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

According to Zabihullah Mujhaid, a spokesperson for the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan’s airstrikes resulted in the deaths of eight ‘innocent’ women and children. He vowed to retaliate against these attacks, escalating tensions between the two neighboring countries. It is worth noting that among those martyred in the Mir Ali attacks were four Pakistan Army soldiers: Havildar Sabir from district Khyber, Naik Khurshid from district Lakki Marwat, Sepoy Nasir from district Peshawar, Sepoy Raja from district Kohat, and Sepoy Sajjad from district Abbottabad. The subsequent clearance operation led by Lieutenant Colonel Kashif successfully neutralized all six terrorists involved, as reported by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR). Tragically, during the operation, Lieutenant Colonel Syed Kashif Ali from Karachi and Captain Muhammad Ahmed Badar from district Talagang demonstrated exceptional bravery but ultimately sacrificed their lives in the line of duty.

In a statement broadcasted on state television, the Pakistani military asserted that “a recent surge in terrorism has received full support and assistance from Afghanistan.” While the statement did not explicitly mention any airstrikes, it attributed the March 16 attack to militants who were harbored in Afghanistan, enjoying a “safe haven.”

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry confirmed in a statement that the Pakistan Air Force conducted intelligence-based anti-terrorist operations within Afghan territory. The ministry specified that the target of these operations was the terrorists affiliated with the Hafiz Gul Bahadur Group, which, along with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has been implicated in numerous terrorist attacks within Pakistan, resulting in the loss of lives of both civilians and law enforcement personnel.

In response to the Pakistani airstrikes, the Afghan Taliban vehemently condemned the actions and refuted any allegations of allowing militant groups to operate from its territory. Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesperson, emphasized that Pakistan should not attribute its internal issues to Afghanistan, asserting that the lack of control and incompetence within Pakistan should not be blamed on Afghanistan. He warned of potential dire consequences resulting from such incidents, which could spiral out of Pakistan’s control.

Moreover, Afghan troops retaliated against the Pakistani attacks by engaging in heavy firing within Pakistani territory, resulting in injuries to Pakistani civilians. Afghan officials confirmed this retaliation in a separate statement, with the Taliban defence ministry indicating that their security forces targeted Pakistani troops at the border in response to the airstrikes.

Pakistan has consistently urged Afghanistan to deny sanctuaries and safe havens to the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) within its borders. However, since the Afghan Taliban regained power in Afghanistan in August 2021, they have largely ignored Pakistan’s requests. Instead, certain elements within the Afghan Taliban have been seen as encouraging the TTP to launch attacks inside Pakistan while sheltering in Afghanistan. There are several reasons why the Afghan Taliban may have supported the TTP and provided them with safe havens in Afghanistan.

Firstly, the Afghan Taliban owe a significant debt to the Pakistani Taliban. The latter provided crucial military support to the Afghan Taliban, enabling them to overcome the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which numbered over 300,000, and to mount robust attacks against the US-led foreign and NATO forces stationed in Afghanistan. As a result, the Afghan Taliban feel indebted to the Pakistani Taliban and have been hesitant to take action against them at the behest of Pakistan.

Secondly, the Pakistani Taliban have been regarded as ‘strategic assets’ by the Afghan Taliban, serving to bolster security within Afghanistan. Additionally, they are seen as crucial in maintaining the Afghan Taliban’s grip over the country and fending off their militant adversaries.

Thirdly, the Afghan Taliban perceive the TTP as a potential bargaining chip in their dealings with Pakistan. They believe that leveraging the TTP could help counteract Islamabad’s pressure tactics, particularly in matters concerning foreign policy. For instance, the Afghan Taliban may seek to use the TTP to push back against Pakistan’s efforts to align Afghanistan with its own interests, particularly in relation to India.

Fourthly, certain factions within the Afghan Taliban view Pakistan not just as a rival, but as an outright adversary. Consequently, they see value in supporting the TTP as a means to inflict harm upon Pakistan. In their eyes, the TTP presents the most viable option for launching attacks against Pakistan.

All these factors have contributed to the Afghan Taliban’s support for the Pakistani Taliban. However, Afghanistan now faces a crucial question: Will its continued backing of the TTP ultimately alienate its strongest ally, Pakistan? The dilemma for the TTP lies in its need to perpetrate attacks within Pakistan, particularly targeting the country’s security forces, in order to justify its existence and further its agenda. Notably, the TTP has outlined a scheme known as ‘Jihad-e-Pakistan,’ aiming to replicate the Afghan Taliban model within Pakistan.

Despite the Afghan Taliban’s official stance that they cannot permit any group to utilize Afghan soil for attacks against Pakistan or any other nation, their actions on the ground have failed to align with this rhetoric. This dissonance raises concerns about the sustainability of Afghanistan’s support base, especially considering its historically close ties with Pakistan.

The greatest concern now is that if the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other Pakistan-based terrorist groups operating from Afghanistan continue to carry out terrorist attacks inside Pakistan, regardless of the support from the Afghan Taliban, it will likely exacerbate tensions between Islamabad and Kabul. Such a scenario would not serve the interests of either Pakistan or Afghanistan. Pakistan is already grappling with unprecedented political instability and turmoil, exacerbated by questions surrounding the legality of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government. The country cannot afford to face massive waves of terrorism that would further deepen the crisis.

Undoubtedly, terrorists are exploiting the political instability in Pakistan, and the ongoing turmoil has hindered the state’s ability to effectively respond to these threats. For the Afghan Taliban and Afghanistan, deteriorating relations between Kabul and Islamabad would deprive the regime of its primary support. After years of turmoil, Afghanistan has begun to experience a relative uplift, with the Afghan Taliban focusing on the country’s economic revival. Therefore, any further deterioration in ties with Pakistan would drag the Afghan Taliban regime into an unnecessary conflict, jeopardizing ongoing efforts for infrastructure development and economic revitalization.