Why a Pakistan-Afghanistan war could unravel both countries and end the 'Pax Taliban'
Pakistan is virtually stuck in a catch 22 situation with the Taliban over the fencing of the Pak-Afghan border. While the Taliban have vowed to stop further fencing of the border, Pakistan - which has already fenced more than 90 per cent of the border - has declared to continue fencing of the rest of the border.
The provocative incidents and threatening posture of some Taliban commanders have escalated tensions on the border between Taliban fighters and Pakistani forces. The deteriorating situation on the Pak-Afghan border raises the immediate question: Are Taliban and Pakistani forces heading towards a clash?
The problem started on December 18 when Taliban fighters uprooted the metal fence erected by the Pakistan military along the border and seized spools of barbed wire. Ironically, this provocative incident took place at a time when Pakistan was hosting the extraordinary session of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation's (OIC) Council of Foreign Ministers in Islamabad to discuss the ways to avert the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Since then, Taliban local commanders have issued stern warnings to Pakistani soldiers along the border against continuing fencing work.
"The deteriorating situation on the Pak-Afghan border raises the immediate question: Are Taliban and Pakistani forces heading towards a clash?"
The fiery statements from some Taliban commanders added fuel to the fire. For example, Maulvi Sanaullah Sangin, the Taliban commander of the border forces for the eastern zone declared that the Taliban government will not allow fencing on the border anymore.
Taliban are fiercely opposed to the fencing of the border as they believe that it would divide the Pashtun tribes and families living on both sides of the border. The 1893 British-era boundary demarcation called the Durand line - the internationally recognised border between the two countries - is unacceptable to the Taliban. On the other hand, Pakistan has so far followed a policy of maximum restraint, avoiding any escalation. Islamabad has contacted the top leadership of the Taliban in Kabul and is trying to resolve the border fencing issue diplomatically.
Before the fencing work was started by Pakistan on its western border with Afghanistan in 2017, the 2600km long Pak-Afghan border was a lawless and porous border with several unfrequented routes. The mountainous border was ideal for the cross-border movement of militants, smugglers and human traffickers.
The fencing will also check smuggling and human trafficking. These are the mafia who see their loss of millions of dollars due to the security check at the border. Hence, the terrorist groups, human traffickers and smugglers are the key affectees of border fencing and they are real trouble-makers.
Undoubtedly, terrorist groups and criminals have been the beneficiaries of a lawless border between the two countries. The Taliban local commanders are actually backed by this mafia to disrupt the fencing work being carried out by the Pakistan military for the last four years.
It is widely believed that Pakistan has been having leverage over the Taliban and that is why the US sought Pakistan's help to bring the Taliban to a negotiating table in 2019. Pakistan facilitated the US-Taliban negotiations, which ultimately resulted in a peace accord signed in Doha by the two sides in 2020.
The ongoing border standoff between Taliban and Pakistani forces raises the question- Has Pakistan lost its leverage over the Taliban now? It seems that the country has drastically lost that leverage after the Taliban returned to power in Kabul following the withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan last year.
Strategically, a fenced border is the first line of defence for Pakistan against the Afghanistan-based terrorist groups intruding into the country. How can Pakistan allow cross-border movement of the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or Pakistani Taliban, who are involved in hundreds of terrorist attacks inside Pakistan?
TTP terrorism (from 2007 to 2014) is the most tragic period of Pakistan's history. The group indiscriminately targeted and killed thousands of Pakistanis including women, children and security personnel. In December 2014, the Pakistan army launched the Zarb-e-Azb operation against the TTP after the group attacked the Army Public School in Peshawar city killing 150 people including 134 school children. Zarb-e-Azb dismantled the TTP network across the country and the group's leadership and militants fled to Afghanistan where they took refuge and reorganised themselves.
Today, the TTP with its presence in Afghanistan's border areas with Pakistan has again emerged as a grave threat to Pakistan. TTP still enjoys safe haven in Afghanistan and the group has been involved in killing several Pakistani soldiers, who were engaged in erecting a metal fence on the border, through cross border fire. Pakistan actually decided to erect a security fence to stop the infiltration of TTP terrorists from Afghanistan. There is no relief for Pakistan despite a regime change in Kabul on August 15. The attacks by TTP go unabated under a Taliban government in Kabul.
Taliban are reluctant to launch a crackdown on TTP destroying its hideouts in Afghanistan and at the same time, they do not want Pakistan to fence the border to check infiltration of the TTP militants. Though the Taliban do not accept the TTP as part of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), they suggest Pakistan give amnesty to the group that killed 70,000 Pakistanis in acts of terrorism.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Pakistan is battling a resurgence of its home-grown Talibanhttps://t.co/A79kQem66M— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) January 18, 2022
Pakistan even adopted a negotiation path with the TTP at the suggestion of the Taliban. Taliban mediated Pakistan-TTP peace talks, which failed to make any headway in December after the group declared to end a month-long ceasefire with Pakistan.
Taliban's TTP policy is still ambiguous raising the question - Are Pakistani Taliban and Afghan Taliban two sides of the same coin? Both Pakistani Taliban and Afghan Taliban might have ideological proximity but their political goals and targets have been quite different.
While TTP is a US-designated terrorist organisation, the Afghan Taliban earned legitimacy by holding peace negotiations and signing a peace agreement with the US in 2020.
For Pakistan, Afghanistan is still serving as a TTP's launch pad for attacks on Pakistan security forces. If the Taliban are not committed to Pakistan then how can it fulfil their security assurances to the US in Doha accord and how can China and Russia trust the Taliban about not allowing Afghan soil to be used by terrorists against a third country?
"Can the escalating tensions on the border result in an armed conflict between Pakistan and Taliban-led Afghanistan? If it happens, then who will be the real beneficiary?"
Is Afghan Taliban playing a double game over its ties with the Pakistani Taliban? Taliban will have to practically prove that they would not allow the Afghan territory to be used by TTP or other terrorist groups for launching attacks against Pakistan and other countries. The real test for the Taliban would begin with their massive crackdown on TTP, as it would prove that they are not in alliance with the Pakistani Taliban and other terrorist outfits.
Any double game by the Taliban could have the heaviest costs for the group, its stakes and battlefield gains in Afghanistan. It is worth remembering that the Taliban faced the US invasion that toppled their government in 2001 for providing Al Qaeda safe havens in Afghanistan. They are supposed not to repeat the same blunder by making Afghanistan a safe haven for terrorist outfits again.
Can the escalating tensions on the border result in an armed conflict between Pakistan and Taliban-led Afghanistan? If it happens, then who will be the real beneficiary? Certainly, the TTP and other terrorist outfits will be the largest beneficiaries of the conflict.
Syed Fazl-e-Haider is a contributing analyst at the South Asia desk of Wikistrat. He is a freelance columnist and the author of several books including 'Economic Development of Balochistan'.
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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.