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Why are Tensions Rising Between Pakistan and Afghanistan?

by Azat Machavariani
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A fresh spate of brazen attacks on Pakistani security forces, which Islamabad blames on groups operating out of Afghanistan, has stoked renewed tensions between the neighbors.

The issue has been simmering ever since the Taliban swept back to power in August 2021 after the hasty withdrawal of US forces.

Pakistan, believed to hold a degree of influence over the Taliban, hoped for a relatively more secure western border and a decline in attacks that have claimed thousands of lives in the country over past decades.

The reality has been starkly different as attacks have surged in Pakistan in the past two years.

January of this year was the deadliest month in Pakistan since July 2018, with 134 people killed and 254 injured in 44 attacks across the country, according to data compiled by the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank.

Just in the last two weeks, there have been three blasts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the northwestern Pakistani province that borders Afghanistan.

One of them was a suspected suicide bomb attack on a compound housing a police station and government offices, while another was a suicide car bombing targeting a truck carrying security forces in Peshawar, the provincial capital.

Most of the casualties were security personnel, including police and soldiers.

At the heart of the problems between Islamabad and Kabul is the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a conglomerate of several militant groups that, according to Pakistan, has safe haven inside Afghan territory.

Most of the recent attacks, which include ambushes and storming of military compounds across Pakistan, have also been claimed by the TTP.

Warnings and meetings

The deadliest among the recent attacks was on a military garrison this month in Zhob, a district in the southwestern Balochistan province, near the Afghan border.

At least nine soldiers were killed in the assault, prompting a rare direct rebuke from Pakistan’s army chief Gen. Asim Munir, who accused the Afghan Taliban of not living up to their promises.

Munir warned the Afghan Taliban against providing sanctuary to the TTP, saying the militants have sophisticated weapons and freedom of action across the border.

He urged Kabul not to allow its soil to be used against any country, an allegation that the interim Taliban setup has repeatedly denied.

Munir’s comments were followed by Defense Minister Khawaja Asif accusing Afghanistan of not fulfilling its obligations as a neighbor, and not abiding by the commitments made in the 2020 Doha agreement.

This week, Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla, head of the US Central Command, met Munir for talks in Pakistan, with the regional security situation a key part of the agenda.

On the diplomatic front, Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari spoke to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken late on Monday, and the latter “affirmed the United States’ commitment to continued partnership with Pakistan on counterterrorism,” according to the State Department.

The US statement also mentioned that they discussed the “shared interest in a peaceful and stable Afghanistan.”

Despite the tensions, Pakistan and Afghanistan have also been engaging directly, with Islamabad’s special envoy Asif Durrani visiting Kabul last week.

The Afghan Taliban called on Pakistan to “choose peace instead of war” and assured that Kabul will not allow anyone to use its territory against Islamabad.

During a meeting with Durrani, acting Afghan Deputy Prime Minister Maulvi Abdul Kabir said Pakistan is not only a neighbor but also a Muslim brotherly nation, stressing that Kabul desires lasting peace.

“We have seen the bitter experiences of wars. We advise Pakistan to choose peace instead of war,” he told Durrani.

Earlier this month, Suhail Shaheen, a senior Afghan Taliban leader and head of its political office in Qatar, reiterated that they “are committed not to allow anyone to use the soil of Afghanistan against any country, including neighboring countries.”

“But as regards internal security of a country, it is their responsibility,” he added.

Failure’ and ‘frustration

Syed Abrar Hussain, a former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan, said Kabul’s “failure” to stop the TTP has led to “frustration” in Islamabad.

The strong statements made by the army chief and defense minister are a clear indicator of where things stand, Hussain, who served as Islamabad’s top diplomat in Kabul from 2013 to 2014, told Anadolu.

“The issue of terrorism is a matter of serious concern for Pakistan. There is a perception in Pakistan that the TTP is operating from Afghanistan,” he said.

“With the Taliban coming to power in Kabul two years ago, our people expected that Afghan soil would no longer be used against Pakistan.”

Mahmood Shah, a retired brigadier focusing on Afghan affairs, said Pakistan should adopt a “selective approach” to address its security concerns, including taking advantage of Kabul’s dependence on Islamabad and relying on intelligence-based operations along the porous Afghan border.

“These harsh statements will do nothing. Simultaneously, use of force against Afghanistan will not be a good idea at all,” Shah, an ex-intelligence officer who served as administrator of Pakistan’s former tribal regions from 2003 to 2005, told Anadolu.

Pakistan should instead exploit landlocked Afghanistan’s dependence by blocking some key trade corridors and use other means that can hurt Kabul economically, he said.

He said negotiations would only be possible “once their economic interests are compromised.”

“Use of force doesn’t work against them. But it should not be against all the Afghan Taliban groups. It should be selective and only against those groups that are protecting the TTP,” he added.

Closing the Ghulam Khan border crossing could compel the Taliban’s powerful Haqqani group to stop giving the TTP refuge, said Shah, referring to a border point that connects Pakistan’s North Waziristan region with northeastern Afghanistan.

Pakistan and Afghanistan share 18 crossing points, including Torkham in the northwest and the southwestern Chaman, along a border that stretches over 2,600 kilometers (1,600 miles).

“The Afghan Taliban is a conglomerate of several groups, and only a few of them, including the Haqqani network, support the TTP,” he said.

“The largest group is Kandhari (from Kandahar), which favors Pakistan,” he added, emphasizing that Islamabad should isolate and act only against pro-TTP groups.

What happened to peace talks with TTP?

Shah held Pakistan partially responsible for the recent uptick in terrorist attacks in the country.

“Islamabad’s undue expectations from the Afghan Taliban, slowing down of intelligence-based operations over the past one-and-a-half year, and the so-called peace talks have provided an opportunity to the TTP to regroup inside Pakistan,” he argued.

Since 2007, Islamabad and the TTP have held several rounds of dialogue that yielded no results, with both sides blaming each other for the stalemate.

Successive Pakistani military operations since 2014 pushed the TTP toward Afghanistan, bringing about a significant decline in bombings and suicide attacks in the country until 2021.

“Peace talks with the TTP, in my opinion, always had very little chance of success because their (TTP) demands are unreasonably high, ranging from a general amnesty to implementation of their self-styled sharia (Islamic) laws in the tribal regions, and permission for them to return to their hometowns and keep their weapons,” said Shah.

“It’s high time to accelerate intelligence-based operations, revamp the intelligence network along the Afghanistan border, and use a selective approach toward the Afghan Taliban to dismantle the TTP once again.”

Source : AA

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