‘Cousins at war’: Pakistan-Afghan ties strained after cross-border attacks

Pakistan’s air raids inside Afghanistan on Monday amid rising tensions between the neighbours have injected new uncertainty into ties, say analysts.

The early morning attacks on Monday from Pakistan, according to a detailed statement by the Pakistani foreign ministry, were aimed at hideouts of armed groups including the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistan Taliban, or TTP). Afghan officials said eight people in all — five women and three children — were killed.

The official government statement said that the “terrorists” pose a great threat to the country, and alleged that “they have consistently used Afghan territory to launch terror attacks inside Pakistani territory.”

“Terrorist groups like TTP are a collective threat to regional peace and security. We fully realise the challenge Afghan authorities face in combating the threat posed by TTP.  Pakistan would therefore continue to work towards finding joint solutions in countering terrorism and to prevent any terrorist organisation from sabotaging bilateral relations with Afghanistan,” the statement said.

The air raids came two days after a group of suicide bombers targeted a Pakistani military checkpost in its North Waziristan district, a border area next to Afghanistan, killing at least seven Pakistani soldiers.

The Afghan Taliban, who have ruled the country since taking over in August 2021, reacted swiftly to the Pakistani attacks, calling them “reckless”. Hours after the air raids, the Afghan military fired mortar shells on Pakistani military positions near border districts, which left four civilians and three soldiers injured.

Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban government spokesperson, denied that foreign armed groups are allowed to operate from Afghan soil. But he conceded that parts of the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan were hard to control.

“In this regard, we have made our utmost effort and continue to do so; but one thing we must accept is that Afghanistan shares a very long border area with Pakistan, and there are places with rugged terrain including mountains and forests, and places that might be out of our control,” Mujahid said in response.

Sami Yousafzai, a journalist and a longtime observer of Pakistan-Afghanistan ties, described the spat as a fight between two cousins.

For years, Pakistan was seen as a patron of the Afghan Taliban, which first rose to power in 1996. It was believed to hold considerable sway on the Taliban leadership, whom it sheltered, funded and shielded diplomatically.

Yet amid the United States’s so-called “war on terror”, the Pakistan Taliban emerged and started waging a war against the state of Pakistan, although the group was ideologically aligned with the Afghan Taliban.

The Pakistani army conducted multiple operations to eliminate the Pakistan Taliban, and managed to push some of its leaders into Afghanistan. After the Afghan Taliban returned to Kabul in late 2021, Pakistan hoped to use its historic influence over the new Afghan rulers to contain the Pakistan Taliban.

Instead, attacks grew, and 2023 was among the bloodiest years in recent Pakistani history, with more than 650 attacks across the country, killing nearly 1,000 people, mostly from law enforcement agencies and the military. Most of the attacks on security personnel were claimed by the Pakistan Taliban, along with other relatively lesser-known armed groups.

Over the years, Pakistan has blamed the Pakistan Taliban for several attacks inside its territory, killing thousands of people, including the deadly attack on Army Public School in Peshawar in 2014, which killed more than 130 students.

More than 90 percent of the attacks in 2023 were carried out in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the southwestern province of Balochistan, both of which border Afghanistan.

Syed Akhtar Ali Shah, a former police chief in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, said that such regular attacks against security personnel affects the motivation of the forces and Pakistan had little option but to retaliate.

Shah also noted that Pakistan had the added experience of a similar level of cross-border action earlier in the year against Iran, which perhaps emboldened the military.

In January this year, Iranian forces launched a cross-border attack inside Pakistan, targeting hideouts of an armed group that it claimed works against the interest of state of Iran.

Within 24 hours, the Pakistani government responded with attacks of its own inside Iran’s Sestan-Baluchestan province, targeting what it claimed was armed groups seeking protection in Iran.

After the tit-for-tat action, Pakistan and Iran managed to calm those tensions, with the Iranian foreign minister visiting Pakistan the same month.

Shah, the former police chief, believed that Pakistan perhaps learned a lesson from that incident and decided to show “muscle”. But he also added a word of caution.

“When you take an aggressive stance like that, it helps to have a dialogue from a position of strength. But it could backfire, as well, and lead to a dilemma for the country because the Afghan government can retaliate,” he added.

Yousafzai said one way that the Afghan government could show its ability to hit back was by allowing the Pakistan Taliban a freer reign in the border areas.

“There is a lot of resentment within Afghanistan for what Pakistan did, and they are unhappy with the situation so this could have consequences,” he said.

Shah said Pakistan does have some leverage on Afghanistan: Pakistan is landlocked Afghanistan’s biggest trading partner. Pakistan has also long hosted millions of Afghan refugees. Many Afghans also travel to Pakistan to access health facilities.

Last year, following the surge in violence, Pakistan launched a drive to push Afghan refugees living in the country back to Afghanistan, citing security concerns.

The move was denounced, both domestically and globally, but more than half a million Afghans had been deported as of December 2023.

But if Pakistan uses any of those levers of influence, it is likely to end up even more unpopular in Afghanistan.

“There are strong anti-Pakistan sentiments in Afghanistan, and vice versa, and all of this isn’t going to help in the long-term for either of the two,” Yousafzai said.

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