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Why Pakistan’s tryst with terror is boomeranging

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After repeatedly warning the Taliban dispensation in Kabul of consequences for not reining in TTP, which is waging a war against the Pakistan govt and military in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province – especially in the parts therein that were earlier known as FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) – Pakistan recently launched targeted strikes on alleged hideouts of a TTP splinter group in the Paktika and Khost provinces of Afghanistan.
While Pakistan claimed the air strikes were in retaliation to a cross-border terrorist attack, Kabul accused Pakistan of violating Afghanistan’s sovereignty and fired in response at Pakistan troops along the border. The Pakistan air strikes were not unprecedented and tension had been building up between Kabul and Islamabad for more than a year over the activities of TTP, which wants strict implementation of the Sharia law in Pakistan.
However, this latest and perhaps most ominous flare-up seems to have thrown into disarray Pakistan’s pursuit of strategic depth in Afghanistan since the return of the Taliban to Kabul in Aug 2021.

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Cut from same cloth
The fall of Kabul in 2021 was seen as nothing short of a victory for the ISI, which had continued to support the Taliban while ostensibly also backing the US war on terror. However, Pakistan probably failed to allow for the blowback that could ensue from the Taliban’s complex relationship with TTP.
The Pakistani Taliban was formed in 2007 to fight the Pakistan military but it remains an ideological cousin of the Afghan Taliban – it pursues similar objectives like overthrowing the govt and imposing its interpretation of the Sharia law. Its leaders have also spoken about establishing an Islamic Caliphate in Pakistan.
Earlier this year, a UN report said the Taliban remain “generally sympathetic” to TTP’s aims and, barring a few cosmetic measures like the offer to relocate TTP members away from the border, have cared little about Pakistan’s repeated calls to prevent cross-border terrorist attacks. Apart from allowing TTP sanctuaries in Afghanistan, some Taliban members reportedly even joined TTP in attacking Pakistan as a “religious obligation”.
There are other reasons too for the Taliban being soft on TTP, whose contribution in the fight against the US-led coalition forces has not been forgotten by the regime in Kabul. Even as they desperately seek international recognition, the Taliban know that alienating TTP could see many Pakistani Taliban fighters joining the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) terror group, which remains a major threat for the regime in Kabul. IS-K is the most violent and uncompromising terror group active in the region.
Unravelling strategic depth
The fledgling Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was quick to block fencing of the disputed Durand Line (the border between Afghanistan and British India drawn by Mortimer Durand in 1893, it is now the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan). This was a clear signal that it wasn’t a proxy government run by the ISI. Fencing was crucial for Pakistan to secure its western border.
It delivered another blow to Pakistan by ruling out any kinetic action against TTP, restricting itself only to facilitating talks between Pakistan and TTP. The Taliban have also stressed the need for Pakistan to set its own house in order first, saying the TTP terrorism issue predates their return to Kabul. The Taliban leadership have condemned Pakistan’s move to expel Afghan refugees. The latest escalation seems to suggest that Pakistan’s eureka moment of August 2021, when the Taliban took control of Kabul, is turning into a nightmare.
However, a Pakistan business delegation visited Kabul barely a week after the clash to improve trade ties between the two countries, suggesting Islamabad is in no mood to give up on the Taliban. Driven by an almost congenital obsession to counterbalance India, Islamabad can be expected to leverage the landlocked country’s dependence on Pakistan for international trade, and strong cross-border familial links, to get the Taliban to safeguard its interests.
However, whether it will be enough to also get the fiercely independent Taliban to toe their line on TTP remains anybody’s guess for now. In an apparent sign of desperation, Pakistan has been publicly attacking the government in Kabul and urged the UN Security Coun cil earlier this month to get the Taliban to sever their links with TTP.
India and security
India will watch out for any attempt by Pakistan to undermine the Taliban dispensation if the security situation between Afghanistan and Pakistan deteriorates further, as that could also imperil regional security. For India, as of now, Pakistan proclaiming itself a victim of cross-border terrorism is nothing short of retributive justice, as India has long accused Pakistan of perpetrating the same across its border. It is significant that while the security situation has improved in Afghanistan since the return of the Taliban, it has worsened in Pakistan provinces like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.
Like many, India believes Pakistan is only reaping the harvest of its longstanding policy of using terrorism for the attainment of political goals and that Islamabad can no longer ‘run with the hare and hunt with the hounds’.
Pakistan believes it has been let down by the Taliban. India, however, has no such complaint yet. Based on the Taliban’s repeated assurances in meetings with Indian authorities that it won’t allow groups like LeT and JeM to target India from Afghan soil, and its own historical ties with the country, India has built a strong working relationship with the Islamic Emirate, even without officially recognising it. That the Taliban are looking at the possible use of the strategic Chabahar port in Iran by Afghan traders is another incentive. The Taliban have also been very appreciative of the humanitarian aid sent by India, including the 40,000 tonnes of wheat supplied through the land border with Pakistan, and India is currently considering Taliban’s request to resume work on its economic/community projects in the country.

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