Afghan Border Police watch an ongoing battle between Pakistani and Afghan border forces near the Durand line at Spin Boldak, in southern Kandahar province, on May 5, 2017. There has been much discussion about the Durand Line recently. Photo: AFP / Javed Tanveer

Recent reports indicate rising tensions between Taliban forces and the Pakistani military deployed on the border.

On December 22, the Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman disclosed that Taliban forces had stopped the Pakistani military from erecting an “illegal” fence along the border with eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province.

A video circulating in social media showed Taliban soldiers had seized spools of barbed wire and one senior Taliban official warned Pakistani soldiers stationed in security posts not to try to fence the border.

Two Taliban officials told Reuters that the Taliban and Pakistani military came “face-to-face” over the border incident and the situation was “tense.” After the incident, there was also cross-border mortar fire from the Pakistani side of the border in Kumar province further north on December 22. 

Curiously, these incidents happened soon after the Organization of Islamic Cooperation ministerial meeting on Afghanistan in Islamabad on December 19. While the OIC ministerial meeting was a mega event for Pakistani diplomacy, it produced little of substance for the Taliban.

On the issue of international recognition for their government, there was no progress, either. 

According to Pakistani analysts, Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, who showed up in Islamabad, was relegated to a back row while the hosts concentrated on their own image-building. 

The conference indeed helped to ease the United States’ isolation insofar as it can now claim a coordinated approach toward the Afghan situation with influential Muslim countries. Secretary of State Antony Blinken went out of his way to express gratitude to Pakistan. 

In political terms, the Taliban have never accepted the legitimacy of the 2,611-kilometer Durand Line, let alone its fencing, which was a prestigious project of the Pakistani military leadership undertaken at an enormous cost over a period of four years with a view to preventing cross-border attacks on Pakistani posts.

A Pakistan army soldier stands guard at a border outpost. Photo: AFP / Muhammad Daud

Durand Line not recognized by Taliban

The barrier consists of two sets of chain-link fences separated by a 2-meter space filled with concertina-wire coils. The double fence is about 4 meters high, and the military has installed surveillance cameras to check any movement. The project’s costs are estimated to be in the region of US$600 million. 

The crux of the matter is that the fence gave not only physical expression to the Durand Line but is also expected to give legitimacy to the border with Afghanistan in the fullness of time. 

Given their critical dependence on the Pakistani military’s backing in their bid for power in Kabul, the Taliban kept quiet but probably understood the Pakistani intentions in fencing the Durand Line. They desecrated the fence within 100 days of coming to power in Kabul. 

The Durand Line is marked by 235 crossing points. The Taliban are probably hoping to have an open border. But the Pakistani military’s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi will never agree to that. 

It seems the Taliban are showing strong discontent as the high hopes given to them by the Pakistani military have been dashed. The shadow-boxing over the fence on the Durand Line is something like a “dogfight under the carpet,” to borrow from Winston Churchill.

One hundred days have passed but the Taliban’s expectations of help from Pakistan have been belied. Pakistan may have limitations in bankrolling the Afghan economy. But the unkindest cut of all has been Pakistan’s reluctance to recognize the Taliban government. 

Quite obviously, the international community will take its own time to recognize the Kabul setup, although humanitarian aid has begun flowing. The regional states have more or less figured out their terms of engagement with the Taliban government – without having to recognize it.

Map: Twitter

Last Thursday, China became the second country after Iran to commence institutionalized interaction with Taliban officials in Kabul.

Liu Jinsong, director-general of the Department of Asian Affairs of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, co-hosted the first meeting of the two working-level mechanisms on humanitarian assistance and economic reconstruction with Zakir Jalaly, director-general of the Third Political Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Taliban government.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the inter-ministerial meeting was held “in a friendly and pragmatic atmosphere. The two sides exchanged views mainly on the current humanitarian situation and economic reconstruction … and agreed to strengthen exchange in state governance experience, enhance communication and coordination between competent departments and advance BRI cooperation.” 

Official recognition ‘premature’

China has also offered help in capacity-building and personnel training, while the Taliban government extended “security guarantee for Chinese institutions and personnel in Afghanistan, and hoped to see more Chinese investment in Afghanistan.” 

Similarly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said last week that while official recognition of the Taliban authorities is “premature for the time being,” Moscow is already doing business with Kabul.

President Vladimir Putin has stated that the Taliban government is a compelling “reality,” though recognition must wait. This is almost ditto Iran’s approach, too. 

Conceivably, it suits Russia, China and Iran to adjust their policies to the realities in Afghanistan while the Americans remain as outliers. China has begun discussing Belt and Road (BRI) projects and investment opportunities. 

Herein lies Pakistan’s predicament. While Pakistan is the new sheriff in Kabul, that also means a moral responsibility toward the Taliban, and recognition of the government in Kabul ought to be the first step in that direction. 

Pakistani leader Imran Khan in a file photo. Image: Agencies

The Taliban once had a bitter experience with Pervez Musharraf, who sought a new relationship with the US at its expense. And Washington now insists that it won’t unfreeze the blocked funds so long as top Taliban leaders like the Haqqanis who are under sanctions hold positions in Kabul.

What is it that Pakistan hopes to prove by not recognizing the Taliban government – that the Taliban are not its creation; that it had nothing to do with the Taliban takeover in August; that it abhors the Taliban’s ideology; that it genuinely wants Afghanistan to have a representative rule? None of these premises will fly.

World opinion knows how Pakistan projected power into its weaker, vulnerable neighbor and has broken it – perhaps irreparably – by taking undue advantage of a fractured leadership and civil-war conditions in Afghanistan.

It all began not with the US invasion or the Soviet intervention, but goes back to the era of Pakistan’s ninth prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who invited militant Muslim Youth Organization cadres in Kabul to migrate to Pakistan in 1974 to wage an insurgency.

The problem now is that the Pakistani elite, in their craving to be accepted as part of the so-called liberal international order, feel ashamed to be seen as the Taliban’s mentors.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.