Pakistani troops patrol along the Afghanistan border at Big Ben post in Khyber district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on August 3, 2021. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

As Pakistan and Afghanistan clash over Islamabad’s bid to build a fence along their contested border, the earlier euphoria over the Taliban’s victory over US, NATO and Afghan national forces has turned to trepidation in Pakistan.

The fence aims to block the cross-border gun-running, drug trafficking and other various kinds of illicit smuggling that for years helped to support the Taliban in its jihad against Western forces and continues to provide it a crucial economic lifeline while faced with US-led sanctions.

The border conflict dates back to the British colonial era and its imposed Durand Line, which divides many ethnic Pashtun communities. The previous US-backed Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani governments asserted fencing the border was “illegal” and never accepted the Durand Line as a legitimate border marker.  

But with the Taliban now firmly in power in Kabul, Islamabad wants to close the largely open 2,700-kilometer border that is being exploited by Afghan-based militant groups that are launching increasingly fierce attacks on Pakistan security forces in a bid to destabilize Islamabad’s secular regime.

Among them are the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), none of which the Taliban has demonstrated a genuine interest in restraining since its seizure of power last August.

Pakistan has “no right to erect barbed wire along the Durand Line and separate the tribes on both sides of the line,” a Taliban defense ministry spokesman recently said, referring to ethnic Pashtuns.

While many Afghan Pashtun nationalists see the border as an artificial line imposed by the colonial British that arbitrarily divided Pashtun tribes living along the border, for the Taliban, nationalist sentiments are not a primary or even an important driver behind its opposition.

Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) fighters in a file photo at an undisclosed location. The terror outfit is ramping up cross-border attacks in Pakistan. Photo: Facebook / Dawn

“Let’s not forget that the Taliban, although dominated by Pashtuns, is not a Pashtun nationalist movement per se; it is a religious movement that seeks to establish an Islamic Emirates rather than a ‘Greater Pashtunistan,’” said a Pashtun businessman based in the Pakistani city of Kohat.

For the Taliban, analysts and observers say, the border fence dispute is more about illicit business and informal trade, much of which extends deep into established Pakistani Pashtun districts.

Those include Pakistan’s Kohat located around 200 kilometers from Jalalabad, a major business and trade hub situated in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Nangarhar where many traders have grown wealthy over the years from cross-border smuggling and informal trades.

Tensions over the border are bubbling over in spots. On December 22, 2021, videos disseminated on social media showed Taliban fighters clashing with Pakistani security forces to stop what they called “illegal” fencing of the border.

Sources in Pakistan border areas who spoke on condition of anonymity said the informal economic trades across the border are especially important to the Taliban while faced with Western sanctions, a failing economy and rising risk of a massive famine.

The same sources say unhindered border trade is important for many individual Taliban field commanders’ personal commercial interests and businesses.  

For years, the Taliban allowed traders to run businesses in areas under their control in eastern Afghanistan in exchange for paying financial tributes as tax and custom duties, payments that helped to fuel and finance their insurgency.

“It is this informal economy that helped sustain the Taliban’s war for such a long period”, added another businessman based in Darra Adamkhel in the Kohat district who has contacts on both sides of the border that help with financial transactions via hawala to help keep transactions “off the grid for both us and them.”

Those Pakistani private traders, the sources say, are also sometimes pressed by the Taliban to fund madrassas, or religious seminaries, where the Taliban previously trained to fight in Afghanistan. Those include the Dar Al-Ulum Haqqania, birthplace of the Taliban’s influential Haqqani network.  

Many traders who owed payments to the Taliban – for instance, in lieu of importing opium from Afghanistan – would often pay as a form of hawala to pro-Taliban seminaries, the same sources said.

“People have made billions of rupees through these periods of warfare. Therefore, a lot of people have stakes in open borders,” said the businessman in Darra Adamkhel. “Although not all of them are Taliban as such, many are happy doing business with them (both Afghan Taliban and TTP) through these channels.

“Therefore, many are willing to support, both directly and indirectly, the Taliban’s opposition to fencing the border,” he said.

Taliban fighters stand on an armored vehicle before parading along a road to celebrate after the US pulled all its troops out of Afghanistan, in Kandahar on September 1, 2021, after the Taliban’s military takeover of the country. Photo: AFP / Javed Tanveer

“Although the war is over, the Taliban still need this money to exist as a group and perhaps maintain its unity and an autonomous position,” the Kohat-based businessman added.

But so do militant groups like the anti-Pakistan TTP, which is primarily based in the Nangarhar border province. An open border allows these groups to establish cross-border networks and cells, and facilitates their attacks on Pakistan security force positions.

The Afghan Taliban, although it denies providing any support to these groups, has not taken any meaningful action against any of them, which is one key reason why countries like Russia and China have not extended political recognition to their interim administration.