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

PESHAWAR – When Taliban forces seized power last August in Kabul, toppling a US-backed government and sending Western troops packing after two decades of debilitating war, Pakistan’s interests seemed well-aligned at the time with Afghanistan’s new militant militia rulers.

Fast forward eight months, the two neighbors have shifted from friends to foes over a host of security and territory issues, not least perceptions in Islamabad that the Taliban is providing sanctuary to militant groups that have launched a series of lethal cross-border attacks on Pakistani security forces and other state targets.

Those militant attacks, including assaults launched by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistan Taliban, drove Islamabad into launching cross-border airstrikes on believed militant hideouts, an escalation that has tilted relations into a crisis mode. The airstrikes reportedly killed dozens of civilians, prompting the Taliban government to issue a stern warning.   

Islamabad is now reportedly preparing to halt its pro-Taliban advocacy, significantly at a time many global nations are withholding formal diplomatic recognition and aid, and instead start backing anti-Taliban Afghan groups to undercut and destabilize the Taliban’s rule, according to some reports.

At the same time, international news agency reports have suggested that anti-Pakistan insurgents including the TTP are living and operating freely in Afghanistan, much to Islamabad’s chagrin. TTP has known links with al Qaeda and ultimately seeks to overthrow the Pakistani government and establish an Islamic caliphate, similar to the one the Taliban has established in Kabul.

A Pakistani Taliban militant recently told a Western news agency that TTP fighters “feel more comfortable after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. They can now move around freely and have no fears of drone attacks with the result that they can meet and communicate easily.” 

Following the report, Islamabad renewed its calls on Taliban authorities to either take action against the anti-Pakistan militants or expel them from Afghan territory.

Adding to the tensions, Islamabad and Kabul are at loggerheads over revived territorial disputes that have been amplified by Pakistan’s new rush to build a border fence along the so-called Durand Line, a British colonial-era demarcation that Kabul doesn’t recognize.

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

It all marks a sudden and drastic turn, one with major implications for regional stability.

Last year, Pakistan welcomed the toppling of the Western-backed, Ashraf Ghani-led Afghan government, largely on the assumption that the Taliban’s takeover would reset and improve relations with Kabul. Relations had become strained under Ghani’s rule, not least for his Pashtun nationalist positions.  

Indeed, there was widespread speculation that Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency played a pivotal, behind-the-scenes role in the planning and strategy for the Taliban’s blitzkrieg seizure of power, which at the time caught most analysts, observers and evacuating US and NATO forces by surprise.

Now, as bilateral relations hit new lows, some speculate that Pakistan and its ISI may seek to manipulate the Taliban’s internal politics in ways that would marginalize Taliban leaders and factions which are supportive of the anti-Pakistan militants and have either resisted or blocked any clampdown on groups they previously fought side-by-side with against NATO, US and national army forces.

The Taliban’s Haqqani clan, which has control of the powerful interior ministry is reportedly on the ascendant in the clan-split government, is believed to be shielding and supporting the TTP as well as other anti-Pakistan militant outfits.  

Some suggest Islamabad may soon launch a crackdown on the Taliban leadership’s Pakistan-based families and assets. More broadly, Pakistan may also consider closing border crossings to squeeze the Afghan economy, significantly at a time of great grass-roots distress as the threat of famine spreads far and wide, the same sources say.   

Andrew Korybko, a Moscow-based American political analyst, author, radio host and regular contributor to several online outlets, told Asia Times that Islamabad is changing its traditionally warm and cordial relations with the Afghan Taliban, which it quietly supported during the war with the US and NATO.  

“In order for Pakistan to ensure the integrity of its national security red lines, it might prospectively consider practicing a more nuanced approach towards the Taliban that sees it moving away from its traditional one of blindly supporting the group no matter what to more publicly criticizing it and perhaps even selectively supporting some members over others,” he said.

Korybko also suggested that beyond Pakistan’s existing national security interests vis-à-vis Afghanistan-based militant groups, Islamabad could also be tempted to take a tougher tack with the Taliban as a way to mend relations with the United States. “Putting selective pressure on the Taliban could be a step towards that end,” he said.

Taliban militants take control of Hamid Karzai International Airport after the completion of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, in Kabul, August 31, 2021. Photo: Wali Sabawoon / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the Asia Center of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), wrote in a recent review that US policymakers should explore ways in cooperation with Pakistan to press the Taliban jointly on a range of political issues important to US priorities including counterterrorism.

“Pakistan can do so, in part, by publicly signaling that the Taliban’s recognition is off the table and stop pushing some of its allies on recognition. It can also downgrade the diplomatic treatment of the Taliban and align its messaging on counterterrorism issues with that of the US government,” he wrote.

There are few, if any, signs that the Taliban intends to contain or counter the various terror groups in its midst. That was seen in the recent suicide bombing at Pakistan’s Karachi University that killed three Chinese tutors.

Different terror outfits target Chinese nationals and interests in Pakistan, particularly in Balochistan, as an extension of the Pakistani state. The TTP, in particular, has staged a violent resurgence since the Taliban took over in Kabul, helped in part by the Taliban’s release of TTP leaders who were imprisoned under the Ghani government.

Mir said that since its resurgence a few years ago, the TTP has strengthened its bases in Afghanistan specifically to attack Pakistan — especially in areas where the Taliban had territorial influence during the war against the US, NATO and national forces.

“After taking over the country, the Taliban gave the TTP de facto political asylum. The TTP has used its improved political status in Afghanistan to step-up cross-border attacks and is now regularly sending fighters into Pakistan,” he claimed.

The Taliban had previously sought to mediate between the TTP and Pakistan authorities. In November last year, the Afghan Taliban brokered a one-month ceasefire between the TTP and Pakistan. That announcement came a month after then-prime minister Imran Khan revealed his government was in negotiations with various TTP-linked organizations towards a peace agreement.

“There are different groups that form the TTP and some of them want to talk to our government for peace. So, we are in talks with them. It’s a reconciliation process,” Khan said in an interview at the time.

A Tehreek-e-Taliban fighter in a file photo. The terror group is ramping up its attacks in Pakistan. Photo: Facebook

During a three-day visit to Islamabad in November last year, acting Afghan Foreign Minister Ameer Khan Muttaki confirmed the Taliban government’s role as an interlocutor in the negotiations.

The TTP later revealed that a month-long ceasefire was reached in exchange for the release of 102 TTP fighters who were detained on terrorism-related charges. In a social media message at the time, the TTP said the ceasefire could pave the way for further negotiations and a permanent peace settlement.

The TTP called off the truce a month later, claiming the Pakistan government failed to honor its commitment to release the prisoners. It’s still unclear precisely what role the Taliban played in those failed talks. What is clear by now, though, is that the Taliban is a party to the conflict and no longer, if ever, an honest broker.

Follow FM Shakil on Twitter at @faq1953