Pakistan confronts the collapse of its friendship with the Taliban

On Dec. 11, Taliban government forces in Afghanistan shelled a town just across the border in Pakistan, killing seven Pakistani civilians. Pakistan responded in kind, killing one Taliban fighter and injuring 10 Afghans. Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif condemned the “unprovoked shelling” by Afghan forces. On Dec. 15, the two sides exchanged artillery fire across the border, killing at least one Pakistani civilian and wounding 15 others. Pakistan and the Taliban are virtually at war.

It’s time for Pakistan to accept that its decades-old Afghanistan policy has failed. While the world’s attention has focused on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the violence in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has gone underreported — even though the potential for a serious catastrophe grows by the day.

The political elites in Islamabad, Pakistan, once believed they were building “strategic depth” by cultivating pro-Pakistan forces in Afghanistan. Yet now the same groups once hailed as “strategic assets” by Islamabad have turned into a new threat.

When the Taliban took over Kabul last year (violating its agreement with the United States in the process), then-Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan celebrated the event, declaring that the Taliban had broken “the shackles of slavery.” Many other Pakistanis also celebrated.

This illusion didn’t last long. Within just a few days of their victory, the new rulers of Kabul released members of the Pakistani Taliban (known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP) who had been imprisoned in Afghan jails — the same people who have spent years waging war on the government in Islamabad. The new government in Kabul has also pointedly refused to accept the Pakistan-Afghanistan border demarcated more than a century ago by British colonial rulers.

None of this really came as a surprise to me and other journalists who have dealt with the Taliban over the decades. Even before the fall of Kabul, it should have been clear to all concerned that the Afghan Taliban was playing a double game with Pakistan and the United States. Still, Pakistan tried to maintain its support for the Afghan Taliban while simultaneously keeping Washington happy — an ambiguous policy exemplified by its arrest and release of Taliban leaders such as Mullah Baradar.

Yet the U.S. withdrawal has — perhaps ironically — exposed the inherent weakness of that policy. When I wrote in July 2021 about secret contacts between the Afghan Taliban and Islamabad’s archrival India, the Pakistani security establishment was quick to express its displeasure. Unfortunately, my predictions about the Taliban came true after the fall of Kabul. Now the Taliban is openly trying to pressure Pakistan by wooing the Indians.

The Taliban scammed then-Pakistani spy chief Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, who traveled to Kabul last year after the U.S. withdrawal and assured the media that there was nothing to worry about. But he was wrong. He tried to please the Afghan Taliban by releasing many TTP leaders, but the TTP kept insisting that Pakistan do more. Lt. Gen. Hameed visited Kabul again this year to persuade the Afghan Taliban to broker a peace deal with the TTP. He failed.

Terrorist attacks in Pakistan have increased by 51 percent since the Taliban seized power. Pakistan has used air power and drones against insurgents, resulting in significant casualties among the Afghan population. There have even been protest rallies against Pakistan in some Afghan cities.

The killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul in July by a U.S. drone sent already tense relations between the Afghans and the Pakistanis to a new low. The Taliban blamed Islamabad for al-Zawahiri’s death.

The latest Pakistani foreign minister, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, has visited many countries in the past eight months; he has yet to visit Kabul. He sent his deputy, the state minister of foreign affairs, Hina Rabbani Khar, to Kabul a few weeks ago. She was the first female minister to attempt to hold talks with the Taliban. But the Taliban defense minister (the oldest son of Afghan Taliban leader Mohammad Omar) of Afghanistan refused to meet with her.

On Nov. 29, Gen. Asim Munir took over as the new commander of the Pakistani army. The next day, four civilians were killed in a suicide bombing in Pakistan; the TTP claimed responsibility. The former “strategic assets” were sending a message written in blood.

The Afghan Taliban is challenging Pakistan. Its members think they defeated the United States and that they can also defeat a nuclear power such as Pakistan. What they are failing to acknowledge is that, according to World Bank data, Afghanistan is now one of the poorest countries in the world. They need to defeat poverty, not Pakistan.

What all this makes clear is that Pakistan needs a new Afghanistan policy — probably one based on noninterference and refortification of the border to reduce cross-border attacks. Most importantly, though, it should be formulated by civilian leaders in parliament, not in the headquarters of military intelligence. Otherwise, 2023 is likely to be a dangerous year for Pakistan-Afghan relations.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has diverted attention from the brewing conflict between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Yet the tensions between the two countries deserves coverage as well. It has the potential to bring a new catastrophe to South Asia when the region can least afford it.

Pakistan confronts the collapse of its friendship with the Taliban