Pakistan and Taliban-led Afghanistan Co-existence of incertitude and deep mistrust India vs Disinformation 28 Mar 2024 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar

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Pakistan and Taliban-led Afghanistan: Co-existence of incertitude and deep mistrust India vs Disinformation 28 Mar 2024

Last week there were conflicting messages from Pakistan on its relations with the Taliban dispensation in Kabul. Pakistan’s defence minister, Khawaja Asif, in an interview with the “Voice of America,’ mentioned, ‘Force is the last resort. We do not want to have an armed conflict with Afghanistan.’ He added, ‘If Afghanistan treats us like an enemy, then why should we give them a trade corridor?’

His comments came after Pak had launched an airstrike claiming it to be an ‘intelligence-based operation’ across the Durand Line, the de-facto border between the two countries, post an attack which left seven soldiers dead, including two officers. The threat of closing the trade corridor to Karachi as also the land corridor available for trade with India was obvious and not for the first time. This has historically been Pakistan’s card to apply pressure on Kabul.

A day later, Pakistan’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Asif Durrani, talking to The Dawn, stated, ‘there is no pause in relations with the Taliban administration in Kabul despite recent military actions.’ While Durrani was being conciliatory, the Generals in Rawalpindi were displaying a bully mindset against the Taliban. Simultaneously, Pakistan’s foreign office issued a statement on ‘addressing the issue of terrorism with Afghanistan through dialogue and cooperation.’ A Pak trade delegation is currently visiting Kabul for talks.

Pakistan admitted to the airstrike after objections by Kabul. It has never accepted its drone and airstrikes earlier, all of which only targeted civilians. It had launched the operation planning to send a message to the Taliban that it will retaliate on their soil, but results were the opposite. The Taliban’s counterattack on Pak posts employing artillery indicated that Kabul will never bow down to such actions by Pak. While peace may prevail at the moment, it is possibly the quiet before the storm.

The operation was also intended to mollify Pakistan’s own populace that Rawalpindi is acting against the Taliban. Kabul is unlikely to be deterred by a few bombs falling in villages close to its border with Pak. It has witnessed them all too often over the years in its operations against the US and gives them no importance.

There are also inputs that the Kabul dispensation is investing in the Chabahar port in Iran intending to bypass Pakistan’s Karachi port, thereby nullifying its economic threats as also shutting the border for miniscule reasons. This would then be their preferred route for trade with India. It is unknown whether the decision to invest in Chabahar was taken by Kabul independently or prodded by Tehran and New Delhi. 

In a post on X (formerly Twitter) @Natsecjeff, who closely monitors the region, mentions, ‘Zia ul-Haq Sarhadi of Afghanistan-Pakistan Joint Chamber of Commerce said that Afghanistan transferred 70% of its trade to Iran’s Chabahar and Bandar Abbas due to sanctions on transit trade by Pakistan that left nearly 20,000 Pakistani families unemployed.’ If this is true, then nothing Pak says will stop the support provided by Kabul to the TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan).

To add to differences between the two countries was the decision of Islamabad to push back illegal Afghan refugees. Almost half a million have returned thus far. Most were stripped off all their earnings before being permitted across the border. About a million more documented refugees are scheduled to be repatriated in the near future. Many of them would join anti-Pak terrorist groups to survive. This would enhance their ability to attack across Pakistan.

There are reports that indicate that the TTP alongside the Taliban forces may launch a major attack on Pak soil in retaliation to its airstrikes. Simultaneously, the Taliban is seeking drones from Iran. Kabul’s investments in Iran and procuring of Iranian drones sends a clear message. Their only enemy is Pakistan and they expect hostilities with them in a near timeframe. The reasons are clear.

Firstly, Pakistan continues to back the ISKP (Islamic State – Khorasan Province) against the Taliban. It is known that Rawalpindi is attempting to pressurize the Kabul dispensation to toe their line by supporting terrorist strikes on their soil. Pakistan is operating along with Tajikistan, which backs the Northern Alliance. There were reports that part of Afghanistan’s northern forests was set on fire by Tajikistan forces last week.

Secondly, while restrictions remain on the Kabul regime on account of its anti-women as also suppressive policies, nation’s including the US, China and India, apart from Middle East countries, are engaging directly with Kabul, without officially recognizing them, thereby providing the ruling dispensation with some form of credibility. Hence, it no longer needs Pakistan’s diplomatic backing.

Thirdly, Kabul is sending the message that it is no longer a Pak proxy, nor grateful to it for support during US occupation of Afghanistan, something Pak desperately attempted to convey. Finally, apart from Pakistan, no other neighbour has accused the Taliban of harbouring terrorist groups. This in itself questions the credibility of Pak’s accusations on Kabul. In desperation Pakistan has begun accusing India of supporting the TTP through the Taliban.

Evidently, there are fundamental and irrevocable differences between Kabul and Islamabad including acceptance of the Durand Line as the de-facto border. These lead to regular flare-ups, which at some stage could result in either loss of Pak posts or excessive casualties.

Rawalpindi, which determines Pakistan’s strategy against its neighbours has limited options. It can either launch operations across the border employing aerial resources and the ISKP or strengthen its borders to thwart any attack from Kabul, implying a defensive strategy. Finally, it could employ a mix of both.  

A defensive option will never succeed because both, the Taliban and TTP, have suicide bombers in their ranks, who would break through any level of defences employing IED laden vehicles. Simultaneously, the populace of the Af-Pak region is more sympathetic to Afghan groups rather than the Pak army which they view with suspicion.  

Further, improved ties between the Taliban and Iran adds to Pak’s concerns as Baloch freedom fighters possess bases in Iran and could operate in conjunction with the Taliban. Improved Afghan-Iran ties will also open doors for connecting to nations in Central Asia through Afghanistan. India will be the main gainer, bypassing Pakistan and the CPEC.

A major drawback for Pakistan is that Kabul’s desire to exploit Iranian ports would remove its main leverage to resolve its TTP problems. Another concern is that growing enmity between the two states implies that Pakistan will be forced to secure its western borders. This means spending vital funds to strengthen border defences. This would come at the cost of maintaining preparedness along the LOC.

At some stage Pak would be compelled to choose between supporting terrorist groups which are anti-India or anti-Kabul as also which borders to concentrate on. This is the dilemma Rawalpindi will need to handle. India just has to wait and watch. 

    

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