When the Taliban seized Kabul in August, 2021, after the chaotic withdrawal of U.S.-led forces, the then-prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, jubilantly celebrated the developments, declaring that the Islamists had broken “the shackles of slavery” by forcing out the coalition troops.
Many politicians, analysts and strategists, both within Pakistan and beyond, believed that Islamabad through the Taliban had succeeded in attaining its long-term dream of cementing “strategic depth” in neighbouring Afghanistan. This term refers to the perception that Islamabad would use its influence over the Taliban to hold monopoly over the mineral-rich, war-ravaged country seen as the gateway to Central Asia.
However, since Mr. Khan’s removal from office last April, ties have gradually deteriorated between the Taliban and Pakistan, where the radical group was allowed for so long to operate, given shelter and training for cross-border attacks against the Afghan government and coalition forces.
The worsening of relations and growing mistrust have resulted in a series of bloody skirmishes and heavy fire between the two sides, along their ill-defined and historically disputed border region.
Pakistan has also seen a surge in militant attacks in recent months. A suicide bomber struck a crowded mosque inside a police compound in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Monday, killing 101 people and injuring scores more. Sarbakaf Mohmand, a commander for the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Some regard the escalation as the end of the honeymoon period between them, creating a perception that the Taliban and Islamabad are no longer assets to each other, but rather serious threats.
A number of Taliban leaders believe Pakistan’s new government, led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, has allowed the United States to use its airspace and soil for conducting drone strikes against Afghanistan. In one such attack, al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed last July in a posh residential area of Kabul. Pakistani officials have rebuffed the allegation.
Islamabad, too, has conducted numerous air raids against Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a radical Islamic network of militant groups, which it says operates in Afghanistan. Pakistan carried out a series of air strikes against what it described as its hideouts in Afghanistan in 2022. In one incident, dozens of civilians lost their lives in southeastern Khost province, fuelling anti-Pakistan sentiments even among the Afghan Taliban.
The TTP is allied to the Taliban and was created in Pakistan during the peak of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Many of them share the same ideology as the Afghan Taliban, studied in same seminaries in Pakistan, largely belong to same ethnic Pashtun tribes like most of the Taliban, and campaign to create a similar Taliban-style radical government in Pakistan.
Last autumn, Pakistan sent its deputy foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, to Kabul for talks with Taliban leaders in the face of rising tension. She met with some authorities, but the Taliban Defence Minister Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob refused to meet with her.
And unlike the then-government of Imran Khan, which lobbied for the Taliban in the international arena, the new administration in Islamabad has been pressing the Taliban to abandon giving shelter to those it views as terrorists, including the TTP who, like the Taliban, have acquired quantities of arms and weapons left behind by the U.S. during its retreat from Afghanistan.
Islamabad argues that attacks by the TTP have sharply soared since the Taliban came to power and, in early January, warned of conducting air strikes against the TTP in Afghanistan.
The Taliban Defence Ministry branded the warning as provocative. It said that Afghanistan is prepared to defend its territorial integrity and independence, and that Afghans had far more experience than others in how to defend their country.
In response to Pakistan’s repeated warning, the TTP announced the formation of a parallel government and threatened to target Pakistani PM Sharif and his coalition ally.
While the protracted Afghan war, which began with its invasion by the former Soviet Union, has its historical, regional and international implications and protagonists, many inside and outside Pakistan blame Islamabad’s successive past governments, and specifically its spy agency, for creating and sponsoring militant groups to fight in Afghanistan as part of its goal to create an obedient government in Kabul.
“Over the past 27 years, if not for longer, Pakistan’s intelligence services have been tolerating on its own soil the rise of Islamic groups, some of them with an extreme interpretation of the Islamic faith,” said Torek Farhadi, a former Afghan government adviser who also served as adviser for the International Monetary Fund.
For 20 years, during the U.S.-led occupation of Afghanistan, “the arrear base of militancy was in Pakistan and now the arrear base of militancy has moved into Afghanistan, against Pakistan,” he told The Globe and Mail.
“Transforming them into peaceful religious students is not an overnight affair,” he said about the militants.
Pakistan can no longer tolerate the TTP emboldened by Taliban victory in Afghanistan, especially that the TTP has claimed the lives of close to 900 Pakistani soldiers through various attacks inside Pakistan, he added.
In January, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price backed Pakistan’s warning for taking action against the TTP.
“Terrorism remains a scourge that has taken, as I said before, so many Pakistani, Afghans, and other innocent lives. The United States and Pakistan do indeed have a shared interest in ensuring that the Taliban live up to the commitments and that terrorist groups like ISIS-K, like the TTP, like al-Qaeda are no longer able to threaten regional security,” Mr. Price said.
Mr. Farhadi warned possible air strikes by Pakistan against the TTP would not mean an end to militancy and would further complicate the situation.
“The problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan are just starting, with a new chapter in the rise of militancy destabilizing that region. In summary, doctrine and religious militancy are stronger than weak states,” he said.
“Even though Pakistan has one of the largest armies and weaponry in the region, its weak economic performance and perception of corruption drive young people into the arms of these groups. A few strikes inside Afghanistan are not going to fix anything. Better governance is needed.”
With a report from the Associated Press
This story was produced in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights with funding from Meta Journalism Project.