Afghanistan Pakistan Relations – The Honeymoon of 2022
With the Taliban, so-called Islamic Emirate raising the flag in Kabul on August 15, last year Pakistan achieved a much-vaunted objective of so-called "strategic depth," though the definition and contours of which remain ambiguous given complex political, security and economic challenges faced by the country.
Photographs of Lt Gen Faiz Hameed Pakistan's then Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) at Serena Hotel in Kabul casually sipping a cup of tea outlined the triumphalism for which Hameed may pay the price with denial of the job of the Army Chief, but that is another story.
Hameed is said to have facilitated establishment of the Islamic Emirate government with acting ministers in Kabul giving a prop to the ISI favoured Haqqani network.
All this seemed to suggest that the Taliban Islamic Emirate will bend to Pakistan's will, though seasoned veterans of the Afghan Pakistan scene always knew that this would not be the case.
Pakistan strongly advocated humanitarian support to Afghanistan pleading with multiple governments and using the bargaining chip of evacuation of citizens of nations held up in Kabul.
Islamabad organised several multilaterals such as the Extended Troika – Pakistan, China, Russia and the United States and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to muster support to Afghanistan which has been fairly successful though the international community's urgency to avoid a humanitarian crisis appears to have been the main trigger. The objective was not as much to support the Taliban administration as to increase Islamabad’s diplomatic weight.
With this non altruistic objective in 2022 Pakistan will continue to advocate humanitarian support and recognition of the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan, how much contribution this will have in the actual flow of assistance remains to be seen?
Even as these developments represented Taliban- Pakistan bonhomie two issues – Fencing on the Durand Line and Pak Taliban or Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have cropped up which highlighted that basics of Af Pak relations have not changed though this may not result in a fracture in relations given honeymoon period in 2022
There have been many clashes on the Durand Line, which have been underplayed by Pakistan. The Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has indicated that dialogue will resolve the issue. "We will not quit, erecting barbed-wire on "border" has begun and will be continued until it gets completed. Afghanistan is our friend and brother country but some opportunists provoke issues that are not in Pakistan's interests," said Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mohammad Qureshi.
On the other hand, negotiations were held with the TTP facilitated by the Acting Interior Minister of Afghanistan Sirajuddin Haqqani and a cease-fire was in place for a month trial period from November 09 last year which has been revoked as the two sides did not agree on a number of issues including release of some key TTP fighters who are in Pakistan jail.
These differences between Pakistan and Afghanistan are so serious that Moeed Yusuf, National Security Advisor of Pakistan is expected to visit Kabul particularly to discuss issues related to the Durand line on January 17-18.
The decision for visit of Moeed Yousuf was taken at a meeting of the Afghanistan Inter-Ministerial Coordination Cell (AICC), presided over by National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser, according to an official statement. "A senior delegation of Pakistani officials, headed by the NSA, is scheduled to visit Afghanistan soon for further engagement with the Afghan government on all assistance-related prospects," the statement said. Another issue is that of the persistent presence of TTP in Afghanistan, whether this was discussed in the AICC or not is not clear.
A detailed review of these issues is being deliberated upon herein.
Firstly the Durand Line.
Special Forces of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan destroyed the barbed wire erected by Pakistani forces on Durand Line in the Gushta district of eastern Nangarhar province as per Khaama Press.
Nangarhar province's provincial head of General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) Doctor Bashir led the operation.
A video clip from the scene shows that Doctor Bashir addresses Pakistani forces and threatens them with harsh repercussions if they do so again.
On a second occasion Taliban security forces stopped the Pakistani military from fencing part of Durand Line in southwestern Nimroz province, in the Chaharboluk district's Dak locality. Pakistani forces entered 10 to 15 metres inside Afghanistan territory as per Pajhwok news.
Videos shared on social media showed the Taliban destroying rolls of barbed wire meant for the fence and threatening to open fire on Pakistani troops.
Afghanistan's Acting Foreign Minister stated that there was no need for fencing between two friendly neighbours.
Pakistan (ISPR) Director General Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar, on the other hand, has indicated that the fencing of the Durand Line would continue as planned, adding that the fencing was 94 percent complete. Babar said, "The western border management, specifically the Pak-Afghan border ... there are some specific local, operational and strategic dynamics and these are [being] addressed at the relevant level." Giving a tone of martiality, he said, "The blood of our martyrs was spilled in erecting this fence. It is a fence of peace. It will be completed and will remain [in place]."
DG ISPR dismissed differences with Afghanistan and said, "We have very good relations. We understand each other and keep talking about different issues that keep surfacing. There is no problem, fencing is underway and will continue."
The Taliban has also been evasive on the issue of Durand Line rather than fixing the same only as one between the Government of the two sides statin that it is to be decided by the nation as a whole.
"The Durand Line is an issue of the whole nation, not the government. It doesn't belong to the government. We will give the responsibility to the nation, so the nation will make the decision," said Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai.
As far as the Taliban is concerned, the troubles are not only restricted to the border with Pakistan. A clash broke out between Islamic Emirate and Turkmen border forces on Monday morning along the border in Khamab district of northern Jawzjan province
Clearly this will remain a hot button issue in 2022.
Breakdown of the talks between the Pakistan Government and the Tehreek Taliban Pakistan, also known as the Pakistan Taliban has led to a spike in terrorist incidents in Khyber Pakhtoonwa in Dec 21 and Jan 22.
Pak analysts are reporting an increase in 40 per cent in terrorist violence in Pakistan in 2021, compared with 2020.
DG ISPR in a recent media briefing claimed that, "The ceasefire [with the TTP] ended on Dec 9. It [the ceasefire] was a confidence-building measure taken ahead of talks with these violent non-state actors on the request of the current Afghan government".
"There was a requirement for the interim Afghan govt that the TTP should not be using their soil against us so they said they would bring them to the table and make them accept what Pakistan wants. Obviously, those external conditions were yet to be settled," he said.
In anticipation of the spike, Pakistan is also increasing the strength of the Frontier Corps with 67 new wings of Frontier Corps Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa established in 2021 to further strengthen border security. Six more wings are likely to come up in 2022.
The Afghan Taliban has attempted to distance from the TTP. But the TTP has claimed that it is close to the Islamic Emirate or in fact is part of the overall network.
TTP chief Mufti Noor Wali Mahsud, in a video available on social media and purportedly shot during his visit to Pakistan's northern areas, declared that his outfit came under the larger 'umbrella' of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA). "Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan is a branch of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, [and] is a part of that umbrella on this land," Mahsud, flanked by armed TTP fighters is reportedly seen saying in the video.
Afghan Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid, however in an interview with Arab News, rejected Mahsud's claim of affiliation with the IEA. "They are not, as an organisation, part of IEA and we don't share the same objectives," Mujahid is quoted as saying by the publication. "We advise TTP to focus on peace and stability in their country. This is very important so they can prevent any chance for enemies to interfere in the region and in Pakistan. And we request Pakistan to look into their demands for the betterment of the region and Pakistan."
Meanwhile firing on the border is also causing a concern. A top military commander of the Islamic Emirate warned Pakistan to stop firing artillery on Afghan soil, saying that the Afghan side is ready to give the same response if attacks by the Pakistani military do not cease.
Taliban's opening of relations with India also appears to be one of the bones of contentions emerging in 2022.
While Pakistan has been requested for transit of wheat to Afghanistan for the quickest land route, there is continuing fiddling in Islamabad and India may examine taking the Chabahar route for the transhipment.
Taliban Alternatives to Pakistan
The Taliban is examining other options and is expanding relations with other regional stakeholders. Thus a 26-member delegation of the Islamic Emirate led by acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi is in Tehran and had wide-ranging discussions on political and economic issues, including bilateral trade. "We will try to form agreements with Iran on trade, economic, and political issues and we hope to have a fruitful visit," Muttaqi said. "We will have meetings on the mentioned issues. We hope to achieve good results," Din Mohammad Hanif, acting minister for the Ministry of Economy said.