Border skirmishes with Pakistan and the Taliban’s fraternal ties with TTP

Border skirmishes with Pakistan and the Taliban’s fraternal ties with TTP

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In late December and early January, the Taliban disrupted the fence construction along the Pak-Afghan border. In one instance, the Taliban fighters also snatched away the rolls of concertina wire from Pakistani troops. Subsequently, on January 7, the Taliban briefly detained and released seven Pakistani paramilitary soldiers in Paktika province on the Pak-Afghan border. 
The breakdown of the Pakistan-TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan) talks, which the Taliban facilitated, preceded these developments. Despite a month long cease-fire from November 9 to December 9, the negotiations collapsed due to a lack of trust and irreconcilable differences between the two sides, resulting in an upsurge of TTP’s attacks against Pakistan. In December, TTP claimed as many as 45 terrorist attacks, most for any month in 2021. 
Though some Taliban leaders have downplayed the border tensions as isolated localized incidents linked to command-and-control issues, successive statements from different Taliban leaders point toward prevailing hostility within the Taliban ranks on the Pak-Afghan border fencing. The Taliban deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai’s January 6 statement is a case in point. He maintained, “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 that the nation will make the decision.” 
Against this backdrop, it is essential to explore why Pakistan-Afghanistan tensions over the border fencing are mounting? Also, why have the Taliban shied away from expelling TTP from its sanctuaries in Afghanistan? Or, least of all, stop the TTP militants from carrying out attacks in Pakistan by disarming it? Instead, it has come to the fore that TTP is now using better arms seized by the Taliban from departing US troops from Afghanistan. For instance, the TTP fighters now use M16 machine guns and M4 assault rifles fitted with night vision scopes, enabling the militant group to increase nighttime sniper attacks on Pakistani security forces. 
Following the restoration of the Taliban’s regime, Pakistan expected that its security concerns regarding TTP would be addressed in return for helping the former reach a deal with the US. The Pakistan-brokered US-Taliban agreement in Doha in February 2020 paved the way for the US withdrawal and the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. Contrary to Pakistani expectations, the Taliban freed thousands of TTP prisoners from different prisons during Afghanistan’s takeover. 

To unpack the Taliban’s border tensions with Pakistan and their reluctance to act against TTP, it is vital to understand the deep-rooted relations between the two militant groups.

Abdul Basit

Last August, Islamabad also handed over a list of wanted TTP elements to the Taliban’s acting regime. The Taliban even formed a three-member commission to investigate Pakistan’s claims. However, notwithstanding the Taliban’s generic assurances of not allowing Afghan soil to be used against any other country, the militant group’s response to Pakistani security concerns has been rather tame. 
To unpack the Taliban’s border tensions with Pakistan and their reluctance to act against TTP, it is vital to understand the deep-rooted relations between the two militant groups. The Taliban share close ideological and ethnic linkages with TTP. TTP fighters and commanders consider the Taliban’s supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada as their emir and pledge their oath of allegiance to him. In September last year, during an in-camera briefing to the parliament, the Pakistani security institutions termed TTP and the Taliban as two sides of the same coin. 
Following the Taliban’s ouster from Afghanistan after 9/11, TTP sheltered the Taliban in their former strongholds of the ex-FATA region, now merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and helped them revive their insurgency against the US in Afghanistan. Furthermore, TTP’s help was also instrumental in the Taliban’s victory against the US. The Taliban are now returning the favor by hosting TTP in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s return to power has augmented TTP’s operational strength and afforded the militant group greater operational freedom. 
The Taliban do not expel or disarm TTP and insist on a negotiated settlement for four reasons. 
First, there is tremendous sympathy, camaraderie and support for TTP among the Taliban’s rank-and-file. The Taliban foot soldiers consider TTP as their ideological brethren who have fought shoulder-to-shoulder against the US in Afghanistan. Action against TTP will create more problems for the Taliban by pushing TTP elements toward Daesh-Khorasan, the Taliban’s ideological arch-foe. TTP’s current numerical strength is between 7,000 to 10,000. Currently, the Taliban are facing violent opposition from Daesh-K, which numbers between 3,000 to 5,000. Daesh-K primarily comprises of former TTP factions. If the Taliban, on Pakistan’s insistence, acts against TTP, it will push the latter toward Daesh-K. Furthermore, the efforts to expel or disarm TTP would exacerbate the Taliban’s factional divisions, which it cannot afford. In Afghanistan, inner unity and organizational coherence are important for the Taliban to hold onto power. 
Second, in the absence of diplomatic recognition by other countries, including Pakistan, the Taliban cannot afford to compromise their ideological credentials. After assuming power, the Taliban’s action against TTP, which helped them survive and win against the US, would constitute a great betrayal within their fraternity. On the contrary, by defying Pakistani pressure of kinetic action against TTP, the Taliban can dispel the impression of being a Pakistani proxy and rectify their image as an independent entity. 
Thirdly, the Taliban’s acting regime has intentionally provoked border tensions with Pakistan to deflect the latter’s pressure of action against TTP. Furthermore, the border flares help the Taliban divert attention from its inability to provide governance and service delivery to the hapless Afghan masses. 
Finally, by not recognizing the Pak-Afghan border and physically interrupting its fencing, the Taliban are positioning themselves as Pashtun nationalists to win the sympathies of Afghanistan’s ethnic Pashtun community. In that context, TTP provides the Taliban with significant leverage against Pakistan. Opposing the Pak-Afghan border’s fencing is a central theme of TTP’s revived militancy against Islamabad. Hence, the opposition of the border fencing creates a win-win both for the Taliban and TTP. 
The Taliban-Pakistan ties have always remained trouble-prone and conflict-ridden. Despite depending on Pakistan as a bridge to interact with the international community, the Taliban have sheltered TTP in Afghanistan and turned a blind eye to its attacks against the former. Pakistan will have to work out alternative strategies to neutralize TTP’s threat. 

- The author is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. Twitter: @basitresearcher

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