Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban have been allies for decades, with Islamabad providing safe havens to the Islamist militants in its aim to establish a friendly government in Kabul.
But since the Taliban regained power in August, border clashes and unprecedented Pakistani air strikes inside Afghanistan have increased already simmering tensions.
Pakistan launched air raids over eastern Afghanistan on April 16, killing dozens of civilians, according to locals. Islamabad said it was targeting Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants. The air strikes provoked unusually harsh exchanges, with the Taliban issuing threats against its longtime ally.
Experts said the root of the growing tensions is the Taliban’s unwillingness to crack down on the TTP, a close ideological and organizational ally. From its bases inside Afghanistan, the extremist group has intensified its insurgency against Islamabad in recent years.
The Afghan Taliban has mediated peace talks between Islamabad and the TTP, also known as the Pakistani Taliban. But since a temporary monthlong cease-fire expired and peace talks collapsed in December, the militants have increased their cross-border attacks against Pakistani security forces.
"Pakistan is angry that the Taliban are copying its playbook by hosting a militant group hostile to a neighboring country," said Sami Yousafzai, a veteran Afghan journalist and commentator who has tracked the Taliban since its emergence in the 1990s. He was referring to Islamabad’s support to the Taliban during the 20-year U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
Yousafzai said the Afghan Taliban is unlikely to bow to Islamabad’s demand that it expels the TTP or prevent it from using Afghan territory from carrying out attacks in Pakistan.
"It will go against the narrative and history of the Taliban to engage in a military offensive against a fellow Islamist group on Pakistan's behest," he said.
Demands For Action
Pakistan has not commented on the air strikes. But on April 17, the Foreign Ministry issued a strongly worded statement in which it said "terrorists [were] operating with impunity from Afghan soil to carry out activities in Pakistan." It demanded that the Taliban take “stern actions.”
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the air strikes were “a cruelty” that would pave the “way for enmity between Afghanistan and Pakistan.” He added that Islamabad “should know that if a war starts it will not be in the interest of any side.”
The Afghan militants have also been infuriated by a fence Islamabad is erecting along their roughly 2,700-kilometer border. Pakistan and the international community consider the frontier, known as the Durand Line, to be an international border. Afghanistan rejects the colonial-era border that was created in 1893.
Abdul Basit, a Pakistani counterterrorism and security expert, said the border dispute explains why "irrespective of who rules Kabul, their relationship with Pakistan will not be really good."
He said that while relations between Islamabad and the Taliban were already tense over border issues, TTP safe havens in Afghanistan were the primary source of friction.
"But that doesn't mean that we are anywhere close to the rupture of this relationship," he said.
Riven internally, debilitated by the death of successive leaders, and forced from its strongholds, the TTP was seen for years as a largely spent force. But the group has reemerged over the past two years, unifying squabbling factions and unleashing a wave of deadly attacks.
Pakistan recorded at least 294 militant attacks in 2021, a 56 percent increase compared to the previous year, according to the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS). Most of the attacks were attributed to the TTP.
Analysts said the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has emboldened and strengthened the TTP. The withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan in August has significantly reduced U.S. air strikes in the region, allowing the TTP to operate more freely.
TTP fighters have also obtained sophisticated weaponry, including U.S.-made firearms that their Afghan allies seized from Afghanistan's defeated armed forces.
With the Taliban unwilling to clamp down on the TTP, Pakistan is likely to continue targeting TTP sanctuaries in Afghanistan, which will further strain Islamabad’s ties with the militants, analysts said.
In December, a suspected Pakistani drone strike targeted Faqir Mohammad, a senior TTP leader, in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Kunar. But the missile fired by the drone failed to explode. The incident triggered condemnation by the Taliban regime in Kabul.
“Pakistan has come to the begrudging conclusion that the Taliban are unlikely to deliver on its counterterrorism concerns,” said Asfandyar Mir, a senior analyst at the United States Institute of Peace, a think tank in Washington. “These strikes can be an attempt to alter the Taliban's calculus on support for the TTP by ramping up some costs.”
Unless there is a major reduction in TTP violence, Mir said it was “hard to see how Taliban-Pakistan ties improve from here.”