Pakistan’s diplomatic tightrope: balancing the TTP threat and navigating complex relations with Afghanistan

Pakistan faces a diplomatic challenge managing the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) threat while navigating strained relations with Afghanistan. Tensions rise amid accusations and a delicate security landscape.

Afghanistan’s Taliban-appointed prime minister engaged in talks with a prominent Pakistani politician, Fazlur Rehman, to alleviate ongoing tensions between the two nations. Rehman, associated with the Jamiat Ulema Islam party known for supporting the Afghan Taliban, marks the first high-profile visit from a Pakistani political figure to Kabul since the Taliban assumed control in August 2021, following the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces after two decades of conflict.

The meeting took place with Prime Minister Mullah Mohammad Hasan Akhund, as confirmed by a statement from Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid. Although Rehman currently holds no official position in the Pakistani government, his close ties with the military add significance to this diplomatic encounter

The meeting took place in Islamabad and was conducted under the framework of the Joint Coordination Committee (JCC), which was established to tackle border management, aiming to mitigate tensions arising from a rise in lethal cross-border attacks attributed to terrorists operating from Afghan territory.

Following the Joint Coordination Committee (JCC) meeting, a statement from the Pakistani foreign ministry revealed that the two sides engaged in discussions about coordination mechanisms aimed at easing cross-border movement, to foster people-to-people contacts. However, specific details about the discussions at the delegation level were not disclosed by the ministry.

Pakistani officials assert that fugitive militants associated with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an anti-state group, and its allied factions have escalated cross-border attacks, enjoying increased operational freedom since the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan over two years ago. The situation remains a source of concern, prompting diplomatic efforts to address and manage the security challenges between the two neighbouring countries.

In 2023, a series of bombings and gun attacks led by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) resulted in the tragic loss of nearly 1,000 lives in Pakistan. Alarmingly, half of the casualties were members of the security forces, representing the highest number of fatalities in six years.

According to officials in Islamabad, there is a belief that TTP leaders strategically shifted their operational bases to provinces along the Afghan border after the Taliban regained control in Afghanistan. This development has raised concerns about the cross-border security situation, contributing to the ongoing tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The relocation of TTP leaders to Afghan border provinces is perceived as a factor exacerbating the security challenges faced by both nations.

Taliban authorities have consistently refuted allegations that they permit groups like the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to pose threats to other countries, including Pakistan, from Afghan territory. They have repeatedly advised Islamabad against attributing Pakistan’s “internal” security challenges to Afghanistan.

Mullah Shirin Akhund serves as the governor of Kandahar province, situated along the border with Pakistan. Notably, he is a close associate of the Taliban’s reclusive leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, who governs Afghanistan from Kandahar. Akhundzada’s male-only Cabinet operates in Kabul, the Afghan capital. Despite these affiliations, the Taliban insists on its commitment to not allowing Afghan soil to be used as a base for attacks on other countries. The issue remains a point of contention in the broader regional dynamics and diplomatic relations.

Taliban officials have made recent announcements regarding the arrest of numerous Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) members within Afghanistan. Additionally, during interactions with senior Pakistani officials, the Taliban conveyed their intention to relocate TTP members away from the Afghan border areas and, ultimately, to “disarm” them.

However, Pakistani officials have expressed scepticism regarding the credibility of these claims made by Kabul. As part of ongoing discussions, Pakistani authorities were anticipated to emphasize the need for the Taliban to substantiate these assurances and potentially press the Taliban delegates during the current talks to hand over TTP leaders to Islamabad. The issue underscores the delicate nature of diplomatic relations between the two countries, particularly concerning cross-border security challenges and the activities of militant groups.

Pakistan has asserted that fighters affiliated with the Afghan Taliban have been involved in or facilitated certain recent attacks led by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Pakistani Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar stated in a recent announcement that a minimum of 16 Afghan nationals were responsible for suicide bombings within Pakistan, and another 65 were killed by Pakistani forces in counterterrorism operations.

In October, Prime Minister Kakar ordered a crackdown on at least 1.7 million undocumented Afghans residing in Pakistan. This initiative led to the forced repatriation of more than 500,000 individuals back into Afghanistan. These measures reflect Pakistan’s efforts to address security challenges and control the movement of individuals across its borders, particularly in light of the perceived involvement of Afghan Taliban fighters in militant activities within Pakistan.

The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), recognized as a globally designated terrorist organization, first emerged in Pakistan’s historically volatile border regions in 2007. Since its inception, the TTP has regularly claimed responsibility for deadly attacks targeting both security forces and civilians.

The militant group played a significant role by providing shelter and recruits to fugitive Taliban leaders. These leaders directed years of insurgent attacks primarily on the Afghan side of the border, focusing on U.S.-led Western troops until they departed from Afghanistan in August 2021.

Pakistan’s military has faced persistent accusations of supporting the Taliban insurgency against foreign forces and aiding in their return to power. However, Islamabad has consistently rejected these accusations. The complex dynamics in the region involve historical ties, geopolitical considerations, and ongoing security challenges that continue to shape the relationship between Pakistan, the Taliban, and other stakeholders in the Afghan conflict.

CONCERNS FOR FUTURE

Pakistan’s increased diplomatic engagement with the Taliban is driven by concerns that the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) may escalate violence in the upcoming spring, potentially targeting national elections scheduled for the next month. The fear is that heightened violence could severely strain the already fragile relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban.

There is a recognition that a significant surge in violence could become a turning point, prompting the Pakistani government to reconsider its level of support for the Taliban. This development is especially crucial given the potential impact on national elections and broader bilateral relations.

The United States has also expressed concerns about the increase in TTP attacks against Pakistani security forces, originating from the group’s bases in Afghanistan. This violence has contributed to a deterioration in bilateral ties between Pakistan and the United States, emphasizing the need for concerted efforts to eliminate the TTP group inside Afghanistan for the sake of regional stability and the interests of all involved parties.

NO PEACE TALKS

The Foreign Ministry declared that the government has no plans to enter into peace talks with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The stance remains unchanged, emphasizing the demand for effective action by Afghan authorities against terrorist elements within Afghanistan, including TTP leadership.

Despite Kabul previously hosting and mediating talks between Pakistan and the TTP in mid-2022, the group withdrew from the process later that year. Subsequently, the TTP resumed attacks, causing significant casualties among security forces and civilians in the past year. Pakistani officials allege the involvement of Afghan Taliban members in supporting and participating in some of these TTP attacks.

The Taliban authorities dismiss the accusations, cautioning Pakistan against attributing its “internal security problems” to external factors. The surge in violence has prompted the Pakistani government to clamp down on undocumented Afghans within its borders, resulting in over half a million individuals being repatriated to Afghanistan in recent months, putting strain on the relationship between the two nations.

While no foreign country formally recognizes the Taliban government in Kabul, certain neighbouring nations, including China and Russia, maintain informal ties with Afghanistan’s de facto authorities. Despite lacking official recognition, these connections remain important for Afghanistan, which historically relies on Pakistani land routes and seaports for both bilateral and international trade.