Be careful what you wish for! The Taliban’s victorious Kabul return (rather a walkover) back in August 2021 was celebrated by different segments of Pakistan’s intelligentsia. The security-driven folks felt confident that, at long last, Pakistan’s strategic depth was restored, deterring India from conventional warfare. The religious-minded people were in awe of ragtag warriors defeating another superpower in Afghanistan. The economic elite suddenly started smelling transit and energy trade with Central Asia.
Nearly one and a half years later, there has hardly been any good news from the Western frontier. As the Taliban’s hardliner policies cemented their international-pariah status and left them short of hard foreign currency to pay for imports, the indirect impact on Pakistan’s economy has been painful enough for policymakers to order a coordinated crackdown on rampant smuggling of dollars, grains, and essential items to that country. With INGOs exiting Afghanistan now, the humanitarian situation may exacerbate.
Even formal trade has not been without a great deal of friction, on account of border-related tensions. The major Pak-Afghan trade crossing at Chaman has been in the news for skirmishes originating from the Afghan side, leading to casualties on the Pakistani side of the border. During 2022, there were several instances when the Afghan forces aggressively interfered with the border-fencing activities of Pakistani forces. The many ensuing, forceful condemnations by Pakistan’s Foreign Office have not worked so far.
First, it was the border clashes that raised suspicions in Pakistan about the Taliban’s policy, then, later on, rising terrorism incidents in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and other parts of the country vitiated the hitherto-sympathetic relations. Since the Taliban’s takeover, there has been a huge spike in TTP attacks, targeting mainly the security forces and police. There are also reports of other banned outfits plotting from Afghanistan. The attempted murder of Pakistan’s senior diplomat inside the Kabul embassy was also a letdown.
There is a growing perception that TTP’s earlier peace talks (brokered by the Taliban regime) were simply a ruse to not only obtain meaty concessions from a distracted Pakistani government but to also gain a foothold in border regions once again, to plan an attack deep inland. Regardless of whether the Taliban have been complicit with TTP or simply deficient in denying militants real-estate, manpower, and ammunition in their country, this state of affairs has been causing serious worries in Pakistan.
The recent high-level huddles under the NSC platform have addressed this problem with the urgency that it deserves. The way forward may emerge soon. At this stage, a viewpoint that seems to be converging among serious security experts is that it is time to directly engage the Taliban regime and ask them to decisively prevent militants from attacking Pakistan. But this may likely be a dead end, as the Taliban have no real incentive to help Pakistan out. They seem content or resigned to their international isolation.
Some other experts have argued that in case the Taliban fail to address Islamabad’s concerns, then Pakistani forces can conduct a ‘hot pursuit’ of terrorists inside Afghan soil, or even create a ‘buffer zone’ on the other side of the border to keep terrorists at bay. However, that may just be the recipe of a ‘forever war,’ something which the economy cannot sustain. At the same time, a worsening security situation is also unacceptable. Let’s see how this crisis, on top of many other crises, is tackled by the leadership.