Is a rift between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban imminent?

Tensions over border demarcation and TTP violence may damage relations between Islamabad and Kabul.

A soldier stands guard along the border fence outside the Kitton outpost on the border with Afghanistan in North Waziristan, Pakistan
A soldier stands guard along the border fence outside the Kitton outpost on the border with Afghanistan in North Waziristan, Pakistan on October 18, 2017 [File: Reuteres/Caren Firouz]

When the Taliban took over the Afghan capital, Kabul, in August last year, many in Islamabad cheered. The collapse of the Western-backed Afghan government was seen as an opportunity to reset relations between the two countries, which had grown strained under Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. After the formation of the Taliban government, Islamabad became one of its main supporters on the international scene, calling for its recognition and for urgent financial assistance.

In recent months, however, signs have emerged of cracks in the otherwise amicable relations between the two. Disagreements over the demarcation of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and Afghan Taliban support for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have caused tensions.

If no resolution is reached on these issues, this could cause a rift in relations with significant consequences for both Pakistan’s national security and regional stability.

Border tensions

In early September, while the Taliban was deliberating the makeup of its government, Pakistan’s former intelligence chief Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed paid a visit to Kabul. According to Afghan and Pakistani sources, Hameed was able to influence the decisions on the final makeup of the interim cabinet to favour pro-Pakistani figures from the Haqqani Network and prevent Mullah Ghani Baradar from taking the head of government position.

Bardar, a prominent Taliban leader, is perceived to harbour hostility towards Islamabad, given his imprisonment by the Pakistani authorities between 2010 and 2018. A government headed by him would not have been as friendly to Pakistan. By contrast, the Haqqani Network, which took key cabinet portfolios, including the ministries of interior, communications, education and refugee and repatriation, are considered close to Islamabad.

While Pakistan’s ability to sway the Taliban government formation process reflects the extent of its influence in Kabul, it has also caused resentment among certain circles within the leadership of the group.

This was made apparent in late December and early January when Afghan border guards forced Pakistani workers to stop fencing the border between the two countries. The incident was followed by an exchange of public statements by Afghan and Pakistani officials.

“The issue of the Durand Line is still an unresolved one, while the construction of fencing itself creates rifts within a nation spread across both sides of the border. It amounts to dividing a nation,” Afghan Information Minister and Chief Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in an interview for a Pashto-language YouTube channel, referring to the Pashtun community, the biggest ethnic group in Afghanistan and the second-biggest one in Pakistan.

In response, Pakistan military spokesman, Major General Babar Iftikhar said during a press conference, “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].”

The Durand Line was demarcated between British-ruled India and Afghanistan in 1893 by the then-Afghan ruler Amir Abdul Rahman and British Indian Foreign Secretary Mortimer Durand. Since the establishment of Pakistan in 1947, Kabul has not only objected to the border demarcation, but has also challenged the inclusion of Pashtun tribal areas within Pakistani borders.

In recent years, the problem has persisted, with both former Afghan presidents, Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, reaffirming the Afghan rejection of the Durand Line. The Taliban has stuck to the same traditional stance and is showing no signs of making concessions to Pakistan.

In recent days, engagement between the two sides failed to make any progress on the issue. In late January, Pakistan’s National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf visited Kabul but was only able to negotiate a bilateral coordination mechanism to facilitate border crossing movement and trade; the border fence issue remained unaddressed.

Afghan Taliban support for TTP

Another source of tensions between Kabul and Islamabad has been the TTP. The armed group fought alongside the Afghan Taliban against the US and its allies for years and the two have a strong bond. When the Taliban took power on August 15, they set free hundreds of TTP men, including some prominent leaders, incarcerated in Afghan jails. Much of the TTP leadership is based in Afghanistan and many members, according to Afghan and Pakistanis journalistic sources, are receiving support.

Since it was founded in 2007, the TTP has been responsible for deadly violence in Pakistan, attacking both security forces and civilians. The Pakistani authorities believe that the TTP, along with al-Qaeda and some affiliated groups, has so far killed more than 80,000 Pakistanis and inflicted economic losses of more than $150bn.

In 2014, the Pakistani army launched a major offensive against the TTP, forcing many of its members to flee to Afghanistan. After an initial lull in violence, the TTP started to escalate its attacks again in recent years. In 2021, as the Taliban advanced in Afghanistan, TTP fighters intensified their assaults in Pakistan. There were at least two attacks also targeting Chinese workers and the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan, which unsettled Beijing, a close ally of Islamabad.

Before the Taliban takeover of Kabul last year, Pakistani officials repeatedly argued that the presence of the US and its allies in Afghanistan fed the TTP insurgency. But recent events have shown that the victory of the Afghan Taliban has only emboldened the TTP.

A ceasefire between the armed group and the Pakistani military negotiated with the help of the Afghan Taliban government in November was short-lived. The TTP resumed their attacks in December against security forces and civilians, even as secret talks with representatives of the Pakistani government have continued.

So far, the mediation of the Afghan Taliban has not produced any significant results and its support for the TTP continues. If violence in Pakistan escalates, that could put more strain on Kabul-Islamabad relations. And such an escalation is quite likely.

The Afghan Taliban is worried that pressing the TTP too hard could push it towards its enemy, the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), and the TTP itself is apprehensive about desertions within its ranks if it does not continue with its hardline approach to the Pakistan government, which it wants to overthrow.

An imminent rift?

So far, there are no indications that the border issue between Afghanistan and Pakistan can be resolved, as the Taliban appears quite eager to maintain the Pashtun unity rhetoric. If this issue continues to fester, it could provide fertile ground for further border incidents that could spark tensions.

Similarly, despite efforts by the Pakistani government to engage in talks with the TTP, peace with the armed group seems quite unlikely, given internal pressure to maintain its violent direction. And the more it escalates its attacks on security forces and civilians, the greater the public pressure in Pakistan will be to take decisive action, including against the TTP’s main backer – the Afghan Taliban. Any further targeting of Chinese assets and proven collaboration with Uighur armed groups would also result in Beijing pushing for a strong response to the TTP.

While the Pakistani authorities seem eager to maintain close relations with Kabul, domestic pressures – as well as a push from China – could result in a decision to recalibrate this strategy and could lead to Islamabad halting its international campaign in support of the Afghan Taliban. The Pakistani government could go even further and start backing Afghan anti-Taliban groups that could destabilise Taliban rule.

If Kabul loses its main foreign backer, it would have one of two options to respond: try to draw closer to the West and the US or slide back to its past role as a regional host for insurgencies and terrorist networks. The first option would be hard to achieve, as the West has made clear that it wants to see solid guarantees for women’s and minority rights and as well as democratic institutions before striking a deal with the Taliban. Given the significant sway hardliners have in the leadership ranks of the group, it seems unlikely that its government would go in this direction.

It seems more likely that the Afghan Taliban would radicalise further and revert back to cooperation with other armed groups and terrorist elements. It would likely extend even more support to the TTP and its attacks on Pakistan and may start cooperating with the ISKP and al-Qaeda.

Thus, the situation in Afghanistan under the Taliban in upcoming months would be very complex and uncertain and any hope of stability and sustainable peace in the foreseeable future does not seem to be a possibility.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.