Pak airstrikes in Khost and Kunar demonstrate end of Islamabad-Rawalpindi honeymoon

In an unprecedented provocation, Pakistan conducted airstrikes on April 16 in Afghanistan’s eastern Khost and Kunar provinces to target alleged hideouts of the terrorist group, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The air raids resulted in the killing of 47 innocent civilians, including children and women, and more than 20 injuries. The incident has significantly increased tensions between the acting Taliban government in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As a result, there is a likelihood of more violent clashes in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In its official statement on the incident, Taliban warned of “dire consequences” if Pakistan conducts similar attacks in the future. Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s Deputy Minister of Information and Culture and Chief Spokesperson, issued a stern warning that “Pakistan should not test the Afghan people’s patience,” otherwise it will face “bad consequences.” Pakistan, on the other hand, did not acknowledge the airstrikes and blamed the recent spike in cross-border attacks allegedly emanating from Afghanistan and the Taliban government’s failure to stop TTP’s activities for tensions between the two neighboring countries.

Pakistan’s attack on the Afghan soil is a likely violation of Article 2(1) of the United Nations’ Charter, which clearly states that “use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in a statement that it was “deeply concerned” by civilian deaths caused by air strikes, and the mission was verifying the extent of casualties. Additionally, an Afghan representative of the United Nations Children’s Fund confirmed that, “In Khost, 12 girls and three boys were killed; in Kunar, three girls and two boys were killed.”

Despite these statements, the Taliban regime has not taken any major diplomatic steps to internationalise the issue to put pressure on Pakistan besides summoning Islamabad’s Ambassador in Kabul. The obvious reason for this lackadaisical response from Taliban is its dependence on Islamabad. Pakistan has been at the forefront in doing Taliban’s bidding for the international recognition since the fall of Kabul in August last year, with no major success so far.

Following last week’s air attacks, several anti-Pakistan protests have taken place in different parts of Afghanistan. The Taliban government is under pressure to handle growing anti-Pakistan sentiments in the country after recent airstrikes and regular cross-border aggression from the Pakistani security forces.

For Afghans living along the Durand Line, airstrikes are the reminder of last two bloody decades of violent fighting between the Taliban and foreign forces (US and NATO). What Pakistan’s airstrikes have done is that they have reopened old wounds for the border population in Afghanistan. This brazen show of power, which is part of Pakistan’s counter-terrorism strategy, will not work in the long-term and may result in a violent pushback from Afghanistan in tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and former Federally Administered Tribal Areas agencies.

More importantly, there is a growing sense of mistrust and anger among the Pashtun population on both sides of the Durand Line. Even after seven months of the Taliban takeover of Kabul, the border areas in Afghanistan are seeing persistent violence amid growing food and refugee crises. On the other hand, the contentious issue of the Durand Line remains unresolved despite several meetings between Taliban government and Islamabad. Perhaps, Islamabad misconstrued Taliban’s intentions on the issue and misjudged that the group would not raise objections on the border fencing after coming to power in Afghanistan.

Furthermore, there is an apparent frustration in Islamabad over Taliban’s inability and disinterest in addressing the TTP issue. As a mediator, Taliban helped to conduct several rounds of negotiations between Islamabad and TTP. Those talks even led to ‘one-month’ long ceasefire and a truce agreement last year.[9] However, negotiations fell apart after TTP accused Pakistan of violating the terms of truce. The terror group resumed attacks in December, and fresh attempts to restart talks between Islamabad and TTP failed miserably. In April this year, the TTP announced a rare spring offensive – ‘Al-Badr’ – against Pakistani “security forces and their collaborators.” This has further exacerbated insecurities in Islamabad, leading to more differences with its proxy Taliban government in Kabul.

In conclusion, Pakistan’s attack on the Afghan soil can be seen a sign of frustration. It appears that Pakistan’s powerful military establishment has decided to take the war against terrorism into Afghanistan. The mistrust between the Taliban and Islamabad has possibly reached to a level of no return. The recent airstrikes in Khost and Kunar are a warning call for the Taliban regime in Kabul. An immediate resumption of peace talks between TTP and Pakistan may provide some breathing room for the Taliban government. However, that scenario seems unlikely after TTP announced the spring offensive against Pakistan’s security forces. As a result, the coming months may see a spike in border clashes between the Taliban fighters and Pakistan’s security forces. Rawalpindi may consider announcing a military offensive in Waziristan or increase their cross-border counterterrorism offensive in Afghanistan.