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Will Pakistan Strike Taliban-Controlled Afghanistan?

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FILE - Pakistan Army troops patrol the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in Khyber district, Pakistan, Aug. 3, 2021.

As Islamabad increasingly voices concern about the alleged sheltering of a Pakistani insurgent group in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, there is speculation whether the Pakistani military might strike targets in the neighboring country and how that would impact the region's fragile security.

Observers say the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan in 2021 appears to have revived the armed insurgent group Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan — known as the TTP — which has sought the establishment of an Islamist government in Pakistan like the Afghan Taliban, but has been weakened by intense Pakistani military operations over the past decade. Afghanistan has faced accusations it has been harboring the TTP.

After months of inconclusive talks facilitated by the Afghan Taliban in 2022, the government of Pakistan and TTP appear headed back to war between each other.

This past week, top Pakistani military and civilian leaders convened to discuss options for countering TTP threats, which they now claim emanate from Afghanistan.

“No country will be allowed to provide sanctuaries and facilitation to terrorists and Pakistan reserves all rights in that respect to safeguard her people," said a statement issued by the government of Pakistan after the meeting on Monday.

Asked at her regular briefing Thursday about speculation that Pakistan is contemplating cross-border strikes into Afghanistan, foreign ministry spokeswoman Mumtaz Zahra Baloch responded that Pakistan is a responsible member of the United Nations.

“And as a responsible member of the United Nations it subscribes to and will always uphold the purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter, which include territorial integrity and political independence of states," she said. "Pakistan has consistently said that it will continue to support the Afghan people in their quest for a unified, independent and sovereign Afghanistan that is at peace with itself and its neighbors.”

Pakistan has the right to self-defense against terrorism, Ned Price, spokesman for the U.S. Department of State, said on Tuesday, without mentioning whether the right included Pakistani military action inside Afghanistan.

The TTP poses significant security threats in Pakistan but the group is not a nationwide insurgency capable of bringing down the Pakistani government, experts say.

“The latest developments have given Pakistan little choice but to launch military operations,” Michael Kugelman, South Asia Institute director at the Wilson Center, told VOA.

“If the threat continues to mount and attacks keep increasing, foreign investors could be scared away. And that's the last thing Pakistan needs at a moment of acute economic stress.”

The Taliban deny harboring the TTP and groups that pose security threats to other countries, but the United Nations says several foreign terrorist groups are present in Afghanistan.

Friendless Taliban

Despite holding firm control over all of Afghanistan for more than a year, the Taliban have failed to earn recognition from any country and are widely condemned for their undemocratic governance, particularly for violating women’s rights.

Domestically, the Taliban have refused to form an inclusive government and have faced relentless attacks from Islamic State and other groups that oppose the Taliban.

However, for a Pakistani military that has waged several extensive military operations against the TTP in Pakistan, tackling the group in Afghanistan would be more challenging and even counterproductive, experts say.

“The Pakistani military is not designed nor optimized for fighting the likes of TTP in the tribal areas of the country. I suspect, as they have done in the past, that its leaders will do everything they can to avoid another large military conflagration of that kind,” Jonathan Schroden, a military operations analyst with the research organization CNA, told VOA.

Airstrikes by Pakistani forces inside Afghanistan will carry “significant risks, particularly that of accidental civilian casualties, and there are the obvious sovereignty issues, which could lead to open conflict with the Afghan Taliban,” said Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Pakistani military actions, meanwhile, could embolden Islamic State and other militant groups in Afghanistan, creating a favorable environment for international terrorism and criminality.

Sanctioned and isolated, the Taliban in 1996-2001 sheltered al-Qaida leaders in Afghanistan. In 2023, the group is even more isolated and at odds with the rest of the world.

“I do think the U.S. and Pakistan are facing a similar challenge in Afghanistan in that they both confront terrorist threats there that the Taliban have been unwilling or unable to curb. I'm not sure that Washington is hoping Islamabad will launch cross-border operations - more instability on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border doesn't serve U.S. interests,” said Kugelman.

For the Afghan Taliban, making an enemy of the strong Pakistani military would be devastating.

“They can’t afford to completely alienate Pakistan,” said Schroden, adding that the Taliban are already hurting themselves, domestically and internationally, through their policy choices.

A ploy?

Speaking at a U.N. Security Council meeting in December, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, the Indian foreign minister, called Pakistan “the epicenter of terrorism.” For years, India has accused its neighbor of harboring and promoting armed groups that launch attacks inside India – charges Pakistan rejects.

For some, Pakistan’s demonstrated frustration with the Afghan Taliban is a staged ploy aimed at whitewashing Pakistan’s alleged longstanding support for violent Islamic extremism in the region.

“The endgame for Pakistan is to turn the Afghan Pashtun belt into their new tribal area,” Hamdullah Mohib, national security advisor to the former Afghan government, tweeted this week.

“This strategy would also most likely gain support from other regional powers, who all would like the freedom to target their enemies inside Afghanistan without global objections.”

The Taliban waged a successful insurgency in Afghanistan largely because of the hideouts and support they received in Pakistan, but a weak Taliban government in Afghanistan, isolated from the rest of the world, might be more desirable and easier for Pakistan to handle.

“Pakistan’s current situation and insecurity are, to a larger extent, the results of Pakistan’s own policies,” Hamid Karzai, former Afghan president, tweeted on Tuesday.

As the first democratically elected president of Afghanistan in 2004, Karzai tried for more than a decade to persuade Pakistani officials to quit support for the Taliban.

Now as a former president living under Taliban rule, Karzai offers the same advice to Pakistan: “Deeply reconsider and change your policy of the past several decades, avoid [using] threats and violence, and adopt a path for civilized and noble relations with Afghanistan for the consolidation of peace and stability in the region.”

This article has been updated to include a Pakistan foreign ministry comment on speculation that it is contemplating cross-border raids into Afghanistan.

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