Kabul and Islamabad have a complex history. Almost a year on from the Taliban assuming control of Afghanistan, a longstanding border dispute threatens to reignite tensions.
The celebrations in Pakistan for the Taliban’s victory have been short-lived as cracks start to appear in the Taliban-Pakistan relationship around the legitimacy of the Durand line. The Durand line is a 2,640 kilometre border between Pakistan and Afghanistan which was drawn by the British Empire in 1893. The refusal to accept the legality of the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is not unique to the Afghan Taliban (Taliban hereafter) government. Afghan governments, following the creation of Pakistan in 1947, have argued that the legitimacy of the line expired in 1993, as the validity of the agreement was for 100 years. Meanwhile, Pakistan argues that the Durand line is a legal international border between the two states and has built a fence along the border.
In Pakistan, Punjabis and Pashtuns make up the two major ethnic groups along the Durand line. Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and the largest ethnic minority in Pakistan, home to almost 30 million. The Taliban, which is predominantly Pashtun, argue that the Durand line disrupts the Pashtun community’s trade and free movement, leaving them divided between countries. The region is also home to Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), often considered the deadliest terrorist group in Pakistan, which has killed thousands of Pakistanis since 2007. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan is associated with the Taliban and many TTP leaders have sought refuge in Afghanistan. After coming into power, the Taliban brokered a short-lived ceasefire between TTP and the Pakistan government and mediated peace talks between them.
Pakistan likely hoped that a Taliban government in Kabul would accept the legitimacy of the Durand line and that Islamabad could leverage TTP’s connection with the Taliban to broker a peace agreement with them. However, Pakistan was wrong on both counts. The Taliban has refused to accept the legitimacy of the Durand line and has attacked Pakistanis building the fence. While the Taliban’s stance has popular support domestically, it is unlikely to be a sustainable strategy as the country is dependent on Pakistan for military, humanitarian, and government support in their fight for international legitimacy. Pakistan’s political elites and former PM Imran Khan have called for global recognition of a new and more inclusive Taliban. However, the Taliban’s actions at the Durand line, will likely prompt the new government in Islamabad to restrict some support to Afghanistan.
This feeling is likely to be reinforced by the failure of Pakistan and TTP to sign a peace agreement. Islamabad almost certainly blames the Taliban for the ceasefire violations and an increase in attacks by TTP. Pakistan’s Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa has claimed that the Taliban and TTP are two faces of the same coin. There is likely a strong feeling in Islamabad that the Taliban is encouraging TTP to conduct more attacks in retaliation for the fencing on the Durand line. It is unclear how much sway the Taliban has over TTP’s actions, but they released several TTP leaders from Afghan prisons after taking power in Kabul and TTP members have sought refuge in Afghanistan. However, encouraging TTP to conduct attacks in Pakistan is unlikely to be in the interests of Kabul due to its dependence on Pakistan. Nevertheless, opposing the fencing on the Durand line will likely increase domestic support for the Taliban, especially in the border region, where opposition to the Durand line is dominant.
One of the most important recent events is the departure of former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government. While the new government in Islamabad, under Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, will firstly address the national economic crisis and attempt to establish a stable government it will likely change its approach to dealing with both Talibans. The new government will also have to manage the complex coalition, Imran Khan’s popularity, and his calls for an early election.
The peace agreement with TTP was spearheaded by Khan, who was also a big proponent of the Taliban gaining international legitimacy. The new government is unlikely to follow Khan’s strategy and will likely take a tougher stance on the increasingly aggressively Talibans as the groups increase their attacks and continue using Afghanistan as a base to launch these attacks. One week after former PM Khan lost the no-confidence motion, Pakistan carried out air strikes in eastern Afghanistan in Kunar and Khost provinces. The air strikes targeted both the Taliban and the TTP fighters in the region and resulted in the death of nearly 50 civilians. Retaliation from Pakistan is a clear shift in policy towards both Talibans and almost certainly a message to the Taliban to stop giving refuge to TTP.
The border between the two countries has far-reaching effects on the stability of the region. The death of civilians in the recent air strikes will almost certainly increase tensions between Kabul and Islamabad and lead to more violence at the border. The recent visit by the Indian foreign ministry delegation will likely deepen the mistrust between the Taliban and Islamabad who has an ongoing conflict with New Delhi. The Taliban is unlikely to back down from its position on the Durand line and will continue to prevent the construction of the fence and provide refuge to TTP members as it looks to strengthen its domestic support. Ceasefires between TTP and Islamabad are unlikely to be long-lasting and a peace agreement is a distant possibility as TTP increases attacks. Pakistan is now fighting two terrorist groups on three different conflicts and the Durand line impasse will likely see more border skirmishes and will remain a hotspot for conflict for the foreseeable future.
Sachin Khunte is a recent Bachelor of Arts graduate majoring in Politics and International Relations and International Business at the University of Sydney. He has worked as a Team Lead and an editor in an American intelligence and counterterrorism firm. Sachin is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs.
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