Why did Pakistan carry out airstrikes in Afghanistan? | Explained

The story so far: In a major escalation of tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan this week, Pakistani fighters carried out airstrikes inside the Afghan provinces of Paktika and Khost, leading to fighting along the border. At least eight civilians, including three children, were killed in the pre-dawn attacks, Afghan officials said.

The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other splinter groups were the prime target of the “intelligence-based anti-terrorist operations” early March 18, the Pakistan Foreign Ministry said, as it blamed the TTP for the surge in terror incidents in the country. Most recently, seven Pakistani soldiers were killed in a suicide bombing at an army outpost in North Waziristan district, for which President Asif Ali Zardari had vowed retaliation.

The Taliban strongly condemned the strikes, and as retaliation, attacked Pakistani military posts along the border using “heavy weapons.” In a statement, the Taliban described the military action as a “reckless” violation of Afghanistan’s territorial integrity, adding that such incidents could have “very bad consequences.”

Although the fighting along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border has stopped for now, the incident highlights the increasing tension between the two countries as Islamabad has accused the Taliban of providing refuge to terrorists launching frequent attacks on its territory.

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The backstory

The 2,670-kilometre Durand Line which marks the international land border between Pakistan and Afghanistan has long been a point of contention between the two nations. Cutting through the Pashtun-dominated regions, the Line stretches from Afghanistan’s border with China in the north to its border with Iran in the south.

A majority of Pashtuns, including Taliban leaders and fighters, living along the border, have refused to endorse the demarcation. Successive Afghan governments have also disputed the Line, claiming Pashtun territories in Pakistan, including the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and parts of the North West Frontier Province. The disagreement over the border has caused tensions between Pakistan and the Taliban, despite their historically good relations. Pakistan played a significant role in mediating the 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement and supported the Taliban after they regained power in Afghanistan in 2021. 

Why has Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban soured?

Tensions became apparent after the Taliban firmly rejected the Durand Line as a permanent border, dividing ethnic Pashtuns, following its return to power in 2021. A series of skirmishes between the two forces along the border were reported in the following days.

The tensions escalated after the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, called off a ceasefire in November 2022 when talks brokered by the Afghan Taliban broke down. The Afghan Taliban and the TTP are separate groups with common ideological links. The Pakistani Taliban is behind some of the bloodiest attacks in the country, responsible for killing thousands of Pakistanis in 15 years of insurgency.

A regrouped TTP ordered nationwide attacks after the ceasefire ended, which resulted in an unprecedented surge in terror incidents across Pakistan. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan bordering Afghanistan have been worst-affected provinces. The country saw a 69% increase in attacks in 2023, an 81% rise in resultant deaths, and a 60% surge in the number of injuries, according to the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS). The total violence-related fatalities reached a record six-year high last year, with over 1,500 deaths from 789 terror attacks and counter-terror operations, as reported by the Islamabad-based Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS).

Security officials examine the site of a bomb explosion, in Peshawar, Pakistan, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023.

Security officials examine the site of a bomb explosion, in Peshawar, Pakistan, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023.
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Amid a multifaceted crisis, Pakistan urged the Afghan Taliban to control the TTP. While the Taliban assured that they wouldn’t permit anyone to use Afghan soil for attacks against any country, the surge in attacks since 2021 created distrust between Pakistan and the Taliban.

Also Read | What’s behind the Pakistani Taliban’s deadly insurgency?

What triggered the airstrikes?

On March 16, seven Pakistani soldiers were killed after a suicide bomber rammed an explosive-laden truck into a post in North Waziristan. The next day, while offering the funeral prayers, President Asif Ali Zardari vowed to “respond strongly.” Hours later, the Taliban released a statement, alleging that Pakistani planes had bombed the Barmal district of Paktika province and Sepera district in Khost at 3 a.m. on March 18, resulting in the deaths of civilians.

Pakistan confirmed the airstrikes hit rebels belonging to TTP’s Hafiz Gul Bahadur Group after the outfit claimed responsibility for the March 16 attack. In a press release, the Pakistan Foreign Office said the country conveyed its serious concerns to the Afghan government over the presence of terror outfits including TTP inside Afghanistan over the past two years. “These terrorists pose a grave threat to Pakistan’s security and have consistently used Afghan territory to launch terror attacks inside Pakistani territory,” it added.

“We have repeatedly urged the Afghan authorities to take concrete and effective action to ensure that the Afghan soil is not used as a staging ground for terrorism against Pakistan… Pakistan has great respect for the people of Afghanistan. However, certain elements among those in power in Afghanistan are actively patronising TTP and using them as a proxy against Pakistan,” the statement read. Describing the TTP as a “collective threat to regional peace and security”, Pakistan added it will continue to work towards finding joint solutions in countering terrorism and to prevent any terrorist organisation from sabotaging bilateral relations with Afghanistan.

Notably, this was not the first time that Pakistan launched airstrikes against Afghanistan. In April 2022, the Pakistani military carried out a similar operation in Khost and Kunar provinces.

Syed Muhammad Ali, an Islamabad-based security expert, told the Associated Press that the said strikes indicate that Pakistan’s patience for the Afghan interim government’s “continued hospitality” for terrorists conducting frequent attacks on Pakistan from inside Afghanistan has finally run out.

What has the Taliban said?

The Taliban has warned Pakistan of “very bad consequences which will be out of Pakistan’s control” in case of continued attacks inside its territory. The Taliban spokesperson claimed that attacks took place on houses of civilians, killing five women and three children. The Taliban government spokesperson claimed that attacks took place on houses of civilians, killing five women and three children. He said in a statement that Pakistan “should not blame Afghanistan for the lack of control, incompetence and problems in its own territory”.

The Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs also gave a protest letter to the summoned charge d’affaires of Pakistan’s embassy, saying the country “won’t tolerate any kind of invasion of its territory.”

The Taliban denied Pakistan’s Special Representative to Afghanistan Ambassador Asif Durrani’s recent charge that Afghanistan was providing shelter to 5,000 to 6,000 TTP militants, but acknowledged the possibility of their presence due to Afghanistan’s rugged terrain. “We reject the presence of any foreign groups in Afghanistan… But one thing we must accept is that Afghanistan shares a very long border area with Pakistan, and there are places with rugged terrain including mountains and forests, and places that might be out of our control,” Mr. Mujahid told Tolo News.

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