Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban are teetering on the brink of a major crisis. Since coming into power, the Taliban has defied Pakistan — its main state benefactor during the insurgency against the United States military and the deposed Afghan government. It has done so by challenging the status of the Afghan-Pakistan border and providing a haven to the anti-Pakistan insurgent group the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, which has killed thousands of Pakistanis and seeks to establish a Taliban-style, Shariah-compliant state in Pakistan. This has stunned Islamabad, which was operating on the assumption that the Taliban would be beholden to Pakistan out of gratitude for years of support.
Tensions have mounted, in particular, due to the TTP’s growing attacks targeting Pakistani security forces in the eight months since the Taliban’s takeover. On April 21, in a major escalation, Pakistan carried out coordinated airstrikes inside Afghanistan at suspected TTP locations but ended up killing civilians. In response, the Taliban summoned Islamabad’s envoy in Kabul and the group’s defense minister, Mullah Yaqub, threatened retaliation in case of more attacks, albeit without naming Pakistan. For its part, Pakistan lodged the strongest protest to date on the use of Afghan territory by terrorist groups and indicated that it may engage in cross-border action again.
This turn of event raises questions about how we got to this point, the Taliban’s calculus on the TTP, policy options available to Islamabad and what is at stake for the United States.
Why Did Pakistan Opt for Airstrikes?
Pakistan’s use of cross-border airstrikes is tied to the trajectory of the TTP in Afghanistan and Pakistani leadership’s growing frustration with the Taliban’s failure to restrain the TTP. Since its resurgence a few years ago, the TTP has strengthened its bases in Afghanistan to attack Pakistan — especially in areas where the Taliban’s territorial influence as an insurgency was significant. After taking over the country, the Taliban gave the TTP de-facto political asylum. The TTP has used its improved political status in Afghanistan to step-up cross-border attacks and is now regularly sending fighters into Pakistan.
In the first months after the Taliban takeover, Pakistani officials downplayed the Taliban’s political approach to the TTP in public and privately asked the Taliban to limit the TTP activities in Afghanistan, demanding a crackdown. Instead the Taliban asked Pakistan to address the TTP’s so-called “grievances” and offered to mediate talks. After a start-stop dialogue process spanning several months, the TTP appears politically stronger and emboldened. In April, the TTP launched a spring offensive named “Al-Badr,” the most significant insurgent onslaught against Pakistan in recent years.
Pakistan’s turn to fighter jets was a response to the month-on-month escalation in violence and growing loss of security. It likely had at least two coercive goals. First, Pakistan probably used the bombing to send a message to the TTP that its cross-border haven is not as safe as it assumes, in the hope of deterring it from further cross-border action. And second, Pakistan wanted to give a shock treatment to the Taliban to get them to reconsider their approach to the TTP. Pakistani military leaders seem to know that their military action on Afghan territory is unpopular with Afghans. So, they may have hoped that the strikes will bring pressure on the Taliban to reverse policies that create grounds for Pakistan to undermine their domestic political standing — or at the least, the strikes will drive a wedge in TTP-Taliban ties and compel Taliban pragmatists to consider the cost of their support to the TTP.
But Pakistan may have also overplayed its hand: The strikes killed at least 20 children among other civilians. Contrary to official Pakistani claims, there are no credible reports of killed TTP leadership. More significantly, even if some pragmatists feel the need to keep hostilities with Pakistan in check, the Taliban at large appears unmoved, as the TTP’s status in and activities from Afghanistan remain unchanged. At the same time, anti-Pakistan sentiment within the Taliban appears to have surged, shoring up support for the TTP within the Taliban. Pakistani strikes have also reinvigorated anti-Pakistan sentiment across Afghanistan’s political spectrum, who see them as a violation of Afghan sovereignty. Standing up to Pakistan or even militarily responding has the potential to shore up the Taliban’s domestic political standing.
The Taliban Calculus on the TTP
The Taliban has made little effort to conceal their support for the TTP in Afghanistan. But the logic of their support since August 2021 — despite facing several other challenges — remains unclear.
Some argue that at the heart of the Taliban-TTP relationship is an ideological alignment on a jihadist project seeking to implement a Shariah-compliant political order through force. The TTP subordinating themselves to the Taliban by pledging allegiance to Taliban chief adds to the alignment. Others point to history: Many in the TTP supported the Taliban in its nascence, including by providing suicide bombers. The Taliban and the TTP also share al-Qaida as an ally. There are strong interpersonal, war-time bonds between the influential Haqqani family and the TTP and between some southern Taliban leaders and TTP’s political leadership. There is abundant ethnic amity, built around tribal ties and disdain of the Pakistani state — at least in the rank-and-file and middle tier of the Taliban.
Given this history and context, one explanation for the Taliban’s post-takeover position is that they want to use the TTP as bargaining leverage with Pakistan. A competing perspective is that the Taliban want a likeminded political actor such as the TTP to ultimately rise to power in Islamabad. A third perspective is that given the deep support the TTP enjoys in the Taliban rank-and-file, as well as the size of the TTP in Afghanistan, the Taliban face capacity constraints to go after the TTP — partly due to ISIS-K’s growing threat. Finally, some Afghan opposition leaders see the Taliban’s position and the TTP violence as an elaborate ruse by Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency, the ISI, to absolve itself of supporting the Taliban over the last many years.
Whatever the motive, the bottom line is that the Taliban are unwilling to act against the TTP in any meaningful way.
Pakistani Policy Response
Pakistan’s use of airstrikes, as opposed to covert action, shows that it wanted to send a public message to the Taliban. The reported use of manned platform over unmanned weapons capability, which Pakistan has been building up in recent years, is also notable — a previous, more limited targeting attempt relied on a drone but the missile failed to explode. Yet the targeting capability remains blunt which limits its utility — and given the civilian harm it may even be counterproductive. More attacks that kill civilians can trigger a Taliban response in addition to generating more recruits for the TTP. Given the concurrently metastasizing Baluch separatist threat in Pakistan, such a violent escalation will substantially add to Pakistan’s security burdens amid a domestic economic crisis.
On the other hand, Pakistan’s hope that the Taliban will help manage the TTP problem may have also run its course. The Taliban appear to be insisting that Pakistani leaders accommodate the TTP with peace talks. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s new coalition government, under pressure from recently ousted prime minister Imran Khan’s unrelenting political challenge, may be tempted to give talks another chance to keep a lid on violence and focus on the economy. In a previous stint as chief minister of Punjab province, Sharif tried to broker a province-level cease-fire with then TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud, going as far as publicly pleading with the TTP to spare Punjab. This time, the TTP’s demand of concessions before a long-term cease-fire could lead to a deadlock.
There is no strong indication that Pakistan is ready to turn against the Taliban. This may be due to ideological inertia on viewing the Taliban as the safest counter to purported Indian influence in Afghanistan. It could also be for lack of a viable political alternative to support in place of the Taliban.
Still, in the near term, Pakistan is likely to search for more coercive leverage against the Taliban. On the lower end of the spectrum, Pakistan may seek to manipulate the Taliban’s internal politics by trying to marginalize Taliban leadership more supportive of the TTP. It may attempt a crackdown against families of Taliban leadership as well as assets of the Taliban leadership that remain in Pakistan. It can also get Pakistani religious clerics who the Taliban are responsive to, to condemn their behavior. On the higher end, it can close border crossings to put an economic squeeze on the Taliban — which, given their limited revenues, will bring enormous pressure on the Taliban and aggravate the country’s humanitarian crisis.
Implications for U.S. Policy
One major question confronting U.S. policymakers is: How should U.S. policy respond to the growing terrorist violence in Pakistan? Amid the growing demands of strategic competition, U.S. counterterrorism resources are limited — and Pakistan’s self-inflicted mess is certainly not the U.S. government’s responsibility. Yet the political and security situation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region in general and in Pakistan in particular is trending in a direction that can bear on even minimally defined U.S. national security interests — like Afghanistan’s state survival, the risk of transnational and regional terrorist activity emanating from the region and nuclear security. Washington should pay careful attention to the Taliban-Pakistan relationship and the escalating terrorist violence in Pakistan. Policymakers should also identify clear thresholds of level and type of terrorist activity in Pakistan, in addition to Afghanistan, which will require a shift in gears on the counterterrorism approach. Any expansion in the territorial influence of the TTP in Pakistan as well as operations of al-Qaida, which relies on the TTP and is increasingly messaging against India, will be signs of such dangerous terrorist activity.
The U.S. government should also gauge Pakistan’s receptiveness to a new coordinated and coercive approach to the Taliban. Many policymakers remain frustrated by Pakistan’s adversarial role against the United States in Afghanistan, so they are likely to be skeptical of any coercion plan involving Pakistan. Additionally, what type of pressure, if any, can alter the Taliban’s calculus is challenging to anticipate. But with growing international asks of the Taliban and limited headway, coordinated multilateral pressure, including by countries with relatively more leverage like Pakistan, is better than the alternative. And as the airstrikes indicate, Pakistan is looking for coercive leverage against the Taliban in a way that it hasn’t in the past. There may be an opening as Pakistan re-calibrates. Policymakers should explore ways with Pakistan to jointly press the Taliban on a range of political issues important to U.S. priorities, like counterterrorism. Pakistan can do so, in part, by publicly signaling that the Taliban’s recognition is off the table and stop pushing some of its allies on recognition. It can also downgrade the diplomatic treatment of the Taliban and align its messaging on counterterrorism issues with that of the U.S. government.
The U.S. government has not commented on the Pakistani airstrikes but it should carefully assess Pakistan’s processes on targeting by airpower to alleviate civilian harm. This can be done through existing bilateral military-to-military channels. If Pakistani airstrikes continue to harm civilians at a similar scale, it will not only be a breach of the law of armed conflict but also radicalize populations in the targeted area, which can be counterproductive at weakening terrorist threats in the region. And if Pakistan’s cross-border targeting relies on U.S. systems, Pakistan can fall out of compliance with end-user restrictions on U.S. government provided equipment — which generally require compliance with international humanitarian law.
Finally, Pakistan’s deteriorating ties with the Taliban offer important insights for U.S. policy interests on the Taliban’s political trajectory. They demonstrate that, in ways similar to the pre-9/11 era, the Taliban are willing to take major risks over their commitment to foreign jihadis in Afghanistan and concerns of international actors are secondary — even at a time when they lack diplomatic recognition. This speaks to the type of regime the Taliban are: They are neither as nationalistically inward nor as interested in catering to international concerns as touted by some analysts. Policymakers also need to be realistic on the Taliban’s commitment on preventing the use of Afghan territory for international terrorism.