After eight people were killed in Pakistan’s recent airstrikes inside Afghanistan, the Taliban resorted to counterattack on Pakistan’s border posts. Though the tension between the two sides has eased now, there is no guarantee of further eruption of clash between the two neighbors as deep mistrust continues to haunt their relations
Last week, there were conflicting messages from Pakistan on its relations with the Taliban dispensation in Kabul. Pakistan’s Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, in an interview with the Voice of America, said, “Force is the last resort. We do not want to have an armed conflict with Afghanistan.”

He added, “If Afghanistan treats us like an enemy, then why should we give them a trade corridor?”

His comments came after Pakistan had launched an airstrike claiming it to be an ‘intelligence-based operation’ across the Durand Line, the de-facto border between the two countries; the attack had left seven soldiers dead, including two officers.

The threat of closing the trade corridor to Karachi as also the land corridor available for trade with India was obvious and not for the first time. This has historically been Pakistan’s card to apply pressure on Kabul.

A day later, Pakistan’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan Asif Durrani, talking to The Dawn, stated, “There is no pause in relations with the Taliban administration in Kabul despite recent military actions.”

While Durrani appeared to be conciliatory, the Generals in Rawalpindi were displaying a bully mindset against the Taliban. Simultaneously, Pakistan’s foreign office issued a statement on “addressing the issue of terrorism with Afghanistan through dialogue and cooperation.”

Pakistan admitted to the airstrike after objections by Kabul. It never accepted its drone and airstrikes earlier, all of which only targeted civilians. It had launched the operation planning to send a message to the Taliban that it would retaliate on their soil, but results were the opposite.

The Taliban’s counterattack on Pakistan’s posts employing artillery indicated that Kabul will never bow down to such actions by Islamabad. While peace may prevail now, it will possibly be quiet before the storm.

The operation was also intended to mollify Pakistan’s own populace that Rawalpindi is acting against the Taliban. Kabul is unlikely to be deterred by a few bombs falling in villages close to its border with Pakistan.

There are also reports that the Kabul dispensation wants to invest in the Chabahar port in Iran with the aim of bypassing Pakistan’s Karachi port. It wants to do so to nullify Pakistan’s economic threats as Islamabad also shuts down the border very often for miniscule reasons. The Chabahar port would then be their preferred route for trade with India.

In a post on X (formerly Twitter) @Natsecjeff, who closely monitors the region, said, “Zia ul-Haq Sarhadi of Afghanistan-Pakistan Joint Chamber of Commerce said that Afghanistan transferred 70% of its trade to Iran's Chabahar and Bandar Abbas due to sanctions on transit trade by Pakistan that left nearly 20,000 Pakistani families unemployed.”

To add to differences between the two countries, Pakistan recently decided to push back illegal Afghan refugees. Following this, almost half a million have returned thus far.
Most were stripped off all their earnings before being permitted across the border. About a million more documented refugees are scheduled to be repatriated in the near future.

There are reports which indicate that the Taliban is seeking drones from Iran. Kabul’s investments in Iran and procurement of Iranian drones sends a clear message. Their only enemy is Pakistan and they expect hostilities with them in a near timeframe. The reasons are clear.

Firstly, Pakistan continues to back the ISKP (Islamic State – Khorasan Province) against the Taliban. It is known that Rawalpindi is attempting to pressurize the Kabul dispensation to toe their line by supporting terrorist strikes on their soil.

Secondly, while restrictions remain on the Kabul regime on account of its anti-women as also suppressive policies, nations including the US, China, and Middle East countries, are engaging directly with Kabul, without officially recognizing them, thereby providing the ruling dispensation with some form of credibility. Hence, it no longer needs Pakistan’s diplomatic backing.

Thirdly, Kabul is sending a message to Islamabad that it is neither a Pakistan’s proxy, nor grateful to it for support during the US’s presence in Afghanistan, something Islamabad desperately attempted to convey.

Finally, apart from Pakistan, no other neighboring countries have accused the Taliban of harboring terrorist groups. This questions the credibility of Pakistan’s accusations on Kabul.

Evidently, there are fundamental and irrevocable differences between Kabul and Islamabad including acceptance of the Durand Line as the de-facto border. These lead to regular flare-ups, which at some stage could result in either loss of Pakistan posts or excessive casualties.

Rawalpindi, which determines Pakistan’s strategy against its neighbors, has limited options. It can either launch operations across the border employing aerial resources and the ISKP or strengthen its borders to thwart any attack from Kabul, implying a defensive strategy.

But there is a fact on the ground: The populace of the Af-Pak region is more sympathetic to Afghan groups rather than the Pakistan army which they view with suspicion.
 Besides, ties between Iran and the Taliban have improved. That means it will lead to opening of doors for Tehran to nations in Central Asia.

However, a major drawback for Pakistan is that Kabul’s desire to exploit Iranian ports would remove its main leverage to resolve its TTP problems. Another concern is that growing enmity between the two states implies that Pakistan will be forced to secure its western borders. This means spending vital funds to strengthen border defences.

*** The writer is a security and strategic affairs commentator; views expressed are his own