Why Tensions Between Pakistan and Afghanistan Are Rising

Tensions are escalating between neighboring countries Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistan’s Defense Minister, Khawaja Asif, declared this week that Pakistan will continue launching cross-border strikes as part of a new military operation aimed at curbing terrorism. This statement marks a significant shift in Pakistani officials’ stance, as they had previously acknowledged only one such cross-border strike in March. 

“We won’t serve them with cake and pastries. If attacked, we’ll attack back,” Asif told the BBC.

Pakistan has been experiencing a surge in terrorist attacks since the Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a close ally of the Afghan Taliban, unilaterally ended a ceasefire with Islamabad in November 2022. Last year alone, more than [NUMBER REDACTED] attacks occurred.

The Pakistani government blames the Afghan Taliban for providing safe haven to the TTP. In recent years, Islamabad has implemented various measures to contain the TTP, including [REDACTED], erecting a fence between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and pressuring the Afghan government to stop supporting the militant group. These measures included the deportation of over 500,000 Afghan refugees last October, with a second phase to expel another 800,000 starting earlier this month.

However, experts point out that Pakistan has limited power to stop the violence that predominantly affects its border with Afghanistan. This is because Islamabad can no longer rely on the wartime support it provided to the Taliban during the U.S. war in Afghanistan to help control the TTP. “Pakistan finds itself in a predicament largely of its own making—the Taliban leadership that it supported throughout much of the 20-year insurgency in Afghanistan is now sheltering militant groups targeting Islamabad,” says Joshua White, a professor of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University.

What’s driving tensions between the former allies?

While relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have been strained in recent years, two underlying tension points—the border and cross-border violence—have persisted for a long time.

“No Afghan government, including the current Taliban regime, has recognized the [official] border since Pakistan’s independence,” says Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center. “And each side has long accused the other of sheltering terrorists that carry out attacks in the other country.”

The colonial-era Durand Line, which extends over 1,640 miles, officially separates Pakistan from Afghanistan. Afghanistan has never recognized the border, but the Taliban has taken a more assertive stance on the issue, and numerous clashes have erupted between Taliban fighters and Pakistani soldiers building border fencing, leading to border crossing closures. “Border tensions have sharpened because the Taliban have been especially aggressive in asserting their position,” Kugelman says.

The border runs through tribal areas dominated by the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in the border regions of both countries. Pakistan has been working to complete the barbed-wire fencing along the internationally recognized border, which the Taliban claims separates families.

With the war in Afghanistan no longer ongoing, the Taliban no longer needs to rely on Pakistan for sanctuary or other wartime support. Instead, it aims to gain more legitimacy at home, where many Afghans have long mistrusted the Pakistani government. “By lashing out at Pakistan, the Taliban hopes to buy some goodwill from the Afghan public,” Kugelman says.

Will tensions ease soon?

Despite the tensions, the two countries are engaged in regular diplomatic discussions. During recent talks hosted by the U.N. in Doha, Pakistan’s special envoy to Afghanistan met with the Taliban, while Ishaq Dar, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, has confirmed that his office plans to visit Kabul in the coming months. “Make no mistake, Afghanistan has not been ignored by this government,” Dar said.

But border tensions are “too contentious and complex to resolve anytime soon,” Kugelman says. Tensions may escalate if Pakistan’s new military operation leads to more frequent and sustained force at the disputed border.

Pakistan government sources who spoke to the BBC have indicated that the country’s new military operation is a direct result of pressure from China. Many Chinese citizens are working on China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects in Pakistan as part of the Belt and Road initiative. In March, five Chinese engineers in the northwest of the country were killed when a suicide bomber, whom Pakistan believes was an Afghan national, rammed a vehicle into their convoy.

At the same time, Beijing holds significant leverage over the Taliban due to China’s ability to invest in sanction-hit Afghanistan. “If Beijing, dangling that incentive of investment assistance, is able to convince the Taliban to curb militancy, both domestically focused in Afghanistan and cross-border in Pakistan, that would help both China and Pakistan,” Kugelman says.