The Platform

Mujahideen fighters in 1985 along the Afghan-Pakistan border. (Erwin Franzen)

Pakistan’s attempts to control the Taliban have backfired.

The recent clashes between Taliban fighters and the Pakistani Army along the Durand Line have underscored a growing and troubling dynamic. The violence erupted on May 13, when the Pakistani side attempted to repair a barbed-wire fence it had first erected in 2017 to demarcate this contentious border. This de facto boundary, originally drawn by the British Empire in 1893, has never been formally recognized by any Afghan government. The skirmishes, which continued for several days, saw Pakistani and Taliban forces targeting each other across the eastern Afghan provinces of Paktia and Khost, adjacent to Pakistan’s Kurram district.

Tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan have escalated since the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021, laying bare the failures of Islamabad’s Afghan policy. Following the Taliban’s takeover and the subsequent U.S. withdrawal, Pakistan’s then-Prime Minister Imran Khan hailed the event, claiming that “Afghans have broken the chain of slavery.” Similarly, Lt.-Gen (Retired) Faiz Hameed, then Pakistan’s spy chief, attempted to project calm, stating in Kabul, “Don’t worry, everything will be okay.” Such statements reflect an overconfidence that the Taliban would be malleable to Islamabad’s influence—a notion that has proven disastrously mistaken.

Pakistan’s historical relationship with Kabul has been fraught, with the notable exception of the Taliban’s first rule from 1996 to 2001. Since Pakistan’s independence, successive Afghan governments have exhibited varying degrees of animosity toward Islamabad. Afghanistan even opposed Pakistan’s entry into the United Nations in 1947. Veteran Afghan journalist Sami Yousafzai notes that the Taliban’s recent confrontations with Pakistan are part of a strategic effort to shed their image as a Pakistani proxy. Islamabad, having been the Taliban’s principal foreign sponsor since the mid-1990s, now faces a critical juncture in its Afghan policy.

The situation has been further aggravated by Pakistan’s air raids on Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) targets within Afghan territory, exacerbating tensions. The Pakistani Army’s efforts to fortify the Durand Line against TTP incursions have only fueled more conflict. The Taliban have astutely focused on the border issue to galvanize nationalist sentiment and distance themselves from Pakistan, seeking legitimacy on both religious and nationalist fronts.

In response, Pakistan has attempted to exert economic pressure, tightening rules on transit trade, imposing stringent bank guarantees on Afghan traders, expanding import restrictions, and levying duties on Afghan imports. Additionally, Pakistan has slowed the processing of Afghanistan-bound shipping containers. However, these measures are unlikely to be effective in the medium to long term, as Kabul looks to diversify its trade relationships with Central Asia and Iran. Recently, Taliban Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar visited Iran, seeking greater port access and trade concessions to mitigate the economic impact of Pakistan’s coercive tactics.

Last year, Pakistan decided to expel around 1.7 million Afghan refugees, many of whom have since faced an uncertain future. Even those with legal documentation, such as UNHCR registration cards, have been forcibly deported. This unilateral move has further eroded Pakistan’s diplomatic standing in Kabul and exacerbated anti-Pakistan sentiment among the Afghan populace. Pakistan’s strategy of viewing Afghanistan as a strategic asset in its military policy against India—known as “strategic depth”—has long involved meddling in Afghan domestic politics, fostering deep-seated resentment among Afghans.

The pursuit of this strategic depth has now backfired, bringing longstanding Afghan animosity toward Pakistan to the forefront. The Taliban, wary of being perceived as Islamabad’s puppets, are distancing themselves from their former patrons. As Pakistan grapples with this new reality, it must recognize that the Taliban in power today are not the same group they once supported. The relationship between Islamabad and Kabul can no longer function on the outdated patron-client model.

For Pakistan, fostering a stable and cooperative relationship with Afghanistan is crucial. Islamabad must recalibrate its approach and acknowledge the Taliban’s autonomy to repair and rebuild bilateral ties.

Manish Rai is a geopolitical analyst and columnist for the Middle East and Af-Pak region and the editor of geopolitical news agency ViewsAround (VA). He has done reporting from Jordon, Iran, and Afghanistan. His work has been quoted in the British Parliament.