Afghanistan Conflict Pakistan Security & Defense
Experts react March 18, 2024

Experts react: Pakistan just carried out airstrikes on Afghanistan. What’s next?

By Atlantic Council experts

On Monday, Pakistan launched airstrikes against several suspected hideouts of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Afghanistan’s Khost and Paktika provinces. The Afghan Taliban responded by firing on Pakistani positions along the border, according to the Afghan defense ministry. Pakistan’s defense and foreign ministries called the strikes on Afghanistan “retaliatory,” likely referring to the suicide bombing against a Pakistani military post in North Waziristan on Saturday. This is the latest chapter in long-standing tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan over the TTP. How will Pakistan’s strikes inside Afghanistan affect the already strained relations between Islamabad and Kabul? And what do the strikes mean for Pakistan’s counterterrorism strategy against the TTP? Our experts share their insights below.

Click to jump to an expert analysis:

Uzair Younus: Pakistan has run out of patience with the Afghan Taliban

Roya Rahmani: The likelihood of full-blown conflict remains low, but refugees will suffer, but refugees will suffer

Nilofar Sakhi: Taliban-TTP ties are a threat to the stability of Pakistan’s establishment

Muhammad Faisal: Pakistan is pressuring Afghanistan with more than just airstrikes

Iftikhar Firdous: Pakistan’s expectations from the Taliban have resulted in further animosity with Afghanistan

Pakistan has run out of patience with the Afghan Taliban

By striking terror sanctuaries across the border in Afghanistan, Pakistan has once again signaled its ability and willingness to respond strongly to terror attacks carried out on its soil. Speaking at the funeral of two army officers killed in the terrorist attack on March 16, President Asif Ali Zardari said that “Pakistan has decided that whoever will enter our borders, homes, or country to commit terror, we will respond to them strongly, regardless of their identity or country of origin.” This was a clear signal of intent, and the foreign office’s statement that Pakistan has “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” shows that Islamabad is running out of patience. 

While calm may be restored in the coming days and weeks ahead, the newly elected government and the military leadership in Pakistan seem to have run out of patience with the Afghan Taliban. As a result, relations with Afghanistan are unlikely to sustainably improve soon, and Pakistan is likely going to pursue both kinetic and non-kinetic efforts to force the Afghan Taliban to act against terror groups operating from Afghan soil. In addition, it is a near certainty that Pakistan will no longer be pursuing the failed policy of negotiating peace with terrorists.

Uzair Younus is a nonresident senior fellow and the former director of the Pakistan Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.

The likelihood of full-blown conflict remains low, but refugees will suffer

The recent series of Pakistani airstrikes targeting TTP hideouts in Afghanistan mark another chapter in the ongoing tensions between the Pakistani establishment and the Afghan Taliban. These conflicts underscore the fact that, despite expectations, the Taliban has not been entirely under Pakistan’s control. Moreover, they highlight the Taliban’s inability to influence TTP’s activities in Pakistan, evident from the failed ceasefire negotiations in 2021. Despite occasional friction, Pakistan maintains its preference for the Taliban government, especially considering its strategic interests vis-a-vis India. (Pakistan views Afghanistan as a crucial buffer zone and seeks to maintain a friendly government there to counterbalance India and prevent encirclement.) Despite setbacks and recent attacks intensifying Pakistan’s concerns, the Afghan Taliban remains Pakistan’s favored option for safeguarding its interests in the region.

Additionally, the retaliatory airstrikes conducted by Pakistan within Afghanistan serve as a political assertion, showcasing Pakistan’s commitment to protecting its military and people. While casualties may occur, the likelihood of full-blown conflict remains low. The Afghan Taliban, aware of the risks, is hesitant to engage in prolonged military confrontation with Pakistan, given its familial ties, financial interests, and support base in Pakistan. Moreover, the Taliban’s internal divisions further complicate a unified response to Pakistan’s actions.

It should come as no surprise that the TTP is finding safe haven in Afghanistan. Given the current situation and the regime in control of Afghanistan, the environment is conducive to most extremist groups, with the TTP being just one among several. Pakistan’s recent expulsions of Afghan refugees further compounded this issue, as many families associated with the TTP were pushed into Afghanistan.

The Afghan Taliban’s capacity and willingness to engage in a full-fledged military conflict remain limited, thereby reducing the likelihood of further escalation. However, this does not rule out the possibility of more TTP attacks in Pakistan, leading to a pattern of TTP strikes prompting retaliatory bombings by Pakistan in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban’s response may involve condemnation and symbolic gestures, or potentially providing additional support to the TTP to incite further insurgencies—after all, this is the Taliban’s area of expertise. 

Unfortunately, civilians on both sides will suffer throughout this cycle, with Afghan refugees in Pakistan feeling the brunt of Pakistan’s crackdowns as a means to showcase retaliation and exert pressure on both the Taliban and TTP. 

Roya Rahmani is a senior advisor at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and currently serves as the chair of Delphos International. Rahmani was the first woman to serve as Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States and held the role from 2018 to 2021. She was also the first woman to serve as Afghanistan’s ambassador to Indonesia, serving from 2016 to 2018.

Taliban-TTP ties are a threat to the stability of Pakistan’s establishment

Pakistan’s airstrikes in Afghanistan are in response to recent suicide attacks targeting a military checkpoint in the Waziristan district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. Such retaliation, though not unprecedented, traces back to 2022, when Pakistan launched airstrikes in Khost and Kunar provinces in response to targeted attacks by the TTP within Pakistan. However, Monday’s strikes indicate a relatively wide-ranging response.

Despite Pakistan’s historical support for the Afghan Taliban and its perception of the Taliban’s victory as its own, tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan have reached new heights since the 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban’s takeover has supported militant groups in the region, including the TTP, providing them with enhanced organization, safe haven, and material support, which have led to a surge in violent and targeted attacks within Pakistan. Given the Afghan Taliban’s ties to transnational terror and extremist groups, tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan are virtually unavoidable from a security standpoint.

Moreover, the intricate relationship between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani establishment complicates matters further. First, Pakistan has historically viewed the Afghan Taliban as a proxy aligned with its strategic interests. However, disagreements and unmet expectations between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan regarding support and recognition lead to displays of power by the Afghan Taliban, often through its connections with the TTP and other militant factions. Second, the long-term relationship between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban adds another layer of complexity. The support provided by the Pakistani Taliban to its Afghan counterpart in the past has created expectations of reciprocity, especially now that the Afghan Taliban holds significant power and resources.

Despite the Afghan Taliban’s purported disapproval of attacks and instability in Pakistan, its affiliation with the TTP and shared ideology pose a threat to the stability of the Pakistan establishment, further deteriorating bilateral relations.

Nilofar Sakhi is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a professorial lecturer at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

 Pakistan is pressuring Afghanistan with more than just airstrikes

Pakistan has had enough with continued TTP attacks on its security forces. Early indications are emerging of a three-pronged strategy to ratchet up pressure on the Afghan Taliban: 

  1. Airstrikes across the border. 
  2. A direct statement from the foreign office that some “elements” of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan are “actively patronizing TTP and using them as a proxy against Pakistan.” 
  3. A second phase of forced repatriation of remaining Afghan refugees in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province. 

While airstrikes were an immediate response, Pakistan’s diplomatic statement signals its determined strategic intent for Afghan Taliban leadership to rethink its current Pakistan policy. Kabul criticized Islamabad for violating Afghan sovereignty and threatened consequences, signaling that border tensions are set to escalate.

The last time Pakistan conducted airstrikes across the border was in April 2022, and it did not turn the strikes into a sustained aerial campaign. This time, however, Islamabad has also turned to political and economic levers to signal intent. Pakistan’s challenge is to telegraph deterrence through sustained airstrikes rather than a one-off retaliatory strike to send a message. When the second phase of repatriation of Afghan refugees commences post-Ramadan, tensions are likely to further escalate between Islamabad and Kabul.

Muhammad Faisal is a PhD candidate in international relations at the University of Technology Sydney.

Pakistan’s expectations from the Taliban have resulted in further animosity with Afghanistan

For years, Islamabad believed that once the Afghan Taliban took over Kabul, not only would the anathema of the TTP disappear, but the land routes that lead to the larger markets of Central Asia and Eastern Europe would bring to life the economic revival the cash-strapped country has been hoping for. Three years later, Pakistan has struck Afghanistan for a second time and has returned Afghan refugees that have called the country home since the Russian invasion. Pakistan is also stationing more troops on the border as Afghanistan begins to seek revenge for the air strikes.

Whether one calls it a miscalculation or a strategic failure, the anger on the Pakistani side is that, despite burning out all its options, the problem of the TTP is not going away. So, the question is: What next?

The escalation on the border following the air strikes that targeted the TTP and the Hafiz Gul Bahadur Group might seem to be a reactionary measure from Afghanistan, but such skirmishes have become routine between both countries. A large-scale escalation that could lead to a war between both countries does not seem to be a possibility in the foreseeable future. Neither country has the will or capacity to engage in protracted wars.

Nonetheless, the long-term implications of such a relationship with Afghanistan will be tiring for Pakistan, which wants to move away from the branding of a “state in war” to a country that offers opportunities for investment as it finds itself in a deplorable economic situation.

—Iftikhar Firdous is founding editor of the Khorasan Diary, a digital platform dedicated to research, analysis, and news related to terrorism and militant ideologies in Southeast and Central Asia.

Further reading

Related Experts: Uzair Younus, Roya Rahmani, and Nilofar Sakhi

Image: Chief of Army Staff (COAS) of Pakistan Asim Munir and General Sahir Shamshad Mirza, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (JCSC) along with others carry the coffin as they attend the funeral of Lieutenant Colonel Syed Kashif Ali, 39 and Captain Muhammad Ahmed Badar, 23, after according to military, militants attacked a military post in Mir Ali, North Waziristan district in Pakistan near Afghanistan early on Saturday using a vehicle laden with explosives as well as suicide bombs, during the funeral at Chaklala Garrison, Rawalpindi, Pakistan March 17, 2024. Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR)/Handout via REUTERS