Surging Militancy Prompts Pakistan to Review Support for Afghanistan’s Taliban – Voice of America – VOA News

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Officials in Pakistan have cautioned that relentless cross-border militancy is testing bilateral relations with Afghanistan’s Taliban and could eventually push Islamabad to scale back support for the de facto Kabul rulers.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan provinces, both lining Pakistan’s 2,600-kilometer (1,600-mile) border with Afghanistan, have experienced almost daily attacks since the Taliban returned to power in Kabul in August 2021, killing hundreds of Pakistani security forces and civilians.

The violence is mostly being carried out or claimed by the outlawed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP. The group, listed as a global terrorist organization, is believed to be operating out of Afghan sanctuaries, allegedly with the support of Taliban authorities.

Both countries have recently held repeated formal talks to discuss the issue, with the latest engagement occurring in early January when Islamabad hosted a high-powered Taliban delegation. But neither side has reported any breakthrough, nor has the diplomatic effort brought about a reduction in TTP-led extremist violence.

“Don’t expect immediate results; it’s a process with pitfalls. However, continuous interaction can help galvanize the process,” a senior Pakistani diplomat told VOA, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to interact publicly with the media.

Already-troubled relationship

The official said that Pakistan’s stepped-up diplomatic engagement with the Taliban stems from concerns the TTP could be planning to intensify violence in the upcoming spring and target national elections scheduled for next month. He warned that the increase in violence could deal a critical blow to an already-troubled relationship between the two countries.

“That could certainly be a turning point, and the government of Pakistan may also run second thoughts about maintaining their support level with the Taliban,” the official cautioned.

The United States this week repeated its concerns about an uptick in TTP attacks against Pakistani security forces from the group’s bases in Afghanistan, saying the violence has led to a deterioration in bilateral ties.

“The relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban at the moment is not good. … This security issue is dominating the Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan,” Thomas West, the U.S. special Afghan envoy, told a congressional hearing Thursday while discussing the growing TTP threat to regional stability.

“I am very worried about that group. I spoke about it with Pakistani leaders when I visited last month. For regional stability and our own interests and Pakistan’s stability, we should hope for concerted efforts to eliminate that group inside Afghanistan,” West said.

Visit by prominent Pakistani leader

A prominent Pakistani religious party leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who is known for his traditionally close ties with the Taliban, traveled to Afghanistan this week and held meetings with the leaders of the de facto authorities. He reportedly discussed the TTP, among other issues facing the two countries.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid had confirmed in the run-up to the visit that Kabul had officially invited Rehman to promote better ties between the two countries.

Multiple sources confirmed to VOA that Rehman also met with reclusive Taliban supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada in his southern Kandahar headquarters, although neither side commented on the reported meeting.

The Pakistani cleric also reportedly met with TTP leaders at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. The host Taliban government reportedly arranged the meeting, but neither side confirmed that this happened.

However, Islamabad distanced itself from Rehman’s nearly weeklong trip, saying he traveled in “his individual capacity” and not “as an emissary of the government of Pakistan.”

No peace talks

On Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch told reporters in Islamabad that her government had no intention to engage in peace talks with the TTP.

“Our demands from the Afghan authorities haven’t changed; they remain the same, which is that the Afghan authorities should take action, effective action, against terrorist elements inside Afghanistan, including TTP leadership,” she said.

Kabul hosted and mediated talks between Pakistan and the TTP in mid-2022, but the group withdrew from the process later that year and has since renewed its attacks, killing hundreds of security forces and civilians last year alone. Pakistani officials allege Afghan Taliban members also facilitated and joined the TTP in some of the attacks.

Taliban authorities reject the charges, advising Pakistan against externalizing its “internal security problems.”

The violence has also led to a government crackdown on undocumented Afghans in Pakistan, forcing more than half a million to return to their home country in the past few months and straining bilateral relations.

No foreign country has recognized the Taliban government in Kabul, but Pakistan is among several neighboring countries, including China and Russia, that have informally maintained ties with Afghanistan’s de facto authorities. The landlocked nation has traditionally relied on Pakistani land routes and seaports to conduct bilateral and international trade.

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