Ties that Bind? Deconstructing the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban’s Partnership and Counter-Terrorism Options for Pakistan

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 3

TTP - Afghan Taliban relations determine security environment for Islamabad

In late December 2021 and early January 2022, Afghan Taliban fighters stationed at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, also known as the Durand Line, disrupted the border fencing near the Kunar and Nimruz provinces (Dawn, December 23, 2021; Express Tribune, January 3; Terrorism Monitor, January 14). [1] On one occasion, the Afghan Taliban even took away the rolls of barbed wire and came face to face with Pakistani troops.  Subsequently, on January 7, the Afghan Taliban briefly detained and released seven Pakistani paramilitary forces near Paktika province (Twitter/@abdsayyed, January 7). The mounting Afghan Taliban-Pakistan border tensions are in sharp contrast to the popular perceptions of the former’s subservience to the latter as a proxy.

The breakdown of the Afghan Taliban-mediated peace talks between Islamabad and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and the uptick in the latter’s attacks against Pakistan, preceded the Pakistan-Afghanistan border tensions (Daily Times, December 11, 2021). Following the lapsing of the one-month ceasefire on December 9, the TTP did not extend the truce. Instead, the TTP carried out 45 attacks in Pakistan, which was more than any month in 2021 (Radio Mashal, January 13). [2] Currently, efforts are underway to restart the peace talks (Radio Mashal, January 24). Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Sheikh Rasheed, has also claimed that the Afghan Taliban, on Pakistan’s insistence, has promised to relocate TTP fighters to remote areas of Afghanistan far from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border (Twitter/@IhsanTipu, January 8).

Against this backdrop, it is important to explore why Afghan Taliban-Pakistan tensions are rising, and how it is linked to the former’s deep-rooted relations with the TTP. The article will also unpack the reasons behind the Afghan Taliban’s non-committal attitude towards Pakistani demands to expel, disarm, or pacify the TTP and the implications of this for Islamabad. Finally, the article will outline options for Pakistan to tackle the TTP’s threat.

Pakistani Assumptions and Expectations from the Afghan Taliban 

When the Afghan Taliban overtook power in Afghanistan last August, it was perceived as a strategic victory for Pakistan to neutralize India’s presence in Afghanistan and “secure” its north-western border (Express Tribune, August 22, 2021). Pakistan’s military establishment believed the Afghan Taliban would look after Pakistan’s strategic and security interests in return for helping them achieve victory in Afghanistan (Dawn, December 14, 2021). [2] Islamabad was of the view that after coming to power, the Afghan Taliban would need Pakistan’s help more than before to act as a bridge between the militant group and the international community (Express Tribune, September 1, 2021). Hence, Islamabad was confident that the Afghan Taliban’s return to power would also result in a decline in the TTP’s threat (Express Tribune, January 9).

At the very least, Islamabad was confident that the Afghan Taliban government would disarm the TTP and prohibit it from launching attacks against Pakistan, consistent with its counter-terrorism commitments under the Doha Agreement (Express Tribune, September 2, 2021). As per the Doha Agreement, the Afghan Taliban promised not to allow Afghan soil to be used for terrorism against any other country (Hindustan Times, August 17, 2021). However, not only has the Afghan Taliban been reluctant to act against the TTP, but it has also turned a blind eye to the latter’s terrorist attacks from their Afghan hideouts against Pakistan (Dawn, January 6). [4]

Last August, Pakistan also handed over a list of most wanted TTP figures to the Afghan Taliban (Express Tribune, August 23, 2021). The Afghan Taliban’s Supreme Leader, Maulawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, also formed a three-member commission to probe the Pakistani demands (Voice of America, September 6, 2021). However, the Afghan Taliban not only overlooked the Pakistani security concerns, but its response has been rather tame. For instance, last August, the Afghan Taliban’s Information and Culture Minister, Zabiullah Mujahid, stated Pakistan “has to determine whether the TTP’s war is legitimate or not and how to deal with it (Geo Tv, August 28, 2021).” The Afghan Taliban’s non-committal attitude has frustrated the Pakistani security establishment (The News International, August 30, 2021).

The Afghan Taliban has been urging Pakistan to settle the latter’s differences with the TTP through negotiations (Dawn, November 14, 2021). On the Afghan Taliban’s insistence, Pakistan gave peace “another chance” with the TTP. However, the TTP discontinued the peace talks after the one-month ceasefire (The News, International, December 12, 2021). The purported negotiations also disrupted Pakistan’s effective anti-terror strategy enshrined in the 20-point National Action Plan, a counter-terrorism and extremism roadmap forged after the Army Public School massacre in 2014. The NAP adopted a no-talks-with-terrorist-groups approach to deal with extremism and terrorism in Pakistan (National Counter Terrorism Authority, 2014).

Afghan Taliban-TTP Relations and Pashtunwali

The Afghan Taliban-TTP relationship is longstanding, and cuts across ideological and ethnic linkages (Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies, September 16, 2021). The TTP considers the Afghan Taliban’s self-styled Islamic Emirate a model of a theocratic regime worth emulating in Pakistan. The TTP accordingly treats the Afghan Taliban Supreme Leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, as its own emir, and pledges the oath of allegiance to him. Both the TTP and the Afghan Taliban also belong to the Deobandi Hanafi school of jurisprudence. They are, in essence, ideological twins with separate geographical mandates in Afghanistan and Pakistan, respectively. [5] Last September, during an in-camera session of the parliament, the Pakistani military establishment, therefore, termed the TTP and the Afghan Taliban as “two sides of the same coin (Express Tribune, July 5, 2021).”

Similarly, the TTP shares fraternal-ethnic linkages with the Afghan Taliban. The TTP sheltered the Taliban in the ex-FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), now merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, not just because they have the same ideological outlooks but because of ethnic bonds as well (Express Tribune, July 31, 2021).  Thus, the TTP’s policy of hosting and fighting alongside the Afghan Taliban is part of the Pashtun tribal code of Pashtunwali, whereby Pashtuns protect the honor and life of their guests with their lives. Likewise, the Afghan Taliban, after assuming power, are reciprocating the same ethnic gesture of hospitality by protection and sheltering the TTP.

Alongside al-Qaeda, the TTP was further instrumental in helping the Afghan Taliban achieve victory in Afghanistan. While al-Qaeda provided strategic guidance, expertise, and training in bombmaking and battlefield planning, the TTP trained hundreds of suicide bombers for the final phase of the Afghan Taliban’s offensive in Afghanistan. [6] Meanwhile, the Afghan Taliban itself trained another 2,600 suicide bombers for that final offensive (Geo Tv, January 20). The TTP’s emir, Nur Wali Mehsud, subsequently was the first jihadist leader to congratulate the Afghan Taliban on their victory, and renewed his oath of allegiance to Haibatullah Akhundzada (Twitter, August 17, 2021).

Arguably, the TTP engaged in peace talks with Pakistan not to create any legal challenges for the Afghan Taliban or to embarrass them in front of Pakistan. Under the Doha Agreement, the Taliban are bound to cooperate with Pakistan to address its counter-terrorism concerns, such as not allowing Afghan soil to be used for terrorism against any other country. For instance, Pakistan conveyed to the Afghan Taliban that tackling the TTP would be a test case to establish the former’s credentials in dealing with terrorism in the eyes of the international community (Express Tribune, January 9). This was preceded by a demand, both from Pakistan and China, for the Afghan Taliban to make a clean break from the TTP and Uyghur militants (Express Tribune, July 28, 2021). In a way, the TTP participated in peace talks to fulfill the Afghan Taliban’s demand to help the latter satisfy Pakistan and show that it was taking some measures to pacify the TTP without the use of force. Otherwise, given the diametrically opposite position of both Pakistan and the TTP, peace talks were a non-starter (Terrorism Monitor, October 21, 2021). [7]

The Afghan Taliban’s Reluctance to Act Against TTP

If the Afghan Taliban, on Pakistan’s insistence, dislodges the TTP from its sanctuaries in Afghanistan, it will push the TTP commanders and fighters towards Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), the former’s ideological arch-foe. The TTP’s current operational strength is estimated to be between 7,000 to 10,000 fighters, while ISKP numbers are anywhere between 3,000 to 5,000 fighters, with the TTP’s former renegade factions forming the core of ISKP (United National Security Council, June 1, 2020), Hence, the Afghan Taliban are extremely careful in their handling of the TTP so as to not empower ISKP. [8]

Furthermore, there is tremendous reverence and sympathy for the TTP in the Afghan Taliban rank-and-file. If the Afghan Taliban crack down on the TTP, it will exacerbate the former militant movement’s factional divisions (Al-Jazeera, September 23, 2021). The Afghan Taliban cannot afford internal divisions at this critical juncture when their grip on power in Afghanistan is tenuous and they need to maintain their organizational coherence and internal unity to consolidate their rule. [9]

In addition, the Afghan Taliban have been positioning themselves as the so-called champions of Pashtun nationalism in a bid to win the hearts and minds of Afghanistan’s Pashtun community. [10] Not recognizing the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is a central pillar of Pashtun nationalism. The Afghan Taliban not only has desisted from recognizing the border, but it has physically opposed its fencing (The News International, December 25, 2021). Likewise, resisting the border’s fencing and ex-FATA’s merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is part of the TTP’s revived militancy against Pakistan. Hence, the issue creates a win-win both for the Taliban and the TTP (Terrorism Monitor, September 24, 2021).

The TTP provides the Afghan Taliban tremendous strategic leverage against Pakistan, which the former would not like to lose. Despite depending on Pakistan for shelter and medical and logistical assistance, the Afghan Taliban’s ties with Pakistan were always trouble-prone (Dawn, December 24, 2021). The Afghan Taliban did not trust Pakistan, and detested its security institutions for their blackmail and strong-arm tactics. [11] Therefore, the TTP remains a bargaining chip that the Afghan Taliban will use strategically to push back against any Pakistani blackmails (Dawn, June 9, 2021).

Options for Pakistan 

Pakistani authorities know that they cannot afford to alienate the Afghan Taliban, similar to the way the latter cannot estrange the TTP. For Pakistan, having a friendly regime in Kabul, notwithstanding differences over the TTP, that can stabilize Afghanistan is more important than souring ties with the Afghan Taliban over the TTP. [12] The trade-off between a weakened Afghan Taliban regime pushing Afghanistan towards a civil war, resulting in massive wave of refugees towards Pakistan, versus managing the TTP’s terrorist attacks means Islamabad will live with the existing status quo.

Pakistan will try to explore the possibility of a negotiated settlement once again, hoping to woo the more malleable TTP elements and divide the group (The Nation, January 18). Apart from peace talks, Pakistan will resort to covert operations in Afghanistan to eliminate key TTP leaders. In recent weeks, two key TTP commanders, Khalid Balti (alias Muhammad Khorasan) and Mufti Burjan, were assassinated in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, while another important commander, Faqir Muhammad, narrowly escaped a drone attack when the two missiles failed to explode (Dawn, January 13; Tolo News, December 17, 2021). At the same time, Pakistan will try to fortify its border security and reassess gaps in its intelligence gathering to disrupt and eliminate the TTP’s cells, which have revived in different parts of Pakistan.





[1] The Taliban, like all previous Afghan governments, do not recognize the Pakistan-Afghan border as a legitimate international frontier and consider it an imposition of the British colonial era, which divided the Pashtun families living on both sides of the disputed border.

[2] The TTP’s attacks against Pakistan have been rising steadily since August 2020 when the various splinter factions of the militant group rejoined under Mufti Nur Wali Mehsud’s leadership. As per the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies’ data, as compared to 2020 there was a 56 percent increase in terrorist attacks in Pakistan, the majority of which were carried out by the TTP.

[3] Pakistan was instrumental in bringing the Afghan Taliban leadership to the table with the U.S., culminating in the Doha Agreement, which paved the way for the militant group’s victory in Afghanistan. Pakistan also provided sanctuaries, medical assistance and logistical assistance to the Afghan Taliban whose leaders view Pakistan as their second home. Several Afghan Taliban commanders’ families still live in Pakistan.

[4] Asfandyar Mir, “After the Taliban’s Takeover: Pakistan’s TTP problem,” United States Institute of Peace, January 19, 2022.

[5]. The TTP is a conglomerate of numerous tribal jihadist groups from the Pakistan-Afghan border region who banded together in 2007 to form a unified front. They draw inspiration from the Taliban movement.

[6] Abdul Syed, “The Evolution and Future of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 21, 2021.

[7] The TTP demanded the imposition of the Afghan Taliban style Sharia rule in the ex-FATA region, the release of 100 prisoners, and the permission to open a political office in a third country as pre-conditions for peace talks. On the other hand, Pakistan asked the TTP to renounce violence, offer a public apology for its past attacks, and promise to obey Pakistan’s law and live like normal citizens to avail indemnity.

[8] Author’s interview with a Pakistani security official on January 10, 2022.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Anatol Lieven, “An Afghan Tragedy: The Pashtuns, the Taliban and the State,” Survival, Vol. 63, Issue 3, (May 2021), pp. 7-36.

[11] Tricia Bacon, “Slipping the Leash? Pakistan’s Relationship with the Afghan Taliban,” Survival, Vol. 60, Issue 5, (September 2018), pp. 159-180.

[12] Asfandyar Mir, “After the Taliban’s Takeover: Pakistan’s TTP problem.”