May 4, 2022

IntelBrief: Border Clashes Mar the Taliban’s Regional Relationships

AP Photo/Jafar Khan

Bottom Line up Front

  • Clashes on Afghanistan’s border with both Pakistan and Iran signify an end to the relative wary regional calm that has prevailed since the Taliban returned to power in Kabul.
  • Pakistan perceives that the Taliban de facto authorities of Afghanistan are sympathetic to Pakistani militants that threaten Pakistan’s stability.
  • Any tensions with Afghanistan reduce Pakistan’s ability to use the Taliban and their influence as leverage against India.
  • Iran’s longstanding differences with the Afghan Taliban have begun to re-emerge in the form of border clashes and mutual accusations.

Border clashes that erupted in April between the Taliban de facto authorities of Afghanistan and their two neighbors, Iran and Pakistan, signal an end to the wary calm that has existed in the region since the Taliban returned to power in Kabul in August 2021. As an indicator of Indicating an unexpected rift, in mid-April, Pakistani aircraft struck targets in the Afghan provinces of Kunar and Khost—both of which border Pakistan—several days after Pakistani militants said to be operating from the area killed seven Pakistani soldiers across the border. The strikes in Kunar and Khost provinces killed at least 47 civilians. In late April, Afghanistan’s acting Minister of Defense, Mullah Muhammad Yaqoob, the son of the late Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, unusually warned in a speech that the Taliban would not tolerate any more “invasions” from neighboring countries on Afghan soil.

The Pakistani air strike represented a sharp turn in the strategic architecture in South Asia. After the Taliban toppled the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, Pakistani strategists expected that the Taliban leadership would align closely with Islamabad, which supported the 1996-2001 Taliban regime and provided it with protection and refuge throughout the 20 years of U.S.-led operations against it. Pakistani leaders expected that the new leaders in Kabul would, at the very least, help rein in the violence by the Pakistani Taliban, known formally as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Rather than repaying Pakistan for its mentorship, the Afghan Taliban have instead backed their Pakistani Islamist brethren, allowing them safe haven inside Afghanistan and refusing to prevent their incursions into Pakistan. Since the U.S.-backed government collapsed in Afghanistan, the TTP has carried out 82 attacks in Pakistan, more than double the number over the same period of the previous year, and has killed 133 persons, according to the Pak Institute of Peace Studies, an Islamabad think-tank. The increasing frequency and severity of TTP attacks suggest that the protection the group is receiving from the Afghan Taliban is enabling the group to regain strength after a decade of Pakistani military operations against them.

More broadly, the border clashes are attracting the attention of Indian strategists, who initially assessed that the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan would give historic rival Pakistan strategic depth and leverage over New Delhi. On the one hand, the Afghan Taliban’s affinity for its Pakistani affiliate reinforces India’s concern that Afghanistan will again become a haven for Islamist militants. Yet, to India’s benefit, the rift between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan virtually ensures that the two cannot form a united front against India.

In contrast to the eastern frontier, border clashes between Iran and Afghanistan have been long expected and comport with the enduring on-again, off-again animosity between Tehran and the Taliban. Iran and the first Taliban regime went to the brink of armed conflict in 1998 after Taliban fighters killed nine Iranian diplomats at Iran’s consulate in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Iran supported the “Northern Alliance” of Afghan minorities, including Afghan Shias, against the Taliban in the years prior to the U.S. intervention in 2001. During this time, Iran still cooperated with the Taliban to supply weapons that the insurgents would use to attack U.S. troops operating in Afghanistan. Although remaining wary of the Taliban, in August 2021, Iranian leaders welcomed not only the end to civil conflict in Afghanistan, but also the U.S.-led coalition’s departure from the country, and particularly from Iran’s eastern borders. Iranian officials have engaged the new Taliban regime in Kabul, even to the point of allowing Taliban officials to return to Afghanistan’s embassy in Tehran in April. Still, Taliban personnel are only empowered to perform consular duties, because Iran has, as all other governments have, withheld formal recognition of the Taliban as the governing authority of Afghanistan.

However, Iran’s distrust of the Taliban has gradually re-surfaced, fueled in part by several bombings of Afghan Shia mosques that Taliban security forces failed to prevent, as well as alleged Taliban mistreatment of Shias. In late April, Iranian border guards clashed with Afghan forces in the Islam Qala district west of Herat over Afghan construction of roadways near the border. Afghan authorities responded by seizing an Iranian military vehicle, prompting Iran to deploy additional regular ground and helicopter military units—not Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces—to the border. Iran temporarily shut down the border crossing, while downplaying the military buildup as part of routine border security measures. Iranian foreign ministry officials simultaneously criticized the Afghans for “possible poor skill” and an inability to distinguish the border points between the two countries. The two sides subsequently sought to defuse tensions by announcing that, in early May, the Taliban's acting minister for refugees and repatriations, Khalil-ur-Rahman Haqqani, would lead a delegation to Iran to discuss the border clashes and alleged Iranian mistreatment of Afghan refugees. Yet, a sign of how the tensions could easily affect populations on both sides of the border emerged on April 6 when an Afghan immigrant stabbed three Iranian clerics in the prominent Shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, killing two and severely wounding the third.

The Taliban’s relations with Pakistan are likely to recover because of their long alignment, but relations between Iran and Kabul will likely undergo repeated cycles of acrimony and tensions due to their fundamental and longstanding differences. In the strategic context of South Asia dynamics, India will become the main beneficiary of both the longstanding, as well as unexpected, divisions among these major actors in the region.