The Taliban’s commitment to prevent Afghan soil being used by terrorists against other countries is being tested, not by al Qaeda, but by Pakistani militants who have unleashed dozens of attacks in neighboring Pakistan in recent months.
The Taliban not only sees many fellow jihadists as brothers and guests, they want to avoid driving new recruits to their sole remaining adversary in Afghanistan, the local branch of the Islamic State militant group.
Pakistani militants, based in eastern Afghanistan, have increased attacks in Pakistan since the Taliban’s takeover in August. They have also acquired American military equipment, from the huge stores of weaponry left as U.S. troops departed last year.
Pakistan, which is considered the Taliban’s closest ally, has pushed Afghanistan’s new rulers for months to end the threat from Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, a group of Pakistani militants who have worked closely with al Qaeda. Islamabad’s patience appears to be wearing thin. The country carried out airstrikes inside Afghanistan earlier this month, according to the Taliban and local Afghan residents. The Taliban called in the Pakistani ambassador in Kabul to register a formal protest over the strikes.
“We are facing no resistance or opposition from the Afghan Taliban,” Noor Wali Mehsud, leader of the TTP, wrote in response to questions from The Wall Street Journal.
One of the few commitments extracted from the Taliban by American officials in a U.S. withdrawal agreement signed in 2020, was a pledge that they wouldn’t allow Afghan territory to be used for terrorism directed abroad. The Taliban, who are seeking international recognition for their regime, deny that Afghan soil is being used against other nations.
China, Iran, Russia, and other countries in Afghanistan’s region have all expressed concern that the country could once again be a haven for international jihadists. There are Chinese and central Asian jihadists in Afghanistan, including Uzbek and Tajik militants. Last year, according to Islamabad, TTP militants based in Afghanistan carried out a bombing that killed nine Chinese engineers working on a dam project in Pakistan.
A United Nations report in February said some of al Qaeda’s “closest sympathizers” within the Taliban now occupy senior positions in the new administration. It estimated the size of the TTP presence in Afghanistan at between 3,000 and 5,500 fighters, which would make it the biggest foreign jihadist group there.
“There are no recent signs that the Taliban has taken steps to limit the activities of foreign terrorist fighters in the country. On the contrary, terrorist groups enjoy greater freedom there than at any time in recent history,” the report said.
When the Taliban seized power, they released thousands of prisoners, including militants who swelled the ranks of the TTP and Islamic State.
Afghanistan was a sanctuary for Osama bin Laden at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Just as the Taliban then said that their culture and religion didn’t permit them to hand over bin Laden, some Taliban commanders now say that they should protect Pakistani and other foreign jihadists.
Pakistani militants gave the Taliban shelter in Pakistan after they were driven out of Afghanistan by the 2001 U.S. invasion of the country. They fought together against the then American-backed regime in Kabul. Now the favor is being repaid.
The Taliban have taken on their jihadist rival, the local branch of Islamic State, which is carrying out a brutal campaign of attacks inside Afghanistan. Many Islamic State fighters came from the TTP, and taking action against the Pakistani militants could spur more to join Islamic State in opposition to the Taliban.
The U.S. commander who oversees the region that includes Afghanistan, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, said in March that, even though the Taliban are pressuring Islamic State, the branch of the group could establish an attack capability against the U.S. and allies in 12 to 18 months. Against al Qaeda, he said the Taliban are “much less firm.”
Instead of military action, the Taliban brokered talks between the TTP and Pakistani authorities, negotiations that led to the release of dozens of TTP prisoners in Pakistan and a monthlong cease-fire in November. Those negotiations broke down in February, however.
The TTP fighters, along with their families, are in areas of Afghanistan controlled by the part of the Taliban considered closest to Pakistan, the Haqqani network, whose leader is Afghanistan’s current interior minister.
Washington accused Pakistan of supporting the Taliban as its proxy for the two decades that U.S. soldiers were in Afghanistan. During those years, Islamabad in turn alleged that the former U.S.-backed Kabul government was allowing Pakistani militants to operate in Afghanistan. Yet now that the Taliban are in power, Pakistani militants have greater freedom.
Video and pictures released by the TTP show its fighters using American guns, night-vision and thermal-imaging equipment. One video shows a long-range sniper rifle with a night-vision scope, purportedly being used to pick off Pakistani soldiers. They have been shooting some Pakistani soldiers at night without even crossing the border. A picture of the TTP’s leader, which was sent to The Wall Street Journal by the group, shows two guards with him holding American M4 rifles. The TTP has also released videos showing them traveling in large motorcades, openly, in what appears to be Afghanistan.
The TTP was formed in reaction to Pakistan’s alliance with the U.S. in the “war on terror” after the Sept. 11 attacks. The group, which wants to see strict Islamic law imposed in Pakistan, was responsible for the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. In 2012, the TTP shot a young campaigner for educating girls, Malala Yousafzai, who survived and went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
The TTP has been so violent, hitting mosques and religious minorities in Pakistan repeatedly, that at one point, bin Laden wrote to its leadership asking them to rein in the civilian bloodshed as it was giving jihad a bad name, according to a letter found by U.S. forces in 2011 at the former al Qaeda leader’s hideout in Pakistan. Under its current leadership, the TTP is focused on attacking Pakistani soldiers and policemen.
Pakistan’s two airstrikes on April 16, in the eastern Afghan provinces of Kunar and Khost, killed at least 40 people, including some civilians, according to local residents. The U.N. said that 20 children were among the dead. Pakistan hasn’t confirmed that it carried out the airstrikes and declined to comment on the civilian deaths, but said earlier this month that “terrorists are using Afghan soil with impunity to carry out activities inside Pakistan.”
“If we tolerated the incident, it would have been due to our national interests. We might not have the same tolerance next time,” Mawlawi Mohammad Yaqoob, the Taliban’s defense minister and son of the movement’s founder, said Sunday.
The airstrike in Kunar targeted a militant whom Pakistan suspects of leading an attack on April 12 near the Afghan border in South Waziristan, in which a Pakistani major and a soldier were killed. But locals said the airstrike hit the family of the militant, Umar Bajauri. He wasn’t with them at the time and survived, they said.
In Khost, the airstrike targeted the Gul Bahadur faction, which Pakistan suspects carried out an April 14 ambush of a military convoy, also near the Afghan border in North Waziristan. That attack killed seven Pakistani soldiers.
“If Pakistan is unable to get the Taliban to comply on restraining terrorists, other countries with limited leverage are likely to struggle even more,” said Asfandyar Mir, senior expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a think tank in Washington.