We Don’t Want Armed Conflict With Afghanistan: Khawaja Asif

Pakistan’s Defense Minister, Khawaja Asif, stated that his country seeks to avoid armed conflict with Afghanistan following airstrikes. Asif emphasized that force should only be used as a last resort. He expressed Pakistan’s desire to have peaceful relations with Afghanistan. However, he warned that if Afghanistan continues to allow anti-Pakistan terrorists to operate on its soil, Pakistan may block the trade corridor it provides to landlocked Afghanistan for trade with India. 

Asif underscored that Pakistan reserves the right to stop facilitating Kabul if it treats Pakistan as an enemy. Pakistan recently carried out targeted operations in Afghanistan against Tehrik-e-Taliban. It is a banned terrorist outfit. Pakistan’s attack was in response to an attack by insurgents on a regional military base that resulted in the deaths of seven troops, including two officers. Pakistan alleges that Tehrik-e-Taliban fighters and their supporters find refuge in Afghanistan. Intelligence assessments from the United Nations confirm the presence of Tehrik-e-Taliban in Afghanistan. They also suggest that some members of the Afghan Taliban have joined their ranks. Asif asserted that the recent strikes aimed to send a message about the escalation of cross-border terrorism. He further emphasized that the current situation cannot continue. Pakistan has experienced an increase in attacks since the Taliban regained power in Afghanistan in August 2021. 

Initially, the Afghan Taliban-brokered talks between Pakistan and Tehrik-e-Taliban, ended in November 2022 when the latter unilaterally broke the cease-fire. As a result, Pakistan has witnessed a rise in attacks on military and security personnel in provinces bordering Afghanistan. It is estimated that 5,000 to 6,000 Tehrik-e-Taliban fighters have sought refuge in Afghanistan after Pakistan conducted large-scale military operations to eradicate terrorists nearly a decade ago in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The militant group has also provided support to the Afghan Taliban during their two-decade-long war against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. 

Asif revealed that during his visit to Kabul in February 2023, he urged Taliban ministers not to allow the past aid provided by Tehrik-e-Taliban to hinder their actions against them. He emphasized the need for control to prevent an escalation of tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Taliban has denied providing shelter to anti-Pakistan terrorists. In response to the strikes on Monday, Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesperson for the Taliban, issued a warning of serious consequences.

Mujahid stated in a press release, “Pakistan cannot blame Afghanistan for the lack of control, incompetence, and problems within its own borders. Such incidents can lead to severe consequences that will be beyond Pakistan’s control.”

Later, the Taliban Defense Ministry confirmed that its security forces had targeted Pakistani positions using “heavy weapons.”

Since Tuesday, a tense calm has settled along the 2,600-kilometer-long border.

Experts believe that Taliban does not possess the military strength to attack Pakistan directly. That’s why they may employ unconventional tactics and actively support anti-Pakistan militants in response to aggression from Islamabad.

“We will retaliate if they harm us,” Asif remarked, expressing hope that Afghanistan will fulfill their demand of reining in the TTP, thus avoiding the need for future military strikes from Pakistan.

The defense minister accused Kabul of allowing the TTP to operate against Pakistan to prevent its members from joining the local Islamic State terrorist group, IS-KP. It poses a significant internal security threat to Afghanistan.

In response to Monday’s strikes, the U.S. State Department called on Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban to take steps to address their differences.

“Our message to the Taliban is to ensure that terrorist attacks are not orchestrated from Afghan soil, and we call on Pakistan to exercise restraint and protect civilians during their counterterrorism efforts,” stated deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel during a regular press briefing on Monday.

China, Pakistan’s most significant ally, has yet to comment on the cross-border conflict. Asif dismissed the absence of public support from Beijing, stating, “We do not need the world’s applause. Our own interests are what matter to us. We will safeguard our interests, regardless of whether or not others applaud our actions.”