The Taliban say they will arrest and try for “treason” anyone using Afghanistan’s soil against Pakistan or other countries, as skepticism grows over the Islamist group’s counterterrorism assurances to the world at large.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid issued the warning in a VOA interview, amid a recent spike in cross-border terrorist attacks that have killed dozens of Pakistani security personnel.
The latest attack took place on Friday when “terrorists from inside Afghanistan” opened fire on Pakistani troops, killing one soldier, according to a Pakistani military statement.
Officials in Islamabad believe that since seizing power in Kabul a year ago, the Taliban have turned a blind eye to activities of their Pakistani offshoot, the outlawed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — also known as the Pakistani Taliban — operating out of Afghan sanctuaries.
The Taliban reject the allegation and have hosted talks between Pakistani and TTP negotiators in recent months to try to broker a peace deal between the adversaries. But the effort has not eased the terrorism threat originating in Afghanistan and the peace process seemingly has fallen apart.
“Whoever is present here, they aren’t allowed to carry out any such activities because they have assured us, they would not threaten another country,” Mujahid told VOA in his Kabul office earlier this month when asked for a response to allegations TTP insurgents enjoy greater operational freedom and mobility since the Taliban returned to power.
The spokesman argued the Taliban’s return following the withdrawal of the United States and allied troops has brought an end to the two-decade war and peace to much of Afghanistan. But Mujahid acknowledged that border security remains a challenge for Taliban forces.
“Afghanistan and Pakistan are separated by a long (boundary) line running through mountains and treacherous territory. There are even sections where our forces have not yet established a foothold or need air support to secure them,” he said.
“It is quite possible some people might be taking advantage of this situation. And if so, these people are committing treason against Afghanistan first. They must be hunted, arrested and punished,” Mujahid stressed.
“We are seriously committed to this issue and assure Pakistan that our soil will not be used against them. They (Pakistan) should also need to make sure their territory is not used to harm us,” he said.
The border between the two countries is more than 2,600 kilometers long. Kabul disputes the demarcation with Pakistan drawn up by 19th-century British colonial rulers and called the Durand Line.
Islamabad rejects the objection, saying it inherited the international border after Pakistan gained independence from Britain in 1947.
Pakistani officials, however, downplay concerns that the TTP factor threatens to disrupt ties between the two countries, describing the relationship as “positive and thriving” despite frustrations over counterterrorism cooperation.
Pakistan notes that the Taliban have only recently returned to power after two decades and face serious governance as well as financial challenges, saying they need time and political space to address counterterrorism and issues related to human rights of Afghans, especially women.
Funding for Afghanistan has dried up because no country has recognized the Islamist group as the legitimate rulers of the country, citing its restrictions on women’s rights to education and work, among other human rights issues.
“The answer has to be engagement,” Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari told an event organized by Washington’s Wilson Center on Wednesday, when asked for his response to the resurgent TTP threat originating in Taliban-governed Afghanistan.
“We have to build their (the Taliban’s) capacity to take on these terrorist groups before we can give a definitive verdict on whether they have demonstrated the will to do so,” Zardari said.
Pakistan has maintained closed ties with the Islamist Taliban since they first ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
While U.S. and former Afghan government leaders accused the Pakistani military of covertly supporting Taliban insurgents in the years that followed, the Pakistani Taliban — designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and United Nations — provided recruits and safe havens on Pakistani soil for the insurgency.
The new rulers in Kabul now appear to be returning the favor by refusing to crack down on TTP leaders, as Pakistan has requested. Instead, they have urged both Islamabad and TTP to revert to talks to find a resolution.
Critics remain skeptical that the Taliban would use force against their Pakistani offshoot, noting they share a common ideology, with the TTP leadership renewing its allegiance to Taliban supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada after his group took over Kabul last year.
The revelation that deceased al-Qaida leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri had been staying in a safe house in the heart of Kabul also has fueled fears the Taliban are reluctant to cut ties with terrorist groups that supported their insurgent operations over the years. Al-Zawahiri was killed in a U.S. drone strike in July.
Despite prevailing skepticism, Pakistan says it has taken a series of measures in recent months to boost economic cooperation with Afghanistan and will continue to do so. The policy has tilted the balance of trade in favor of the crisis-ridden country for the first time in the history of bilateral ties.
The change is attributed mainly to increased purchases of Afghan coal in the wake of rising global prices in a bid to reduce Pakistan’s dependence on expensive supplies from South Africa.
Traders say about 10,000 metric tons of coal is being exported daily to Pakistan, helping the Taliban generate much needed revenue to govern the country.
A high-level Pakistani delegation is expected to visit Afghanistan next month to discuss whether daily coal imports could be raised to around 30,000 metric tons to meet Pakistan’s estimated monthly needs of at least 1 million metric tons.
Taliban spokesman Mujahid echoed Pakistani assertions that sustained Afghan peace and economic stability can help counter “spoilers” threatening peace in both countries.