Days after Pakistan struck militant bases in Afghanistan, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif has said that Islamabad does not want an armed conflict with the neighbouring country.

In an interview with Voice of America published on Wednesday, Asif said, “Force is the last resort. We do not want to have an armed conflict with Afghanistan.”

On March 18, Pakistan struck Afghanistan’s Khost and Paktika provinces in “intelligence-based anti-terrorist operations”, which Afghan authorities said killed eight people.

The Foreign Office had confirmed the strikes, saying they were aimed at the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group, which recently targeted security forces in North Waziristan, martyring seven soldiers.

The airstrikes were responded to by Afghanistan forces which used heavy weapons, including mortars, to target troops across the border in Kurram and North Waziristan.

Tuesday remained relatively calmer as guns on both sides of the boundary remained silent, barring the Angoor Adda border.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif asserted that the government would not tolerate any cross-border terrorism. He also invited “neighbouring countries” to “come and sit together” to devise a plan against terrorism.

Speaking about the Pakistani strike with VOA, Asif said: “A message needed to be sent that this [cross-border terrorism] has grown too much.”

He added that Pakistan wanted to convey to the Afghan interim government in Kabul that “we cannot continue like this”.

Asif warned that Islamabad could block the corridor it provided to Afghanistan for trade with India. The defence minister asserted that Pakistan had the right to stop facilitating Kabul if it failed to curb anti-Pakistan terrorists operating on Afghan soil.

“If Afghanistan treats us like an enemy, then why should we give them a trade corridor?” he asked.

Recalling the February 2023 visit to Kabul by a high-level delegation led by him, Asif said he had told the Taliban ministers to not let banned militant Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) past “favours” tie Kabul’s hands.

“If they [TTP] have done you a favour and you’re grateful to them, then control them. Don’t let them start a war with us while living in your country, and you become their ally,” VOA quoted him as saying.

“If they can harm us, then we’ll be forced to [retaliate],” the minister said, while expressing hope that Afghanistan would meet the “single demand” of reining in the TTP, hence preventing the need for future military strikes from Pakistan.

Asif alleged that Kabul was letting the TTP operate against Pakistan in a bid to prevent its members from joining the militant Islamic State group’s local chapter, known as the IS-Khorasan chapter.

The VOA report also stated Asif “dismissed the lack of public support from Beijing” on the strikes Pakistan conducted on Monday.

“It’s not necessary that the world must applaud us. What is in our interest is enough for us. We are protecting our interest, irrespective of whether someone applauds us or not,” the minister said.

Strikes targeted terrorist sanctuaries: FO

Meanwhile, FO Spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch was also asked about Pakistan’s strikes in Afghanistan during her weekly press briefing in Islamabad on Thursday.

According to Radio Pakistan, she clarified it was not directed against the government and the institutions or people of Afghanistan but it was against terrorist hideouts and sanctuaries.

The report quoted her as saying that Pakistan had on multiple occasions shared concrete evidence and intelligence with the Afghan authorities about the presence of terrorist sanctuaries inside Afghanistan.

Baloch said it was a reality that terrorists, especially the TTP, had their basis in Afghanistan. “This is not just Pakistan’s assertion but also confirmed by the international observers including reports by the United Nations,” she said.

She further said that Pakistan respected the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan and was looking forward to working together to find joint solutions in countering terrorism and preventing any terrorist entity from sabotaging bilateral relations between the two countries.

The FO spokesperson emphasised that the two countries should be partners in peace as well as against terrorism.

Pakistan bombs militant bases in Afghanistan

In a pre-dawn operation on Monday, the military targeted the militant outfit — responsible for the March 16 North Waziristan attack which martyred seven troops — in an “intelligence-based anti-terrorist operation”. The attack came a day after President Asif Ali Zardari vowed to avenge the deaths of Pakistani soldiers.

The FO said the operation targeted the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group responsible for several attacks inside Pakistan. “Pakistan […] always prioritised dialogue and cooperation [with Kabul] to confront the terrorist threat. We have repeatedly urged the Afghan authorities to take concrete and effective action to ensure that the Afghan soil is not used as a staging ground for terrorism against Pakistan. We have also called on them to deny safe havens to the TTP and to hand over its leadership to Pakistan.”

The statement said “certain elements among those in power in Afghan­istan” were actively patronising the TTP and using the banned outfit as a proxy against Pakistan.

“Such an approach against a brotherly country, which stood with the people of Afghanistan through thick and thin, manifests shortsightedness. It ignores the support extended by Pakistan to the people of Afghanis­tan over the last several decades. We urge these elements in power to rethink the policy of siding with ‘Khwarij’ terrorists shedding the blood of innocent Pakistanis and to make a clear choice to stand with the people of Pakistan,” it said.

Islamabad said militant groups like the banned TTP posed a “collective threat to regional peace and security” and Pakistan fully realised the challenge faced by the Afghan authorities in combating the threat.

“Pakistan would therefore continue to work towards finding joint solutions in countering terrorism and to prevent any terrorist organisation from sabotaging bilateral relations with Afghanistan,” it said.

In response to airstrikes, Kabul targeted “bases of Pakistani security forces” across the border, said the Defence Ministry of Afghanistan. The border forces of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan targeted military bases of Pakistan Army across Durand Line with heavy weapons, the statement claimed.

An army officer embraced martyrdom and three soldiers sustained injuries in day-long cross-border clashes between Pakistan and Afghan Taliban forces along the border in district Kurram, police said.

Resurgent terrorism

Pakistan has witnessed an uptick in terror activities in 2023, especially in KP and Balochistan after the TTP ended its ceasefire with the government in November 2022.

The Inter-Services Public Relations, the military’s media wing, said earlier this week that the “recent wave of terrorism in Pakistan has the full support and assistance of Afghanistan”.

“The Afghan interim government is not only arming the terrorists but also providing a safe haven for other terrorist organisations as well as being involved in the incidents of terrorism in Pakistan,” it stated.

The Foreign Office also said that terror outfits, including the TTP, “pose a grave threat to Pakistan’s security and have consistently used Afghan territory to launch terror attacks inside Pakistani territory”.

On the morning of March 16, seven sec­urity personnel, inc­luding two officers, embraced martyrdom when militants targeted a paramilitary camp in the Mir Ali area of North Waziristan.

The ISPR said earlier this month 10 militants were killed in two separate operations by security forces in the North Waziristan district. It added that Pakistan expected the Afghan government to fulfil its obligations and deny the use of Afghan soil by terrorists.

Last month, a late-night attack on a police station in Dera Ismail Khan was repulsed. Gunmen had mounted an attack using heavy weapons but fled in the cover of darkness when police personnel fired back.

In December last year, 23 soldiers were martyred and more than 30 troops wounded after militants belonging to the Tehreek-i-Jihad Pakistan (TJP) stormed a compound used by the military in Dera Ismail Khan’s Daraban area.

According to an annual security report issued by the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Pakistan witnessed 1,524 violence-related fatalities and 1,463 injuries from 789 terror attacks and counter-terror operations in 2023 — marking a record six-year high.

KP and Balochistan were the primary centres of violence, accounting for over 90 per cent of all fatalities and 84pc of attacks, including incidents of terrorism and security forces operations.

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