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Pakistani airstrikes in Afghanistan prompt retaliatory actions from Taliban

Pakistan stated the strikes were directed at militant group members located in Afghanistan, while the Afghan Taliban claimed that civilian residential areas were hit. Afghan Witness confirmed the deaths of several children following the strikes and verified retaliatory shelling and gunfire from Afghan forces towards Pakistani territory.


28 Mar 2024

On 18 March 2024, Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesperson of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, issued a statement on X (formerly Twitter), claiming that “Pakistani planes bombed the houses of civilians” in four locations within the Afghan Dubai area of Khost's Spira district, and the Lamanah area of Paktika's Bermal district.

The reported airstrikes came after an accusation by Pakistan’s Special Representative on Afghanistan, Asif Durrani, that “5,000 to 6,000 TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan) militants have taken shelter in Afghanistan.” On 17 March, various Afghan and Pakistani news agencies reported that Durrani claimed Pakistan had evidence that the TTP was “receiving money from India through Afghan proxies.” The accusations were immediately refuted by Mujahid, who stated that although the administration was doing their “utmost” to ensure there was no presence of foreign groups in Afghanistan, the two countries still share a long border with areas that might be out of the Taliban’s control.

Mujahid claimed the airstrikes on 18 March resulted in the deaths of eight civilians, including five women and three children. The attack was also reported by the Taliban Ministry of Defense, which stated that the houses were bombed by the Pakistani reconnaissance and fighter jets.

According to eyewitnesses, a house belonging to a member of the Mehsud tribe, from South Waziristan, was targeted in Paktika, resulting in the deaths of his five children and two wives. Images of two [WARNING: GRAPHIC] deceased children circulated on social media following the attack, eliciting condemnation from Afghan Taliban supporters. The sources confirmed that the two children seen in the photos were among the five killed in a strike on the house in the Bermal district, Paktika province. Sources identified the village as “Lamanah,” however were unable to identify the exact building affected by the strike.

Figure 1: Photograph showing the damaged house as a result of alleged airstrikes in the Lamanah area [32.728056, 69.324425]

The Pakistani Foreign Ministry acknowledged the airstrikes, stating they were directed at the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group (HGB) and the TTP within Afghanistan. HGB is known to have an operational network in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal district, adjacent to where the airstrikes struck Afghanistan. Notably, HGB claimed responsibility for a significant attack on an army camp in Mir Ali Tehsil of North Waziristan on 16 March 2024, which involved six attackers, including a Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (SVBIED).

Conflicting reports on TTP Commander's fate

Reports from Pakistani media suggested that Abdullah Shah Mehsud, a commander of the TTP, was among those killed in the airstrikes, alongside unidentified members of the HGB group. In response, the TTP's Umar Media released a video featuring Mehsud denying his death. In the video, Meshud asserts he is fighting against security forces in his native South Waziristan; however, the precise location where his message was recorded was not disclosed.

In an interview with RTA Radio, Mujahid contested the claim that Mehsud was in Afghanistan, emphasising that the commander was not within Afghan territory.

Figure 2: A screenshot from the Umar Media video depicts Commander Abdullah Shah dismissing reports of his demise.

While certain media outlets alleged that the Pakistani Air Force targeted areas in Kunar province, local sources disputed these claims, stating that although fighter jets were observed circling the area, no bombardment occurred. This incident is reminiscent of similar events in April 2022, when the Pakistani Air Force targeted alleged TTP hideouts in Kunar, Khost, and Paktika provinces. One such attack reportedly resulted in the deaths of children in a refugee’s home, dispelling initial claims of targeting a senior TTP commander.

Taliban promise retaliatory actions 

Following the airstrikes, pro-Afghan Taliban media accounts and prominent members expressed outrage on social media and issued threats of retaliation. Notably, a religious order for a counter-attack, which was circulated widely among Taliban supporters, was first shared by pro-Taliban Al-Mirsad Media. On 18 March 2024, Mujahid confirmed retaliatory actions, specifying nine locations where Taliban forces targeted Pakistani positions in the areas adjacent to Khost, Paktika, and Paktia provinces. Taliban supporters shared footage allegedly depicting attacks targeting Pakistani territory. AW investigators geolocated videos showing shelling and gunfire towards Pakistani territory, from Afghanistan’s Paktia province. The image below shows the geolocation of a video, shared by a pro-Taliban account with almost 30K followers, showing artillery being fired towards a Pakistani outpost on 18 March 2024.

Figure 3: Geolocation of fire from Afghanistan (bottom left) and hitting a Pakistani border building (top right) [33.839371, 69.955092].

How the clashes developed 

Between 18 and 20 March, social media users and media outlets shared images and videos allegedly showing Taliban reinforcements on the move towards the border with Pakistan. These reports claimed the military was being deployed to “respond to the aggression by Pakistani army.” AW investigators were unable to immediately geolocate the videos showing these alleged military movements.

In addition to gunfire towards Pakistani border posts, online users also claimed the Taliban targeted Pakistani villages near the border, hitting buildings in the Burki village in the upper Kurram district of Pakistan. Despite the image showing shelling damage to buildings, the absence of landmarks visible in the image prevented AW investigators from verifying the location.

On 18 March, pro-Taliban social media users and news agencies shared videos of vehicles with mounted artillery, reporting that the units led by one of the Taliban commanders, Abdul Hamid Khorasani, were headed to Paktia’s border with Pakistan. Khorasani corroborated this in a video statement released by local media outlets on the evening of the same day. In the video, recorded at night time, Khorasani claimed the border situation was de-escalated and there was no longer a conflict after their “crushing response” to the Pakistani military. In the footage, Khorasani could be seen with his unit of approximately 19 men armed with rocket launchers and rifles. Around the same time, independent Afghan media agency Nedaey Baloch, shared a video showing a fire, allegedly in the border area, at night, and reported that a number of Pakistani soldiers had fled from their security posts. AW also recorded one [WARNING: GRAPHIC] picture of the body of an alleged Taliban member who was reportedly killed in clashes in the Dand Patan district of Paktia.

On the evening of 18 March, pro-Taliban social media users claimed that Taliban forces allegedly crossed the border and captured some Pakistani military posts, sharing videos in which Taliban members can be seen near the gate of a Pakistani military station, placing the Taliban flag allegedly inside Pakistani territory. AW investigators geolocated the footage and confirmed the Taliban were on the border, however, still officially on Afghan-controlled territory, as seen below.

Figure 4: Geolocation of a group of Taliban military members raising the Taliban flag near the border with Pakistan [33.828569, 69.952689].

Mujahid clarified that these attacks were not intended to instigate a war with Pakistan, rather, he claimed, they were intended to respond to Pakistani aggression. He also attributed the hostility towards Afghanistan to a few army generals in Pakistan. Pakistani media corroborated the attacks citing government sources who reported casualties – including two soldiers, and an army officer – in an assault on Pakistani forces in the Kurram district, which is adjacent to Paktika, where shelling was reported.

ISKP reacts to the conflict 

On 19 March 2024, ISKP-affiliated Al Azaim Media issued a statement titled “A Warning to the Apostates of the Infidel Regime of Pakistan.” In the statement, ISKP denounced the Taliban as subservient to Pakistan, dismissing their response to Pakistani airstrikes as mere theatrics. The ISKP vowed retribution for civilian casualties resulting from Pakistan’s airstrikes, asserting that IS fighters would hold those responsible to account. The statement concluded with a promise of forceful and relentless vengeance: “Prepare yourselves for a fierce and bloody revenge, as the Mujahideen of the Islamic State will soon hold you accountable for these crimes!”

Clashes de-escalate after two days

On 20 March, TOLO News shared a video in which Mali Khan Sediq, the Deputy Chief of Army Staff of Islamic Emirate forces, can be heard saying: “We are capable of giving a reciprocal response to Pakistan.” Sediq added: “It is correct that we will not be able to hit Islamabad from here, but those within one hundred metres will not survive.” According to the outlet, the speech took place at a gathering in Logar’s Kharwar district.

On the same day, a pro-Taliban propagandist, Hafiz Umari, shared pictures on X from Sediq’s visit to Paktika’s Dand Patan district, where he met with soldiers at their posts. Allegedly, the purpose of the visit was to “assess the situation.” According to Umari’s post, the intensity of the clashes at the border has decreased, and the Deputy Chief warned Pakistan that although the Taliban are not in favour of the war, the Taliban forces will respond when needed.

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