Assessing the Outcome of Pakistan's Support for Afghan Taliban
Back in 2010, a clear message was sent from Pakistan to the Afghan Taliban in the aftermath of Mullah Ghani Baradar's arrest: ‘No deal without us.’ The pretext of this tough messaging was the secret negotiation process that was underway between the Afghan Taliban and the then-Afghan government being run by Hamid Karzai. It was bound to happen. Those who adhere to realism would endorse that states, whenever faced with a situation detrimental to their interests, react swiftly with little regard for legal or political repercussions.
The negotiation process was being spearheaded, as Pakistan believed, by Mullah Ghani Baradar, a modernist and co-founder of the Taliban movement, who hails from Zirak, a tribal confederation of Durrani Pashtuns in Afghanistan. Currently, he is tasked with the role of Deputy Prime Minister in Taliban-run Afghanistan. Baradar was later released in 2018 by Pakistan at the request of Qatar, a mediator between the Afghan Taliban and US, to give talks a smooth pathway after then-US President Donald Trump announced his withdrawal plan. As a result, a deal was clinched and the world saw the Taliban entering the presidential palace while carrying guns on their shoulders on August 15th, 2021. This time, however, Pakistan was an active facilitator of the talks, a role hailed by the global community.
Pakistan’s policy in Afghanistan has majorly been driven by three factors: the perceived threat of encirclement by India, Pashtun nationalism across the Durand Line, and Kabul rulers’ alleged backing of anti-Pakistan militants such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Keeping these factors in its account, a neutral and friendly government in Afghanistan had become an absolute necessity for Pakistan to ensure a prosperous, and peaceful frontier on its west, one that would provide no operational room to anti-Pakistan forces. For purely these reasons, Pakistan relied heavily on the Afghan Taliban and ensured that the group survived the US assault after 9/11.
As the first anniversary of the Taliban’s victory nears, one needs to ask: did Pakistan get what it had been seeking in Afghanistan from its protracted efforts and the resources it exhausted? Much to Islamabad’s annoyance, realities on the ground suggest otherwise.
Operating from Afghanistan, TTP, after recovering from internal fissures successfully, has reared its head once again under the leadership of Noor Wali Mehsud, posing a significant security threat to Pakistan. In June, a Baloch militant group led by Mullah Aslam Baloch, who has also fought in Afghanistan, joined hands with the TTP, taking the number of groups under the TTP umbrella to eighteen. The reinvigoration of the TTP carried such force that it forced Pakistan to open channels for dialogue with the group it once rendered crippled as a result of the Zarb-e-Azb Military Operation. The decision of talks came following the newly empowered Afghan Taliban’s unwillingness to take action to prevent TTP from conducting attacks against Pakistan. For Pakistan, such unwillingness was disappointing considering its decades-long backing of the Afghan Taliban. More dismaying was the Afghan Taliban’s demonstrated patronage to the TTP as Pakistan had long made the accusation that the militant group was being backed by India and former Afghanistan governments such as those of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani. Moreover, TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud reiterated the group’s allegiance to the Afghan Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah.
Now, since Pakistan has opted for talks with TTP, the unstable history of such initiatives suggests that chances of success are also bleak this time. In the event of failed talks, would Islamabad be able to pressure the Afghan Taliban to an extent where action against TTP would be taken, or would Islamabad resort to kinetic measures on its own, risking bilateral ties and pushing Afghan Taliban and TTP further closer? It might also be the case that other regional actors start to capitalize on the rifts created by troubled ties between Islamabad and Kabul.
With Pakistan’s relations with the Afghan Taliban going less smooth than expected, it appears that India has decided to upset the old strategic interests of its rival Pakistan by reclaiming the lost space in Afghanistan after the Taliban’s lightning-speed victory.
For decades, India continued to oppose the Afghan Taliban, which New Delhi believed to be Islamabad's strategic client. Under the previous Taliban government, India was forced to vacate their embassy and made a return only when the US ousted the Afghan Taliban after the 9/11 attacks. India’s hostile attitude toward the Afghan Taliban and subsequent vilification campaign against the group was also rooted in its bitter experience in the 1990s when Mujahideen, after the end of Soviet jihad, were shown the way to the disputed region of Kashmir, a territory contested by both Pakistan and India. On top of this, India also worried that its billions of dollars in investments in Afghanistan would go to waste.
However, in a sharp turn of its policy, India has started rapprochement with the Afghan Taliban, reflecting New Delhi’s acceptance of the ground reality and its willingness to make things harder for its arch-rival Pakistan. India also re-opened its embassy in Afghanistan and has been providing humanitarian assistance to the country’s war-stricken people. Strikingly, the Afghan Taliban expressed its own willingness to strengthen defense ties with India. Additionally, a delegation of Indian foreign ministry officials visited Kabul in June 2022, with Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi declaring the visit a “good beginning” in bilateral ties.
The most astonishing aspect of this engagement has been the apparent deliberations between India and the Afghan Taliban on counterterrorism measures against pro-Kashmir groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e- Mohammad. For Pakistan, these are not favorable developments. Pakistan has a very strong historic stance over Kashmir. It has long been argued that there is a legitimate freedom struggle ongoing in Indian-occupied Kashmir, a stance outrightly rejected by India.
The Taliban’s keenness, if one connects the dots, to engage with India seems to also be grounded in prudent calculations. It might be an attempt by the Afghan Taliban to show Pakistan its Indian ‘wild card’ and to give Pakistan a tough but indirect message: ‘No more pressure on us.’ Such public overtures with India are also interesting as they came amidst the TTP-Pakistan talks being facilitated by the Afghan Taliban.
One reason for engagement could be that India may have calculated that engagement with the Taliban could help it to stave off the threat of the Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP) and Al-Qaeda in the face of growing hostile anti-India rhetoric by these groups. And for the Taliban, it could help them get much-needed global recognition. One must know that India is among the fastest growing economies in the world and has over $600bn in reserves in its foreign exchange account. Its diplomatic clout is increasing day by day due to its membership in various regional groupings such as QUAD, I2U2, G20, etc. Quite significantly, India is also closer to the US than Pakistan. Hence, it is rational for the Taliban, who needs money and investment direly at the moment, to get India onboard. Oppositely, Islamabad is seeking a much-needed bail-out package from the IMF for its teetering economy and its relations with the US are also rather rocky. The agony does not stop here for Pakistan.
Pakistan’s eyebrows were raised when, after a few months of the Afghan Taliban’s takeover, tensions started to simmer between Islamabad and Kabul over the Durand Line. Durand Line is a 2640-km long borderline between Pakistan and Afghanistan. While Pakistan is eager to assert its position on Durand Line, no government in Kabul has ever recognized the line as an international border, a reality that coaxed Pakistan into paving way for a government with whom it can enjoy ties. Oddly, this foreign policy scheme also proved hollow as Afghan Taliban ground forces were seen removing the fencing installed by Pakistan along Durand Line to curtail cross-border militants’ movement. Similarly, in July 2022, despite strenuous backdoor talks, escalation was seen on the matter of fencing in Kurram Valley. In February, Afghan Defense Minister Mullah Yaqub, son of Mullah Umar, stated that the Afghan Taliban did not allow the Pakistani government to continue fencing along the Durand Line and a consultation matter was sent to among high-ranking officials within the Islamic Emirate for consultation. Though things have started to improve as suggested by recent statements made by Afghan Taliban leaders, these fall short of recognition of the Durand Line as an international border. Being an ethically Pashtun-dominated group, the Taliban’s exercise of shrewdness is rooted in the recognition of sentiments prevailing at the local level against the Durand Line. Paradoxically, the entire process of fencing went quite smoothly and was almost 90% completed during the Ashraf Ghani period, a figure considered anti-Pakistan and pro-India in Islamabad.
Pakistan’s predicaments are also souring with Islamic State Khurasan Province’s continuous attacks on Pakistani soil. Building off of ISKP’s momentum, IS’s coinciding Pakistani branch, named the Islamic State Pakistan Province (ISPP), emerged in May 2019. Though ISPP has not been able to capitalize on local dynamics in Pakistan and has also failed to showcase its strength, unlike its ISKP ally. However, ISPP still poses a threat in the long run for Pakistan. ISPP in its past publications such as Yalghar categorized Pakistan as not being an Islamic State and also attacked religious scholars for what they claimed was the wrong interpretation of the Quran.
Given the unintended outcomes of Kabul’s fall, it is no exaggeration to say that it will be difficult for policymakers in Pakistan to maneuver in such a complex and changing regional landscape. If Pakistan has full control of anything in this environment, it is its own ability to avoid antagonizing the Afghan Taliban, no matter how rough the sea becomes.