This article has been republished with permission from Orient XXI.
The Taliban return to power, signalled by the fall of Kabul on 15 August 2011, looked at first like good news for Pakistan. There is no secret about its ties to a movement which owed Islamabad much at the time of the Taliban conquest of Afghanistan in 1994–1995, and which then enjoyed a crucial Pakistani safe haven after the US intervention drove them from power in 2001. But history does not repeat itself identically: the government of Imran Khan, Pakistani Prime Minister since 2018, is taking care to avoid sharing the risk of isolation facing the new Afghan regime, while at the same time trying to influence it in a direction favoured by the international community.
There is another parameter which partly changes the situation: the existence of Pakistani Taliban, who graduated into a radical movement, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in 2007, and who want nothing more than to overthrow the Pakistani regime, a fake Islamic Republic in its view. So in analysing Pakistani strategy towards the new Taliban regime, one needs to go beyond the otherwise valid conclusion that through the Taliban victory, Pakistan finds itself enjoying a big leap forward in its long-standing quest for strategic depth in the west against Indian power in the east. One should also not ignore the view of Pakistani analysts who believe that the Taliban triumph could be a Pyrrhic victory for Pakistan.
Back to Af-Pak
It was Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who gave credence to the Af-Pak concept in 2010, highlighting the strategic continuum between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The idea did not go down well in Islamabad and ended up disappearing from American diplomatic jargon. But the concept none the less made sense, in that it underlined the fact that the Afghan issue could not be dealt with without taking into account the Pakistani factor, for historical as much as social and political reasons.
For one thing, Pakistan had been chosen in 1980 as the conduit for US support in the shape of arms and finance for the mujahidin in their struggle against the Soviets, because of the unrivalled familiarity with the main Mujahidin factions enjoyed by Pakistani intelligence (the ISI, or Inter-Services Intelligence). For another, Islamabad under Benazir Bhutto was keen to foster its neighbour’s stability in order to facilitate Pakistani access to Central Asian resources and had played a decisive role in shaping the structure of the Taliban movement, whose roots were in Kandahar but many of whose recruits were Afghan refugees schooled in the Pakistani madrasahs - hence the name Taliban, or religious students. And finally, after the Taliban were ousted by the US intervention after 9/11, Pakistan offered them precious sanctuaries in the Pakistani tribal areas on the Afghan border, a cauldron where mujahidin had for long mixed with Arab fighters from al-Qaeda and radicalised local militants.
The Taliban leaders for their part established their Councils, or Shuras, both at Quetta, capital of Pakistani Baluchistan, and at Peshawar, capital of North-West Frontier Province, renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2010. The name is significant, underlining the Pashtun identity of the area, which straddles the 2,600 km border inherited from the British empire: the Durand Line of 1893, never recognised by any Afghan government. The Pashtun may make up around 40% of the Afghan population, but they are more numerous in Pakistan than in Afghanistan, and Islamabad cannot afford to underestimate the threat represented by a resurgence of Pashtun nationalism.
A subsidiary of the Islamic State
Despite its long-standing ties with the Taliban movement, Pakistan’s reading of the consequences of the fall of Kabul is shaped by three preoccupations. First, there is the fear of a boost to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Much weakened in Waziristan by repression after their deadly attack on a military academy in Peshawar in December 2014, the group had splintered, with some of the militants who fled the Pakistani army setting up in the Afghan border provinces. Some of these cross-border fugitives joined the Islamic State of Khorasan, the ISIS offshoot in Afghanistan. Islamabad was worried by the revival of the TTP, which resumed targeted attacks and assassination attempts in 2020, more so because a number of militants imprisoned by the previous Afghan regime were freed by the Taliban. Imran Khan’s government clearly requested that the Afghan Taliban suppress their Pakistani comrades and announced that an amnesty might be possible for those who gave up their arms and swore allegiance to the Pakistani constitution - a fairly unlikely eventuality.
Pakistan’s second source of worry was the flood of refugees that chronic instability in Afghanistan could bring about. The official discourse recalls that the country had already taken in more than three million Afghan refugees over the decades (though some of them went back in recent years) and that it could not cope with new waves of refugees.
The third concern was not expressed by the government but was voiced by a number of Pakistani analysts: beyond the TTP, all the other radical movements active in Pakistan could be stimulated by the stunning victory of the Afghan Taliban, exacerbating extremist tensions in the country. That view was advanced by, among others, Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador in Washington, who declared it a “Pyrrhic victory” for Islamabad.
A delicate balance
This context explains the multiple facets of Pakistani reaction to the Taliban victory. For years, Imran Khan had been repeating that there was no military solution to the Afghan crisis, meanwhile recalling the vital role played by Islamabad in helping bring about the American dialogue with the Taliban at Doha which produced the February 2020 agreement on US withdrawal. Ignoring the cacophony drowning out Pakistani official discourse since 15 August, the government line appeared to rest on a delicate balance between two parameters.
On the one hand, the return of the Taliban to power provides comfort to Islamabad in that India has for the moment lost its influence in Afghanistan, having invested some $3 bn in development projects there. India got on well with the Ashraf Ghani government, accusing Pakistan of supporting the Taliban insurgency, and apart from its embassy in Kabul, the Indians had four consulates in the country utilised, the Pakistani authorities claimed, to encourage the Baluchi rebels and even the Pakistani Taliban of the TTP—a scarcely credible accusation.
But on the other hand, Islamabad is weighing the risks posed by the Taliban come back, and the negative signals they have emitted since the establishment of a supposedly provisional government which is exclusively made up of Taliban, despite their prior announcement about an “inclusive” government and that negotiations had taken place to that end with some leading personalities, including former president Hamid Karzai, the former number two in the Ashraf Ghani administration Abdullah Abdullah, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, former anti-Soviet Mujahid and head of the Hezb-e Islami. For the time being nothing emerged from these talks, while the signs of radicalism multiplied, on issues such as women working and education for girls, among others.
Power struggles within the new Afghan government also perturbed Islamabad. The Taliban’s most media-prominent figures, those who were received in Moscow, Beijing or Tehran, and who led the negotiations with the Americans in Doha, had been sidelined, with Abdul Ghani Baradar appointed only deputy Prime Minister and Cheikh Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai deputy Foreign Minister. The visit to Kabul by the head of the ISI, General Faiz Hameed, was seen by some as proof of Pakistani interference in the process of forming the Taliban government announced three days later on September 7, and in promoting the hard line, evidenced by the presence in the government of four members of the Haqqani network. But informed observers tend rather to see it as a desire by the Pakistanis to mediate between opposing factions, out of concern for stability. Indian sources for their part saw it as a sign of Pakistani involvement in the recapture of the Panjshir Valley, where the last armed opponents of the regime had gathered.
The “provisional” Taliban government, even expanded to include some representatives of ethnic minorities, cannot fully satisfy Islamabad, which clings officially to the need for an inclusive government—i.e., one which is open to some known, non-Taliban figures. This is seen as a necessary condition for the stability of the new Afghanistan, especially since the humanitarian crisis into which the country is plunging requires considerable international aid, partly committed, and because part of the Afghan elite has fled the country: the Taliban lack competent, well-funded personnel to get the country back on its feet. Islamabad, moreover, wants to stay on the right side of the international community, and especially the US, because its economy still needs loans from the IMF, and the Financial Action Task Force, an international organisation which tracks the shady financial dealings of terrorist organisations, has still not taken Pakistan off its grey list, which also has economic implications. This assembly of factors explains Pakistan’s position more than a month after the fall of Kabul: no unilateral recognition of the new regime but urging the international community to adjust to new realities, while at the same time striving to develop the latter.
In addition to interviews given by Prime Minister Imran Khan to the big western media, his Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureishi, spent a lot of energy on the Afghan question, be it in the framework of regular contacts (such as the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) or of specific bilateral or multilateral initiatives.
The idea is to develop a strategy coordinated with regional actors in the broader sense (the Central Asian republics, China, Russia, Iran, the Gulf states), while at the same time trying to develop the position of the western countries based on one principle: it is better to accept the reality of the Taliban’s return to power and to try to influence them, rather than isolating them. To influence them, because the Pakistani discourse is aligned on western expectations, repeated by Moscow and Beijing: the need for an inclusive government, respect for human rights and especially women’s rights, and a commitment not to harbour terrorist groups. Beyond this agreed rhetoric, the Pakistani discourse wants to convince others that it is possible for the Taliban to evolve, that patience is necessary, and that it would be sensible to establish a line of international conduct to enable concessions to be sought from the Taliban in exchange for economic support for the country’s reconstruction and for indispensable humanitarian aid.
The US, which has blocked Afghan government funds deposited there, and the IMF, which has suspended credits earmarked for the Ashraf Ghani government, would then have to resume the awaited finances. The speech by Imran Khan at the UN General Assembly on 24 September went further: he called for the current Afghan government to be “strengthened and stabilised, for the sake of the Afghan people.” The Taliban should keep their promises to open up, and the international community should press them to keep those promises. The opposite policy, imposing isolation, would only aggravate the humanitarian crisis and would have serious political consequences: “A chaotic, destabilised Afghanistan would once again become a haven for international terrorists.”
All in all, if Pakistan has indeed won the Afghan war as a chronicler from the big daily Dawn maintained, it must yet manage that victory, which implies not only that it must make the Taliban pay heed, but also to review Pakistani communication policy, which continues to present Pakistan as the major collateral victim of the war in Afghanistan because of terrorism, while the image of a Pakistan adept at duplicity remains strongly alive, including among the ranks of the US Congress. On the contrary, Pakistan has to fashion a post-conflict vision for the region, implying that it must make its voice heard both by the Taliban and by the international community, as the chronicler stresses. With the key being the relationship between Islamabad and Kabul, he adds: “All these years, we have absorbed the blame for our leverage [on the Taliban]; now is the time to use the leverage to gain credit for ourselves.” Easier said than done.