Pakistan’s Leverage Against the Taliban

The verbal and border tensions between the Taliban and Pakistan are escalating with each passing day, rather than abating. A pivotal factor contributing to this escalating tension is the series of terrorist attacks carried out by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) fighters within Pakistan, which have resulted in casualties among Pakistani soldiers. Islamabad has repeatedly accused the Taliban of harboring TTP fighters, but, as with many other claims, the Taliban consistently deny any involvement.

On September 6th, a skirmish occurred at the Torkham border crossing between Taliban forces and the Pakistani military, resulting in civilian casualties on both sides of the border. Pakistani authorities attribute the conflict’s initiation to the shooting by Taliban forces, a claim that the Taliban vehemently reject. It is evident that the Taliban aimed to establish a new outpost, which provoked a response from the Pakistani military, leading Islamabad to label it a breach of border regulations.

Pakistan possesses both effective and ineffective tools to pressure the Taliban into meeting its demands. However, thus far, Pakistan has opted for less effective measures while avoiding the utilization of more potent tools.

1- Closing Border Crossings:

Following the recent conflict with the Taliban, Islamabad temporarily closed the Torkham border crossing for both passengers and commercial transfers, prompting a degree of cooperation from the Taliban. Moreover, Pakistani authorities assert that the Taliban bear responsibility for initiating the conflict, further encouraging the Taliban to seek a resolution. On September 6th, Mumtaz Zahra Baloch, the spokesperson for Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reported that Afghan forces engaged in indiscriminate shooting, targeting Pakistani military posts, and damaging the Torkham border terminal infrastructure, endangering the lives of both Pakistani and Afghan civilians.

Discussions between Taliban and Pakistani delegations regarding the reopening of the border crossing took place on multiple occasions, eventually culminating in an agreement on September 15th. While the closure of the Torkham border crossing can serve as a tool of pressure in Pakistan’s hands, it fails to moderate the behavior of the Taliban and instead inflicts hardships upon the populace and business community. Prolonged border closures do little to deter Taliban officials but exact a considerable toll on merchants. After the Torkham border was shuttered, businesspeople reported substantial financial losses, with their commercial shipments—often agricultural goods—suffering spoilage due to high temperatures.

2- Detention, Imprisonment, and Deportation of Refugees:

Pakistan imposes additional restrictions on Afghan refugees whenever TTP militants carry out terrorist attacks on Pakistani soil. Following an attack by TTP fighters on Pakistani soldiers in the Chitral region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, Sarfaraz Ahmed Bugti, Pakistan’s caretaker interior minister, announced on September 10th that the government would impose restrictions on migrants’ lives. Subsequently, Pakistani police swiftly acted on this announcement, arresting 162 Afghan refugees in Karachi and Balochistan.

Detaining and deporting refugees primarily harms the civilian population, rather than affecting the Taliban’s behavior. The Taliban show little concern for such issues and remain unresponsive to Pakistan’s demands. Given that the Taliban now administer Afghanistan, they may occasionally seek favorable treatment for these migrants from host governments due to public opinion pressure. However, the truth remains that the Taliban perceive those who fled to neighboring countries after mid-August 2021 as adversaries, as they attempted to escape the Taliban’s rule by enduring the hardships of migration. Consequently, the Taliban welcome the expulsion of migrants from host countries, making it easier for them to target these individuals, as they have done over the past two years.

3-Not Lobbying in Favor of the Taliban:

A change in Pakistan’s approach toward the Taliban is feasible when Pakistan ceases advocating for the group’s interests. Islamabad possesses the potential to redirect the world’s current stance, particularly that of major powers like the United States, toward the Taliban. Given the strategic friendship between the United States and Pakistan, the U.S. often views the Taliban through Pakistan’s lens. Therefore, Pakistan can influence Washington’s foreign policy toward the Taliban, pushing it toward a more confrontational stance. Additionally, Islamabad’s statements carry weight with non-Western nations such as China, Turkey, the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Central Asian Republics. Pakistan’s distancing from the Taliban could encourage these nations to do the same. Western and regional governments may conclude that if Islamabad does not trust the Taliban as a long-term ally, they should not either.

Abstaining from lobbying on behalf of the Taliban represents an effective leverage tool that Pakistan has yet to employ. Pakistan remains strategic allies with the Taliban for now, as it is unwilling to easily sever this relationship.

4- Contacting the Opposing Forces of the Taliban:

Islamabad can potentially influence the Taliban’s behavior by demonstrating willingness to engage with opposing forces of the Taliban. However, it has thus far refrained from doing so. While Pakistan indeed supports the Taliban, it has maintained favorable relations with the Taliban’s opposition groups in the past. During the war against the Soviet Union forces in Afghanistan, Islamabad supported groups currently recognized as the Taliban’s adversaries. The opposing forces of the Taliban and Pakistan are familiar with each other. Establishing relations with these opposing forces could be in Pakistan’s best interest, but its preference continues to lean towards the Taliban.
Should the TTP threat persist, and the Taliban prove unwilling or unable to address Pakistan’s concerns, Pakistan may eventually gravitate towards employing more effective pressure tactics in the future. These tactics may include abstaining from lobbying on behalf of the Taliban and establishing contact with opposing forces of the group.