Were the Taliban the Best Strategic Outcome for Islamabad?

By: Samira Mohammadi

The Taliban’s victory in 2021 has been described as a strategic success for Pakistan, a country that has long been a supporter of the Taliban. Despite Faiz Hameed, the first high-ranking intelligence official, entering Kabul, the Pakistani embassy in Kabul remained operational. Senior Pakistani leaders, including Prime Minister Imran Khan, welcomed the Taliban, believing that a friendly regime in Kabul would protect Pakistan’s security interests. Khan stated that the return of the Taliban broke the “chain of slavery.” The return of the Taliban to power was a victory for Pakistan, which had been a staunch supporter of the Taliban for years. Consequently, many analysts have concluded that Islamabad was the main beneficiary of the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan worked to encourage the world to engage with the Taliban through diplomatic channels on the international stage and urged them to use constructive methods instead of punitive measures. Despite Islamabad’s expectations, the relationship between the Taliban and Pakistan has not progressed over the past two decades. The humanitarian and economic crisis in Afghanistan has led to Afghan migration to Pakistan, as well as border disputes, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Taliban’s approach to India, and India’s desire to establish a conservative relationship with the Taliban, all of which have created profound differences between Pakistan and the Taliban. This raises the question of whether Afghanistan under the leadership of the Taliban is the best strategic outcome for Islamabad.

Modern Diplomacy magazine recently conducted an analysis which concluded that the recent terrorist attacks in Pakistan demonstrate that the country’s leaders may have underestimated the potential repercussions of their backing of the Taliban. The government and security forces of Pakistan may not have fully comprehended the detrimental effects of their direct or indirect assistance to the Taliban, which has caused an increase in violence and instability within the country. The United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan on August 13th, 2021 was a cause for concern for Pakistan, as it is the closest neighbor to Afghanistan in terms of both geopolitics and ideology, thus bringing a heightened level of instability to the region. The Taliban’s potential return to power could create significant security issues for Pakistan, as well as economic and humanitarian consequences.

The magazine also asserted that the reemergence of the Taliban has created a new reality, one in which their ideological ties to extremist groups such as the TTP could potentially lead to increased violence within Pakistan’s borders. Furthermore, the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan has placed a considerable burden on Pakistan, which is already struggling with economic and social issues. Consequently, Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan is flawed, as its support of the Taliban could lead to more violence within its own borders. Therefore, Pakistan should take a more cautious and strategic approach towards Afghanistan and the Taliban, considering the long-term consequences of its actions. Otherwise, it may face another wave of terrorist attacks and economic instability in the future.

In a new report, the International Crisis Group stated that the “bloody attacks in late January and mid-February 2023 have assured Pakistan that the attacks were planned from Afghanistan”. This report conveyed that, following the establishment of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the leaders of the Pakistani Taliban were able to operate in Pakistan with ease due to their former presence in Afghanistan providing a safe haven for the Taliban. The report also mentions that, after the fall of the republic in Afghanistan, the Taliban released several TTP leaders, including the current leader of the Taliban, Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud. Mehsud then pledged allegiance to Mullah Hibatullah, the leader of the Taliban, and subsequently reunited all the fractured groups of the TTP. As a result, the TTP is now back with great strength.

The Tehreeke-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was established in 2007 and began a war against the government of Pakistan. Since then, the group has perpetrated numerous fatal attacks, including the 2014 assault on a school that resulted in the deaths of 150 people, 132 of whom were children, and the recent attack on a mosque in Peshawar that killed more than 100 people. The Pakistani army launched major offensives against the TTP in 2014 and 2017 and achieved some success. However, since 2022, Pakistan has experienced a rise in violence from the TTP, particularly against the government. The Taliban‘s resurgence has put Islamabad in a difficult situation, providing a strong impetus and motivation for the Pakistani Taliban to establish anIslamic State.

In parallel with the Afghan Taliban‘s plan to expel foreign forces from the country, the Tehreeke-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has mainly targeted Pakistani forces. This has spurred other Islamist groups to strive for the establishment of an Islamic state. Pakistan is now expecting the Afghan Taliban to protect it from the increasing attacks of the TTP. Last month, the devastating attacks in Peshawar, Karachi, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa prompted senior Pakistani security officials to travel to Afghanistan to discuss potential solutions to the TTP. Previously, a mosque attack in Peshawar left more than 300 dead and wounded. Consequently, during a meeting with the political and security authorities of Pakistan, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif implored the leaders of the Afghan Taliban to assist the country in defeating the TTP.

The Afghan Taliban refused to collaborate with Islamabad on this issue due to a variety of reasons, including the ethnic and ideological connections between the two groups. The TTP‘s support of the Afghan Taliban over the past one and a half decades has created strong bonds of loyalty between them, making it difficult for Islamabad to resolve the TTP challenge through the Afghan Taliban regime.

Michael Kugelman from the Wilson Center has stated that it is unlikely that the Taliban will respond positively to Pakistan‘s requests to curb the TTP. He further noted that the most the Taliban will do is to act as a mediator in the talks between Pakistan and the TTP. Kugelman reminded that in 2001, the Taliban did not give up cooperation with AlQaeda even when they were threatened with a US military attack. He also pointed out that the Taliban will not cooperate with other terrorist groups. He suggested that the Pakistani government should incentivize the Taliban to go beyond simply brokering talks by offering financial aid or official recognition.

In addition to the TalibanPakistan (TTP) conflict, border disputes have been a source of tension between the two sides. On December 11, eight Pakistani citizens were killed in clashes between the two sides along the Durand Line. On April 1, 2022, the Taliban Ministry of Foreign Affairs lodged a complaint regarding the violation of airspace security and shelling from across the Durand Line. In March 2022, a complaint was filed alleging that the Pakistan Army was involved in instigating border clashes. Despite attempts to resolve the issue diplomatically, the fencing process along the Durand Line remains contentious. Furthermore, the unrest in the Pashtuninhabited areas on both sides of the line has become more widespread than in previous years, due to the areas under federal administration being a source of terrorism and instability.

Pakistan faces another issue in the form of the close relationship between India and the Taliban, which will have an impact on Islamabad‘s strategic depth in Afghanistan. As the country‘s relations with Pakistan are strained, the Taliban are attempting to send representatives to New Delhi. On June 2022, a high-ranking Indian delegation met with Amir Khan Muttaqi, the acting Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Taliban in Kabul, marking the first official visit of Indian officials to Kabul since the Taliban took power. Following this meeting, India opened its consulate in Afghanistan, which was said to be for the purpose of monitoring humanitarian aid. Recently, the Indian embassy organized a training workshop for Taliban diplomats on Indian ideas, which was met with criticism from the Pakistani media. A Pakistani official has asserted that the Taliban‘s relations with India have become closer, as instead of controlling the Afghan embassy in Delhi, the Taliban have allowed the Indian consulate to operate in Kandahar. Pakistani officials believe the Taliban have kept good relations with India to reduce Islamabad‘s pressure to contain the Tehreeke-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Therefore, Pakistan is attempting to address these issues with the Taliban, despite the expectation that the Taliban‘s domination of Afghanistan would serve the country‘s interests. However, it is clear that Islamabad has not achieved its desired outcome, and the return of the Taliban to power has not benefited Pakistan as much as it should have. It appears that Pakistan has misjudged the Taliban‘s Afghanistan, as the Taliban prioritize maintaining relations with Islamist groups such as the TTP, which share ethnic and ideological similarities. Additionally, in order to reduce their dependence on Islamabad and the pressure from Pakistan to defeat the TTP, the Taliban have sought to cooperate with other countries, such as India, which is a rival of Islamabad. Ultimately, it appears that while Islamabad‘s pressures have decreased, new tensions have arisen between the two sides, which has disrupted the vision of what Islamabad had hoped for from the presence of the Taliban in power.