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Why Pakistan Isn’t Changing Its Taliban Policy

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The Pulse

Why Pakistan Isn’t Changing Its Taliban Policy

Prime Minister Imran Khan isn’t likely to radically change Pakistan’s complicated relationship with the Taliban.

Why Pakistan Isn’t Changing Its Taliban Policy
Credit: Pixabay

On September 28, Pakistan’s military chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, announced that 11 Taliban fighters would be executed for their role in killing 49 Pakistani civilians and 20 military personnel. In an official statement, Bajwa described the Taliban militants as “hardcore terrorists,” but declined to give a timetable for the executions or comment on possible death sentences for four other Taliban militants involved in similar criminal activities.

Although Pakistan legalized the use of capital punishment against Taliban militants after the 2014 Peshawar school terrorist attack, Bajwa’s announcement gained considerable media attention. Pakistan has long been criticized for allegedly providing material support to Taliban militants in Afghanistan. A recent report by the U.S. Department of State accused Pakistan of not taking sufficient action against the training of Taliban militants and stated that the Taliban continues to receive financial support from Pakistani donors. This report was enthusiastically endorsed by prominent Afghan analysts, like former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, who recently described the Taliban as a militant group backed by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

In spite of these widely publicized criticisms, Pakistan appears unlikely to change its policy toward the Taliban for three reasons. First, Pakistan continues to view its support for the Taliban as a way to exert political influence over Afghanistan. The anti-Pakistani rhetoric voiced by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who described Pakistan as the “center of the Taliban” in February and has openly accused Pakistan of treating wounded Taliban fighters, suggests that stabilization of Afghanistan under Ghani’s rule will isolate Pakistan from Afghan affairs. Although Western analysts frequently exaggerate the Taliban’s dependency on Pakistan, some Pakistani policymakers are concerned that withdrawing support for the Taliban will give Ghani the upper hand in an eventual peace settlement and reduce Pakistan’s relevance as a stakeholder in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s ongoing support for the Taliban reflects its desire to avoid this undesirable scenario. Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, told The Diplomat that Pakistan views its relationship with the Taliban through the lens of strategic interests, rather than from an ideological prism. Therefore, Pakistan does not believe that strengthening the Taliban in some regions of Afghanistan and combating them in others is a contradictory foreign policy agenda. This trend is exemplified by Pakistan’s willingness to accept Kabul’s proposals to create barriers against Taliban migration across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and simultaneously support Taliban militants that seek to gain hegemony over western Afghanistan’s Farah province.

Second, Pakistan believes that it can credibly downplay the extent of its relationship with the Taliban to the international community. Although Pakistan has been described as the Taliban’s leading ally since the early 1990s, the Pakistani government has historically distanced itself from the movement’s militant activities by emphasizing Pakistan’s traumatic experiences with terrorism.

Even though Pakistan is often accused of being complicit in Taliban attacks (for example, the May 2017 terrorist attack in Kabul), this narrative remains a prominent feature of Pakistan’s official rhetoric. In January, Pakistan’s then-Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif claimed that thousands of Pakistani military personnel were killed by terrorist attacks triggered by the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, which was initiated by the United States. Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Aizaz Chaudhry, released a statement two days later that supported this narrative, by claiming that Pakistan spent $120 billion on combating terrorism after the September 11 attacks.

In addition to emphasizing Pakistan’s own suffering as a result of terrorism, influential figures within the Pakistani military and diplomatic establishment have passed the blame for the Taliban’s military successes to other extraregional stakeholders. This strategy is aimed at deflecting international attention from Pakistan’s conduct by emphasizing the assistance that the Taliban receives from Russia and Iran.

In October 2017, Asif claimed that “mistrust” existed between Pakistan and the Taliban, and that other stakeholders, like Russia, possessed more influence over the Taliban than Islamabad. Former Pakistani Ambassador to the United Nations Munir Akram stated in a May 2018 article for Karachi-based publication Dawn that Iran would lead the Taliban’s assault against U.S. interests in western Afghanistan. In Akram’s article, Pakistani support for the Taliban in western Afghanistan was described only as a hypothetical contingency, rather than a contemporary geopolitical reality. While these assertions are largely detached from developments on the ground in Afghanistan, the Pakistani government’s rhetorical emphasis on military links between Russia, Iran, and the Taliban signifies this new deflection strategy.

Third, the absence of a popular backlash against Pakistan-Taliban cooperation has encouraged Pakistan to maintain a cordial relationship with the militant group. Munir Ahmed, a journalist from the Associated Press’ Islamabad bureau, told The Diplomat that the vast majority of Pakistanis are unaware of their government’s relationship with the Taliban. From Ahmed’s perspective, Pakistan does not control the Taliban, but is instead embroiled in a relationship of mutual deceit, as both sides exploit each other to advance their own interests.

Although this cynical view of the Taliban has many adherents in Pakistan, officials close to Pakistan’s recently elected prime minister, Imran Khan, have tried to present Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban in a more positive light. Instead of viewing cooperation with the Taliban as an entirely negative activity, new Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has argued that Pakistan’s ties to Taliban officials could facilitate the resolution of the war in Afghanistan.  

In an October 4 speech, Qureshi argued that the Taliban’s willingness to agree to a temporary ceasefire with Ghani in June and engage in dialogue with U.S. officials in Qatar was proof of the militant organization’s desire to end the war in Afghanistan. By framing Pakistan’s Taliban ties as constructive and as a gateway to re-establishing a security partnership with the United States, Qureshi is seeking to prevent the Pakistan-Taliban relationship from causing backlash against Khan in the future.

Even though the Pakistani government is facing intensified pressure from the United States to scale back its links with the Taliban, Pakistan’s power projection ambitions in Afghanistan, and Islamabad’s ability to deflect and obscure its Taliban links, could prevent Imran Khan from radically changing Pakistan-Taliban relationship. But as Pakistan remains mired in a fiscal crisis and faces growing international criticism due to its Taliban links, Khan will have to weigh his Taliban policy against Pakistan’s economic well-being and international image in the months to come.

Samuel Ramani is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a contributor to the Washington Post and The National Interest. He can be followed on Twitter @samramani2.