With territory under its control in Afghanistan expanding rapidly, will the Afghan Taliban leadership, allegedly based in Pakistan, leave the country and return to Afghanistan? There are several reasons why it may not decide to do so in the foreseeable future.
For one, Pakistan offers the Taliban strategic depth and a fallback option, which it would like to preserve. For decades, sanctuary in Pakistan offered the Taliban an insurance, which it has tapped into when in trouble in Afghanistan, or when under attack from the international community. This has worked to the benefit of the Taliban leadership in the past, and some segments of the group will continue to find it useful in the coming years.
Pakistan will continue to remain a major supporter of the Taliban should the latter draw the ire of the international community and be ostracized again in the future.
The argument that the Taliban needed Pakistan only after 2001, following the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan when the group needed safe havens outside the country, doesn’t hold much weight. Prior to the U.S. invasion too, the Taliban were getting deep support in Pakistan, ranging from financial support to using the country as a recruiting ground.
Arguably, Pakistan still offers the Taliban the same financial and military utility.
“Donations to the Afghan Taliban are on the upswing in Pakistan’s border regions as the militant group intensifies attacks against Afghan forces ahead of the U.S. troop withdrawal,” Voice of America (VOA) reported last week. “They [the Afghan Taliban] are coming on motorbikes and asking larger stores for contributions. They say that they belong to the Taliban movement and that they are fighting in Allah’s path,” a Pakistani resident told VOA.
Over the years, the Afghan Taliban have been pushing to build a reputation as an independent organization. It is widely believed that Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban has waned over the years. It is because of this waning influence that the group has not paid much heed to Pakistani pressure on it to engage in peace talks, reduce violence, and focus on finding a negotiated settlement with other stakeholders.
Clearly, Pakistan is not happy with the Taliban. “We oppose any military takeover of Afghanistan, which will lead only to decades of civil war, as the Taliban cannot win over the whole of the country, and yet must be included in any government for it to succeed,” Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan wrote in a recent article in the Washington Post.
Notwithstanding its differences with Islamabad, the Taliban will not give up their bases in Pakistan just to prove their authority. The group will continue to remain attentive to Pakistan’s security interests, and quietly do what is necessary to keep the relationship in a functional state.
The Taliban have already warned Afghanistan’s neighboring countries against offering military bases to the United States. Pakistan, which appears to be the target of this warning, has categorically said that it will not do so, stressing that “terrorists will target the country if Islamabad agrees to host the U.S, bases.”
Last week, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Shaikh Rasheed Ahmad said that Pakistan has made a big decision to not give bases to the U.S., and now, Islamabad expects the Afghan Taliban to restrain the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other groups.
This essentially means that in return for Islamabad not hosting American troops on Pakistani soil, Pakistan expects the Afghan Taliban to act against the TTP. Pakistan is reminding the Taliban that it will continue supporting the group if it protects Pakistan’s interests across the Durand Line.
It does seem that the Afghan Taliban is letting Pakistan know that if Islamabad’s actions please the group, it would review its policy toward the TTP. Simultaneously, the Taliban are signaling that they could support and nurture the TTP if they found Pakistan undermining Taliban interests.
Both Pakistan and the Taliban are aware that there are limits to how far they can push each other. However, they will remain engaged, understanding that they serve each other’s interests.
The coming weeks and months will test the relationship between the two.